What to Do (and Not Do) When You’re Seated Next to an A-hole on a Flight

What to Do (and Not Do) When You’re Seated Next to an A-hole on a Flight
Photo: Dmitry Galaganov, Getty Images

I was recently on a flight home from visiting some family, and the guy sitting in the aisle seat a few rows up from me refused to let anyone past him. He dozed in his seat and slumped into the aisle, preventing the drinks cart from moving through, and the flight attendants had to physically shove him upright to get by. When the two poor souls trapped in the middle and window seats needed to use the restroom, he simply ignored them until they were forced to literally climb over him. Which, to be fair, he took pretty well.

I expected fisticuffs, but the couple sitting next to him were heroes who soldiered on — though I wouldn’t have blamed them if they’d gone buckwild on Aisle Guy. From the minute you arrive at the airport, you can be surrounded by arseholes, but there’s something uniquely awful about being trapped in a vessel with them at 9,144.00 m.

But when you’re trapped on a five-hour flight with someone who methodically eats one chip every three minutes in order to keep their mask off, it’s not the time to try and get justice. It’s time to get into survival mode. So what should you do — or not do — when someone is a jerk on your flight?

Stay calm — and sober

Keep in mind we are all put upon by the airlines and some people will act jerkier than others because of this stress. Plane seats are getting smaller and more tightly packed — but the airlines are pitting us against each other in many ways. They sell us both the space in front of you — our ever-shrinking legroom — and the space behind you — where you recline. In other words, the airline is selling the same space twice and laughing all the way to the bank while we seethe and practice our microaggressions.

First of all, you have to acknowledge the uncomfortable fact that you have very little power. The “rules” about what’s allowed or not allowed on a flight are pretty vague when it comes to personal space and behaviour, which is to say they don’t really exist. Technically, the other passengers paid a lot of money, just like you, and have the right to do what they want, just like you. They can recline seats, take over arm rests, talk loudly, and even take off their shoes and stick their feet through the gap in the seats in front of them. Only jerks do these things, but you’ll be hard-pressed to get any sort of official punishment or enforcement from the flight crew. And while lashing out in petty ways, like kicking an overly-reclined seat or pouring water on that bare foot, might feel good, it will also raise the temperature and invite escalation in a confined space where disruption is a very bad idea. Unless you want to wind up in a viral YouTube video, you’ll need to take a breath.

Other flight scenarios where you have no power include:

  • Unruly children. You are never allowed to discipline someone else’s child, no matter how horrible they are.
  • Rude flight crew. If your flight attendant or another member of the flight crew is a jerk, remind yourself that on the plane they are pretty much all-powerful, so just swallow your outrage.

Admitting to yourself that you have no power is very freeing, because it removes that sense of responsibility. You should probably also skip the cocktails. While a nip of booze might be calming and can make a miserable flight a little more fun, it also shortens tempers and clouds judgment. You’ll have a much better chance of a positive outcome when dealing with rude folks if you’re sober.

Try negotiation

Next, take a step back from your irritation and remember that your rude seatmate might not realise what they’re doing. When you’re exhausted and cramped it’s easy to get angry and jump to conclusions, but reacting immediately with anger is a mistake.

Instead, take a breath and inform the person of your discomfort and ask — politely — that they change their behaviour. Very often the person infringing on your sanity is also tired and cramped and simply isn’t thinking. A reminder that they’re part of society coupled with a simple ask will actually often get the results you want without any of the ugliness or drama.

If they push back — for example, if they argue that their seat reclines and therefore they have every right to recline it until they can see up your nostrils — try to negotiate. Suggest a compromise; even grudging agreement is better than spending the rest of the flight finding excuses to shove the seat in front of you.

If calm and compromise don’t work, you have two choices: Grit your teeth and get through the flight, or involve the flight attendants. The latter may get some immediate results, but will definitely increase bad feelings. Often, folks comply until the flight attendant walks away, and then flagrantly go back to their bad behaviour — now with extra attitude. Involving the flight crew should only be an option if the other person’s behaviour crosses from rude and annoying to affecting your health or safety.

Avoid gadgets

Modern problems require modern solutions, and there’s a whole passive-aggressive industry of gadgets designed to fight back against rude passengers. The most famous is probably the Knee Defender, which attaches to your tray table in order to make it impossible for the seat in front of you to recline. For folks who dread confrontation but also dread seeing their cramped legroom get even more cramped, gadgets like this seem like the perfect solution.

Except they are a terrible idea and you should not use things like this. First of all, every single major airline bans its use, and the flight crew will confiscate yours if they see it. Second of all, you don’t actually own the space in front of you, so the person in front of you will be entirely justified in being angry about it. In other words, the moment you use a gadget like the Knee Defender, you are the jerk in that situation.

Poorly-socialised, narcissistic people who think their coach fare entitles them to prioritise their own comfort and sense of entitlement are always out there, waiting to ruin your flight. The best way to deal with them is to find inner peace any way you can, because your actual options are as limited as your legroom.

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