Etiquette Monster: How Rude Am I Allowed to Be on an Airplane?

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In this edition, we’re printing out our boarding passes, going through the TSA line, boarding a Boeing, and taking our manners to the sky! That’s right, my travel babies, we’re tackling the dreaded topic of airline etiquette.


Is it monstrous to not want to sit next to a fat person on an airplane?

I’m writing this on the return leg of air travel between Denver and San Antonio. Both legs have involved small regional jets with two seats on both sides of the aisle. On both flights, I’ve been seated next to men who’d likely be classified as obese to the extent that I am sharing my plane seat with their person. What do you do in that situation? I don’t want to be an asshole but I’m wedged against the wall of the plane because my seat mate is taking up half of my seat.

I’m genuinely asking for your suggestion and hoping to be as non asshole-esque as possible. Both of these individuals likely need to purchase second plane seats and I understand the myriad of reasons why someone wouldn’t want to do that (expense, indignity, etc). I have no doubt that the flight is miserable for them, but at the end of the day, I didn’t pay for a plane ticket to share my seat with someone else’s person, especially for several hours.


The Monster in 12A

A fun fact about air travel: It’s hell for just about everyone! I am 5'7 and relatively slim and even I feel whopping huge in most airplane seats. Airlines—miserly as they are—are basically forcing all full-sized adults to sit in chairs that are barely big enough to contain a husky 4-year-old. Oh, you’re feeling uncomfortable? Get in line! (Literally, or the mean flight attendant will yell at you.)

Look, 12A, it obviously sucks when you pay for a seat on an airplane and end up having to share half of it with the bigger person sitting next to you. I know this, you know this, fat people definitely know this. You’re not breaking any news to them by being annoyed because they—most assuredly—are annoyed as well. Unfortunately, it’s just something we all have to deal with, as the #1 feature of airplanes is that there is a limited range of things we can do.

If the plane isn’t full, it is totally reasonable to pull the flight attendant aside and discreetly—very discreetly—ask to move seats. (I assume that given the option to have a full bench to yourself, this is something you’d do regardless of the size of the person you’re seated with.) Moving won’t just benefit you, it will also benefit your seat mate who can now fully spread out and stop worrying about being judged by you.

If there are no open seats to move to, I’m afraid you’re going to have to buckle down, suck it up, and prepare to get cozy. As someone who is generally disgusted by humankind, I can fully empathize with how awful it can be to be pressed up against someone you didn’t choose to press up against, but you know what? You can fucking deal. People used to travel in smallpox stricken stagecoaches and piss in gravy boats for days in order to get from one place to another. By comparison, getting a little squashed on a regional flight (or an international flight, for that matter) is not going to kill you. If it’s really that bothersome to you, I suggest coughing up the money for a first class seat. Or—preferably—doping yourself with enough Xanax that you no longer care.

Now before you get mad, please allow me to paraphrase the successful Hunger Games franchise and remind you who the real enemy is. It’s not me or the fat person sitting next to you. It’s the Uniteds, Southwests, and Deltas of this world. Airlines, for the most part, are terribly run businesses and they deserve all of your ire. Please do your best to be kind and empathetic to the passengers who are stuck in that horrible garbage sky tube alongside you.


While we’re on the subject of airplane etiquette, there are a couple things I want to address that have nothing to do with 12A and their quandary, but still must be said:

  • Be polite to the flight attendant. They probably don’t get paid that much and spend all day dealing with assholes.
  • Flight attendants tell passengers this and it always gets ignored so it warrants repeating: Do not put coats and small bags in the overhead until everyone’s onboard and you know there’s room.
  • Asking a person to trade seats with you so that you can sit with a partner is only okay if you’re offering up a better seat. Never expect anyone to trade their window or aisle seat for a middle.
  • Airplane armrests are to be split evenly between passengers. One person takes the front half of the armrest, the other person takes the back half.
  • Greet your seat mates with a polite hello and do not expect them to talk to you for the rest of the flight.
  • If the person sitting next to you wants to talk and you don’t feel like it, feel free to put on headphones, make a show of taking out a book to read, or pretending to be asleep. It might be rude, but it ain’t wrong.
  • If you’re going to talk, talk quietly.
  • If you’re seated in the middle seat in a row of three and one seat is left vacant, slide over and leave the middle seat empty.
  • If this is the case and you refuse to slide over, the person sitting next to you has every right to assume that you are a sociopath or serial killer.
  • If you are seated directly next to a stranger who does not choose to move into a vacated aisle or window seat in order to give you a middle seat buffer, you are seated next to a sociopath or serial killer.
  • An empty middle seat should be evenly divided between the aisle and window seat passengers. Do not curl up in a fetal position or put your legs on the seat unless it becomes very clear that your row mate is not interested in using their share of the added space.
  • Do not wear strong perfume onboard. Do not use scented lotions onboard. Do not paint your nails or do anything that results in fume-y odors while onboard. (Farts are your own biz, but do your best to keep your butt in check.)
  • Do not bring odorous food onboard.
  • There is no polite way to wake someone up when you need to climb past them to go to the bathroom. Give them a brief but firm shake on the arm, say “Excuse me,” and do your best to get up as few times as possible. When you gotta go, you gotta go. No shame in the toilet game.
  • Oftentimes, there’s nothing a parent can do to quiet a crying baby so try to be compassionate. You were once screaming, shitty baby, too.
  • When deplaning, the person in the row ahead of you exits first—unless you think you’ll miss you’re next flight in which case it’s better to trample a family of five than get stuck at O’Hare.

This is etiquette sky law. Follow the rules or you’re a dick.

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Art by Tara Jacoby.



I was once in the window seat of a row of three. There was a gentleman in the aisle seat. As the boarding process ended, it became clear that the middle seat was to remain blissfully empty and I felt immediate relief, until the gentleman picked himself up, scooted over, and started to lower his ass into the vacant middle seat. He turned to me and said “You don’t mind if I move over, do you?”

Reader, I looked that gentleman square in the eye and said “I do mind. Please move over.” And I stared at him with a shark’s dead eyed stare until he silently moved his ass back into the aisle seat.