Be Considerate: Airline Etiquette Tips for Business Travelers

You can choose your friends, but you usually can't choose your seat mates on an airplane.

Business travel etiquette rules and tips are applicable for everyone who travels on airplanes. Too frequently, airline business travelers and others who violate these etiquette rules diminish the overall airline passenger experience for everyone involved – including themselves. Etiquette is always about making sure that everyone is comfortable. Please consider the following tips:

    1. Airline business travel etiquette rules advise that one item should be placed in the overhead bin and a personal item stowed below the seat in front of you.

      Passengers should always store only one item in the space above their seats; however, some who board the plane first may inappropriately choose to store both of their items in the overhead bin so that they have more leg room during the flight. Another bad etiquette practice is the business traveler who uses open storage space toward the front of the plane, but their seat is further back on the airplane. This often requires others to store their bags elsewhere on the plane (maybe further back) or check a bag with the flight crew, potentially delaying the flight departure time. If you have a coat in the winter, one etiquette tip is to do your best to make sure your coat is compact and placed above your carry on luggage in the overhead bin. Remember, business travelers should only store one piece of luggage above their seat and everyone else should be fine.
    1. Airline business travel etiquette rules say that passengers should stay in their assigned seat until everyone else has finished boarding.

      Many people check the airline seating chart when confirming their seats to find out if there’s an open seat elsewhere and lay claim to it as soon as they board. This creates awkward etiquette situations. For example, perhaps the gate crew assigned someone else to that seat, and when he or she boards the plane, that person must ask the person to move who never belonged in the seat. Those who are assigned middle seats are usually guilty of this practice. Please understand that everyone would like to switch seats if possible, but business etiquette rules ask that anyone who wants to switch seats do so – if possible – only after the flight has taken off. This etiquette tip means that some people may have to stay in their original seat even to the point of losing the opportunity to grab a seat before someone else does; after all, it is the seat that you selected or were originally assigned based on the terms of the flight agreement.
    1. Airline business travel etiquette rules suggest that consideration should be extended to others who wish to sit together.

      Put yourself in someone else’s shoes for a moment and you will know what is the “right” thing to do. For example, it may mean that a business traveler should give up his or her window or aisle seat for a mother or father and child to sit together. It’s also helpful when the flight attendant announces this request and encourages passengers to change seats. However, if the request is to allow two adult companions the opportunity to sit together who are already in the row, it frequently results in switching a middle seat for an aisle or window. Few people will mind this request. But if giving up your seat results in losing a window or aisle seat, it is fair to consider the length of travel time before agreeing to squeeze into a middle seat situation (especially if the adult travelers are located in different rows).
    1. Airline business travel etiquette rules recommend that the armrests belong to the middle seat person, but courtesy should be extended to others.

      The question about who deserves the armrest on a plane is usually caused by an individual’s desire to get as much armrest space as possible – rather selfish intentions. If there are three seats to a row, the middle person should have first rights to armrest space because the person on the aisle and window gain a little extra space. However, those in middle seats should also understand that people to the left and right of them will also want a small bit of space to lean their arms or place their elbows; the middle seat person should adjust slightly for their travel companions so that everyone is as comfortable as possible. If there are two seats to the row, the shared armrest should be split between the two passengers in whatever way makes sure that the other person also has a level of comfort. An etiquette tip is that if you’re not sure, ask.
    1. Airline business travel etiquette rules suggest that it’s inappropriate to push your seat back to its full recline if it may interfere with the person behind you.

      Many travelers feel entitled to recline their seat as much as possible to gain a few more inches of room, but never consider that the business traveler behind them may be using the tray table for reading or working on their computer. They also may not realize that their head and hair is just a matter of inches away from the face of the personal behind them. The fact that the airline seat is designed to recline is not enough of a reason to push it as far as it can go. If a business traveler or other wishes to recline the airplane seat more than half of its capacity, ask the person behind you if it will interfere with the limited space available to them. You should feel free to relax as much as the seat allows only if the passenger behind you does not mind.
    1. Airline business travel etiquette rules encourage brief introductions between persons sitting next to each other, but don’t talk the whole time.

      Strangers are forced into this situation as part of the airline experience, so it’s reasonable and courteous to briefly acknowledge the traveler next to you so that they may increase their comfort level with sitting by you for the duration of the flight. This may be accomplished with something as short and simple as a smile, brief eye contact and tilt of the head or a concise verbal greeting. Too often some business travelers assume that the airline experience is an opportunity to talk to someone new for large portions of the flight. It’s inappropriate to think that someone else wishes to speak with you that long; the other business traveler may have intended to use the flight time to catch up on some sleep, listen to music or finish some work. That said, there are a few exceptions when airplane conversations are so enjoyable that both parties will speak for the majority of time.
    1. Airline business travel etiquette rules encourage clean conditions for the lavatory.

      Before travelers are even able to head to the airplane bathroom, they must do so only if the flight conditions allow passengers to leave their seats. Then, if seated on an inside seat, the business traveler must request others to let you pass – when this happens, wasn’t it nice that you briefly made friends with the other passenger when you boarded as noted above. Anyway, once in the bathroom (be patient and courteous if there’s a line for the space), remember that the airplane bathroom is shared with everyone else on the plane and is a very small space. Some etiquette tips include doing one’s best to avoid splashing water all over the counters and the floors, and picking up paper towels if they fall on the floor. Do whatever it takes to help ensure the seat and airplane bathroom remains clean.
    1. Airline business travel etiquette rules indicate that garbage should be removed from seat pockets prior to deplaning.

      Passengers tend to treat the seat pocket space in front of them as if it’s their own personal space for storage and waste. During a flight, passengers – including business travelers – will place wrappers, newspapers, empty water bottles and more in this space until a flight attendant shows up to take away these personal items. Unfortunately, many travelers forget to give their garbage to the flight attendant and some of these items – especially small wrappers and crumbs – will be left for the next passenger. Nice…
    1. Airline business travel etiquette rules encourage deplaning rows begins with those who are seated on the side closest to the exit door of a plane.

      It seems that most travelers are ready to leave the plane by the end of a flight, and you’ll notice them shove their way out of a row and grab their belongings as soon as they can. While it may be okay to stand in your own row and wait your turn to leave, in most situations the traveler who is on the side of the door (usually the left) should be the first to step out of their row and grab their bag from the overhead bin. Once those individuals have left their side of the row, those on the other side of the row should follow. Only then should the next row depart. One exception, if an announcement is made to allow certain individuals an opportunity to depart the plane first for whatever reason, please stay in your seat so that they may do so.

Airline business travel etiquette rules say that passengers should arrive at the airport early enough so that they may board when the plane is ready.

Frequently, travelers try to time their airport arrival so that they may make it past airport security and arrive in the gate area just moments before it’s time to board the plane. Guess what, those are the individuals who frequently board the plane last and delay the rest of the passengers who arrived and waited patiently to board on time. There are situations when sometimes business travelers wander the airport terminal or sit at an airport lounge to pass the time and forget that they should be boarding. For all other situations please remember that if you are running late and not boarding during the scheduled time of group, you are likely creating a delay for everyone else. Etiquette tip: don’t blame the long security line if you didn’t arrive 90 minutes or more prior to arrival.

Originally Published September 23, 2009 

Rob is editor of Business Travel Destinations. He reviews international destinations for meetings and events -- where business travelers go, the hotels where they stay and their lifestyle preferences on the road. Rob was previously the event planning guide for About.com (owned by The New York Times Company) from 2007 - 2011. His articles also appear in business travel publications and travel sites internationally.