The Latest Airplane Etiquette Frontier Is the Window Shade

Who gets to control the window shade on flights? Read on for our take.

There are plenty of deeply divisive etiquette topics when it comes to air travel. When do you start disembarking? When is it appropriate to recline your seat? Is it ever appropriate to go completely barefoot on a flight? Depending on who you are, the answers to these questions vary widely. But there is perhaps no topic more divisive than that of the plane window.

Who gets to open and close the window shade? And when is it acceptable to open a window shade on a flight?

Some examples:

See? Pretty divisive. And I can't pretend to be impartial. Nothing makes me more irate on an airplane than when people keep their window shades open when overhead lights are off. This is a time for darkness, for letting the Dramamine work its way into your system and try to sleep for as much of the flight as humanly possible. On a recent flight, I was sitting (in the window seat) in front of a man who kept opening and closing his plane window every five minutes, bringing the hot burn of the sun right on to the back of my neck and disturbing me from much needed post-Vegas sleep. I remained cool and collected on the outside, but on the inside I was fantasizing about turning around and saying "we are still at cruising altitude."

But, I didn't. One, because I'm not confrontational, and two, because each window seat has dominion over the window they are seated next to. These are the unwritten rules of seat assignments. Here are some more previously-unwritten rules that only the inconsiderate and out-of-touch break:

  • Never lean over another person's seat to open or close the window. If you wanted control of the window, you should have selected the window seat.
  • Choose between an open or closed window. You can shut it mid-flight, but don't keep opening and closing it.
  • If everyone in your row is sleeping, it is considerate (but not mandatory) to close the window shade.
  • You can politely ask if someone can close their window shade. You cannot insist or demand that they do so.
  • Asking someone to open the window so that you can look out of it is a general no-no, unless you've established a rapport with your fellow passenger. Again, you definitely have no right to insist on this.
  • If everyone else has closed their window, it is considerate to close your window as well.

Generally, a great rule of thumb is to remember that the airplane is full of people just like you, who paid a lot of money to be uncomfortable and have control over a very small amount of personal space. If you have a window seat, that control extends to the window itself, but it also includes a responsibility to read the room about whether or not to keep your window open.

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Opheli Garcia Lawler is a Staff Writer on the News team at Thrillist. She holds a bachelor's and master's degree in Journalism from NYU's Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute. She's worked in digital media for eight years, and before working at Thrillist, she wrote for Mic, The Cut, The Fader, Vice, and other publications. Follow her on Twitter @opheligarcia and Instagram @opheligarcia.