Unwritten rules of airplanes
Daniel Fishel/Thrillist
Daniel Fishel/Thrillist

The 25 Unwritten Rules of Flying You're Probably Breaking

You want to really know a person? Pay attention to how they act when they fly. Nowhere on the planet, with the exception of Apple stores, packs so many people in so small a space with the potential to act like total jackasses. Yet somehow, we manage! In 2016, in fact, airlines that serve the US carried almost 1 billion passengers, a record high.
The secret to sloshing a billion people through terminals, security lines, and airplanes without utter chaos breaking out? A complex, unspoken social code nearly everyone observes, much like in restaurants. Most people simply get it. Then, there are the nail-clipping, baby-cussing, pajama-wearing, 9/11-joke making, full-bottle-of-water-in-the-TSA-line-carrying dumbasses. Look around on your next flight and you’re sure to spot one, blithely clobbering people with his backpack, unwrapping a hot fish sandwich, and cranking his seat back to full recline the second you hit 10,000 feet.
Some transgressions are obvious. Others, ambiguous moral gray zones you yourself have struggled with. Here, we wrote ‘em down. Now you know what all those glares have been trying to tell you.

1. Never ask if you can skip someone in the security line

It’s amazing how much better the airport experience is if you’re not in a going-into-labor-in-the-back-of-the-cab-sized hurry. Sure, you can cut it close and run up to the security check sweating, near tears, begging to cut the line. But then you unwittingly force someone into a spiraling moral dilemma: Should they say yes and avoid looking like a total dick, or should they take a stand against you, the inconsiderate screwup? And do they have the authority to make the call either way, thereby speaking for all the other people in line you’ll also be skipping? If you’re at the point of panic, get an agent involved. Better yet, be on time.

2. Don’t get upset if the TSA agents are rude to you

Think about what they deal with! Despite repeating themselves on a near constant loop, there are still dipsticks who don’t put their laptop in a separate bin. Who half-assedly push their bag through the line with their foot while watching Hulu on their phone and then act surprised they have to take their shoes off. The only thing more amateur? Taking umbrage against a “rude” agent who’s just doing his or her job.

3. Don't cause a traffic jam at security check

Don’t leave, like, 20 bins of your personal belongings sitting on the edge of the conveyer belt for the poor schmuck behind you to push through while you la-di-da off to the body scanner.

4. Don’t ask a stranger to watch your stuff

Gotta pee? Run to Starbucks? Take your shit with you. You seem very nice but regretfully I cannot accept responsibility of your personal items -- good Lord I barely got myself here at all. What if my name gets called? What if we start boarding? Also, I don’t know if you’ve heard, but there’s this thing they repeatedly announce over the loudspeaker -- what was it, oh yes -- don’t watch shit for strangers.

5. Don’t treat the terminal like your living room

Presumably due to magic in the air (magic being shorthand for jet fumes), the terminal turns people into remarkable multitaskers. Where else can somebody manage to loudly FaceTime their uncle on speaker while removing their shoes, eating 12-piece bucket of KFC, letting their “therapy dog” shit on the carpet, taking up every single plug within a 10-foot radius, and systematically unpacking and repacking their overstuffed carry-on bag in the middle of the floor. This is not your living room. Keep quiet, be courteous, and try not to air out your feet. 

Daniel Fishel/Thrillist

6. You can’t get mad if someone “cuts” you during boarding.

Accept the boarding process as an absurdist attempt to bring order to chaos and just go with it. Time is a flat circle and we’re all going to Louisville at the same speed.

7. Don’t be a dick to flight attendants

Flight attendants possess a near super-heroic ability to maintain a smile while row after row of adults transforms into entitled toddlers once they hit the stratosphere. Each time they begin their cabin service, they experience nearly every single example of terrible behavior on this list, in addition to needy first-class douches, trashed bathrooms, and everything in between. They help people with their luggage. They show you your seat when you forget how numbers work. All with a smile. Their job is hard as hell. And if you’re the type of person who immediately thinks “big deal, so is mine,” you’re part of the reason those smiles sometimes look strained. 

8. No hot food of any kind on a plane

Especially if it’s from a fast-food joint that has a highly identifiable smell. There’s nothing more atrocious than the trapped odors of grease and meat on a plane. Worse than snakes, even.

9. If you can’t lift your own bag, don’t carry it on

Once I was cozying up in the aisle seat and a hardtop Samsonite someone was feebly attempting to hoist into the overhead bin landed on the flat of my head, prompting the anxious soul next to me to remark on the near-certainty of my death had I been elderly or a child. Said soul then insisted I remain awake for the duration of the flight, for fear I would die from brain bleeding while pressing a soggy Ziploc bag of ice to my head. Not great.

10. Save your farts for the bathroom

The only only other acceptable place to fart on a plane is when you are walking through first class on the way to coach.

11. Be a decent person about swapping seats

You are morally obligated to offer to switch seats so someone can sit next to the child, elderly, or sick person in their accompaniment. You might also be required to do so by airline policy. Otherwise, you have the right to refuse the request. Their honeymoon be damned.

12. Don't recline in economy

Look, we know that the debate about this topic constantly bubbles up in the national discourse whenever some asshole gets recorded throwing a temper tantrum over a reclined seat. To be clear: We don't condone shitty behavior or in-flight abuse. That said, while there are many pros and cons to weigh, we stand firmly in thee "don't recline" camp when it comes to domestic flights (unless its a red-eye, or a long-haul flight when sleeping is encouraged).

