Airline passengers are pushing each other’s buttons more than ever, mostly because there are more buttons than ever to push — literally.
Consider the in-flight reading light, which seems like the last thing anyone would fight about on a plane. Yet in a recent online chat, I made the mistake of suggesting that on an overnight flight, it might be polite to ask your seatmate whether it’s okay to leave the light on. You know, just as a courtesy.
Nonsense, readers fired back. It’s your light. You paid for the ticket. You can do whatever you want with the light. Besides, ever heard of an eye mask?
Do air travelers ever fight over their lights? Actually, they do. A few years ago, authorities arrested a passenger on an Alaska Airlines flight from Honolulu to Washington state’s Bellingham International Airport after he became embroiled in a loud argument with his seatmate over her light. She wanted it on; he wanted it off.
That’s not the only button passengers can push. The flight attendant call button, for example, is a long-standing source of annoyance, both to passengers and crew members. Add to that the seemingly endless series of buttons on your in-flight entertainment system and seats wedged closer together than ever, and you have all of the ingredients for an unwanted confrontation.
“There’s a blurred line between what is acceptable and what’s irritating,” says Diane Gottsman, an etiquette expert and the owner of the Protocol School of Texas. “It really depends on which side of the seat you are sitting on.”
Let’s start with the flight attendant call button, which Maigen Thomas, a former flight attendant, refers to as an “ancient torture device.”
“Pressing the call button multiple times in quick succession will ensure the swift arrival of a terse grand dame in polyester-wool blend who will assume that you or someone near you is having a heart attack,” she says.
Indeed, flight attendants use the call button to communicate with each other, and three quick presses of the button puts them on high alert.
“Essentially, you’re shouting ‘Help!’ ” she says. “If it turns out to be your child pressing the button because it’s a fun game to see the flight attendants storming down the aisle, get it together and make them stop. It’s a plane, not a video game. Bring crayons and a coloring book. Or duct tape. Whatever works.”
Okay, then. Something to remember for my next flight.
About those lights? It’s a question of civility. Any action that could affect the passenger next to, in front of or behind you should be approached carefully and courteously. The classic example is the airline seat. Etiquette experts recommend asking the person behind you if you may recline and being considerate of long legs or laptops.
The reading light is the same. Linda Sains, a travel agent from Asheville, N.C., says she packs an eye mask on every flight. But the night owls aren’t her biggest gripe. “My problem are the people who sit at the windows, pull the shades down in the daytime, then sit glued to their screens,” she says. There’s no way to compensate for that, as a tiny overhead bulb can’t compare to a burst of ambient light, and it’s yet another reminder to ask your seatmates before you make a decision about the lights, natural or artificial.
The same principle applies to electronics. Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. Frequent travelers say that if you use the sound on your tablet or laptop, a headset is a must. Yet even with a headset, you have to mind your volume level.
“It’s hard enough to have a conversation in flight without the beep, boop, boop, beep of a video game blaring from the next seat over,” says Rory Briski, a consultant from Bellevue, Wash.
That’s right — other passengers can hear your game even when you use a headset. So turn it down a notch, for the sake of the passengers next to you. The key to getting along, Briski says, is to understand that it’s a shared space, if only for a few hours.
Similarly, the buttons on your in-flight entertainment system can be used to order R-rated films. But if you’re sitting next to children, you might want to refrain from doing so — out of consideration for the kids and their concerned parents, wherever they are.
“It’s your responsibility to behave in a manner that takes into consideration other people’s comfort when you are squeezed into a space that is overcrowded and cooperation is at a premium,” says Gottsman, the etiquette expert.
And asking before you keep the light on all night is just common courtesy, which is to say it’s something you’d want other passengers to do for you. If your seatmate says no, you can try asking a flight attendant to be reseated. You might not want to summon that flight attendant by repeatedly pushing the call button, though.
Elliott is a consumer advocate, journalist and co-founder of the advocacy group Travelers United. Email him at email@example.com.
More from Travel: