YouTube videos of unruly airplane passengers are amusing, but a real-life encounter with an unhinged flyer at 35,000 feet can be terrifying. Luckily, it’s rare: While life-or-death conflicts occasionally happen on airplanes, according to the FAA, out of more than 13 million flights in 2022, only 831 such incidents were serious enough to require an investigation, so there’s no need to train up your anti-terrorism skills for a commuter flight to Cleveland.
But airline passengers who are simply annoying, if not dangerously so, are so common, no one bothers to count them. You know the type: people who get drunk and belligerent at altitude, try to convert you to Christianity while you’re trapped in the middle seat, let their kids run wild, or put their bare feet on your armrest (shudder). Here’s are some strategies for putting up with every type of unpleasant seatmate.
First things first: Ask to be moved
If a fellow passenger is seriously bothering you or seem to pose any kind of threat, your first step should be to talk to someone who works there. As hospitality and tourism professor Mahmood Khan told The Seattle Times, “it is better to seek help from the airline crew, since they can provide other seats or find some solution.”
But make sure you do so discreetly and politely. Waving down a flight attendant and loudly demanding you be moved away from an annoying neighbor is likely to make the situation worse, or indicate that you are actually the problem passenger. Talk to the flight attendant discretely, away from the troublesome person, and calmly inform them of the problem. If there are empty seats on the plane (stop laughing, it still can happen) you’ll probably be relocated to one of them. Even if the plane is full and you can’t be moved, it’s still a good idea to make the crew aware of a potential issue.
How to deal with an argumentative passenger
Whether it’s cramped quarters, strict scheduling, or the unfamiliarity of the situation, traveling stresses people out, and sometimes stressed-out people get argumentative. If the stranger next to you wants to talk politics, religion, or is spoiling for a verbal fight, it’s best to deescalate rather than engage. Remember that your goal is to have a peaceful flight, not to change anyone’s mind, so put aside the urge to be right, and respond with an “interesting” or “I’ll think about that” before putting on some headphones and closing your eyes. If the argument escalates to threats or yelling, let the flight crew know.
How to deal with drunken passengers
Getting quietly toasted on long flights can make airplane travel tolerable, but some people can’t handle their booze and become disruptive and annoying. If a drunk on a flight is bothering you in some way, try to calmly explain that you’d rather read your book than have a conversation. If that’s not enough, talk to a flight attendant out of earshot, so they will know to stop serving the passengers alcohol. Then pray they’ll simply fall asleep.
How to deal with seat kickers, inconsiderate recliners, and armrest hogs
According to this survey of travelers, the most annoying kind of airplane passengers are the ones behind you who kick the seat. This could be because they’re very tall or they’re unaware that they’re doing it. Assume this is the case, and politely, apologetically inform them of what they’re doing. To show you’re all in this together, blame the airline for the lack of space, rather than attacking the kicker for being rude.
If it’s a child kicking your seat, Thomas “Mr. Manners” Farley recommends addressing the parent with something like this: “Sorry, but your child has been kicking the back of my seat for an hour. I am really trying to get some sleep/work, do you mind helping me?” But Mr. Manners also advises striking up conversations with strangers on airplanes so you don’t deprive yourself of the chance to “meet interesting people, and perhaps even lifelong friends,” so take his advice with a grain of salt—there’s a good chance an inattentive parent will also take offense at your criticism of their child/their parenting, so if you don’t get a satisfactory response, see what the flight attendants can do you relocate you.
When it comes to armrests and reclining, however, you’re basically on your own: A third of people surveyed by Only Wanderlust think that you don’t have a right to recline your chair on a flight, even though that’s what they’re made for, and airlines don’t have any policy on reclining, armrests, or invasions of your meager airplane space. If you do feel a conflict brewing over how your using your personal space (or how someone else is intruding into it), experts recommend staying calm and not blaming the other person. Instead of saying, “What the hell kind of foul creature rests their bare feet on another person’s armrest?” Jodi RR Smith, an etiquette expert with Mannersmith Etiquette Consulting suggests a more chill approach: “Excuse me, I just have a thing about toes—and your toes on my armrest are really freaking me out.”
(You probably shouldn’t try this ice trick, although it’s pretty funny.)
How to deal with a crying baby on an airplane
If toddler-age or older children are behaving badly on a plane, it might help to inform their parents, but if you’re sitting near a baby crying on a plane, just put on your headphones. The parents already know their infant is crying, I promise, and there is nothing they can do about it. The wailing of a child might be making your flight unpleasant, but console yourself with the knowledge that the parent’s flight is going worse, and they won’t be able to leave the kid behind at the arrival gate.
Check yourself (lest you wreck yourself)
In planes as in the rest of your life, you can’t control the other people’s actions and emotions, you can only control yourself, so try to be as accepting and tolerant as you possibly can. Yes, weirdos not acting like civilized humans in public are annoying, but you only have to be around them for a limited time, and then they’ll be out of your life for good, leaving you with a funny story to tell.
Trying to shame or correct someone else’s behavior is not only doomed to failure, it also will make the situation worse, and if you cause that you’ve become the annoying person to the other people on the plane.