The amount of extra comfort you gain is nothing compared to the chain reaction of pain you have just set off behind you, in which every other passenger in your path is consigned to a modified form of the Trolley Problem, whereby they can either subject themselves and possibly the person next to them to hours of discomfort by doing nothing, or continue the chain reaction by reclining their own seat to gain a little room. If you have the world's most specific back problem and must sit at precisely a 110-degree angle, then turn around, ask the person behind you if this is OK, and give them time to arrange their laptop, knees, and soul for what you are about to inflict.

Daniel Fishel/Thrillist

13. Headphones mean “do not disturb”

This is one of the most obvious rules of all. And yet 50% of your seat buddies are all but guaranteed to see the presence of headphones as a sign that you really, really want to talk to them about what their kid’s up to, or what music you’re listening to. If you see somebody with headphones on, the only thing you should be saying to them is “excuse me” when you get up. 

14. No touching

I know it's a tight squeeze, but we haven’t reached New-York-City subway-at-rush-hour levels just yet, oblivious middle-aged man in the middle seat who seems to think that resting your knee against my knee or lightly brushing elbows over and over and over again isn't an obnoxious intrusion of personal space.

15. Middle seat gets the arm rests. Always and without question.

The unlucky bastard in the middle seat has one thing going for them: sole ownership of the middle armrests. At best, you can maybe sort-of lean your elbow on the tiny edge of the armrest. “What if they aren’t using it, can I use it then?” NO. You audacious, privileged monster. Go back to enjoying your window and/or breathing room.

16. You are allowed to say something to a parent if their kid is being obnoxious...

... But you are not allowed to be a dick about a screaming baby. Because that baby is a baby, and thus cannot control its actions, and hushing it up is no cake walk. But parents, if you don’t intervene when your sugar-high 5-year-old goes to town kicking my seat, don’t be aghast when I turn around and do it for you.

17. You are still responsible for yourself when you’re asleep

Someone once woke me up to inform me the drink cart was coming by. Not OK. The only time it's acceptable to wake your neighbor, besides having to pee, is when they’ve lost control of their basic faculties. No snoring so loudly people around you are snickering, no spilling over the sacred divide of the armrest between us and nestling your head on my shoulder.

18. Stand up to let people out of the row

None of this half-standing-up bullshit where you force people to awkwardly crawl their way past your legs, trying as hard as possible not to touch your body. Stand up like a decent person and step out into the aisle.

19. Don't be a wrecking ball when walking down the aisle

Your fellow passengers don’t deserve to be yanked around every time you rise, so do not under any circumstances short of complete collapse grab the back seats when you walk down the aisle: A fellow passenger's headrest is not there to help you gain momentum on your long crawl to the bathroom. And if you're wearing a backpack while boarding, take it off and carry it by your side or snugly in front of you, lest both your butt and your backpack smack into someone's head the moment you turn around.

Daniel Fishel/Thrillist

20. Don’t get turnt

Time-based social mores cease to exist on planes; you can drink at any point, at any hour, with impunity. Remain charming to the flight attendants and they will readily booze you up because you’re such a delight. But remember your bloody Mary does double duty at high altitude, so slow your roll and keep your cool. And don’t you dare have the gall to place your auxiliary drink or food item on your neighbor’s tray table if you run out of space on yours.

21. Don’t freak the eff out if there’s turbulence

When a plane feels bumpy, that’s not really “turbulence.” And I don't want to jinx anything, but actual turbulence -- even pretty gnarly turbulence -- isn't really dangerous. It's just dangerous to you, personally, if you don't know how to listen and put on your seatbelt when the pilot says so. (So put on your seatbelt.)

22. Don’t stick your bare feet out in the aisle

It may alarm you to know just how many people in this world have unnaturally strong feelings about feet. So if you must remove your shoes, keep them out of sight. And don’t fall asleep with your feet stretched out in the aisle. It’s your responsibility to remain aware enough to retract them when someone passes by.

23. If you have to use an airsickness bag, for the love of all the travel gods, double bag it

In fact, ask the people around you for their bags and reinforce it with as many layers as you possibly can. Because despite the fact that these things are designed for one purpose only, they will fail you in the crucial moment, leaving you with a lap full of last night’s Thai at takeoff on the first flight of a three-leg journey. 

24. You may not rush to the front and cut people when you’re getting off the plane 

When the seatbelt sign turns off, there’s always that scumbag in the back who attempts to charge his way up to wherever his carry-on is stowed. Or the scumbag who only has a backpack who tries to book it to the front. YOU WAIT. YOU FILE OUT. IN ORDER. Sole exception: Asking politely if you can go ahead because you have a connecting flight.

25. Don’t aggressively crowd the belt in baggage claim

You make your way down to baggage claim. You are tired. You find that perfect spot. You leave about 3 feet of space between you and the belt, so that if some other passenger sees their bag, they can swoop in and grab it. Don’t be the jerk who steps into that 3 feet of space and takes up residence. If your bag is late, grinding against the baggage carousel will not make it magically reappear. Sir, relax. Everyone’s trying to get home. You’ll get there too.

Sign up here for our daily Thrillist email, get Next Flight Out for more travel coverage, and subscribe here for our YouTube channel to get your fix of the best in food/drink/fun.

Contributed by Keller Powell, Sam Eifling, Jonathan M. Katz, Andy Kryza, Keryn Means, Jackie Bryant, Jess Novak, Melissa Kravitz, Sarah Theeboom, and Bison Messink