Airplane etiquette

Last summer I was on a flight from Montreal to Toronto and I was seated next to a couple with two children. One parent was in row 17 with a child who appeared to be three or four; the other parent sat with a slightly older child right behind them in row 18. In the ten minutes before the plane took off, the younger child threw a tantrum twice about having to sit with his father. The tantrum involved screaming, tears, and kicking the seat in front of him. The parents switched seats both times.

Then, as the plane started to taxi and then become airborne, this same child screamed for more than five minutes, repeating the same phrase: “The plane’s too heavy to fly. The plane’s too heavy to fly.” His parents offered him fruit snacks, a beverage, a stuffed animal and a book. Never once did I hear them ask him to stop screaming. Everyone around us, myself included, went from incredulous staring to trying hard not to look at the hysterical child. We didn’t do what Ivana Trump did in 2009 when she allegedly called an unruly child around her “a barbarian” and had her father file a complaint with the airline. 

And of course, I wondered upon first hearing the child’s screamed phrase, where a child of that age learns a concept of a plane being too heavy to fly.

Trying to control a child’s behavior on a plane can be a tricky thing. Childhood enthusiasm is natural and so is energy. Sometimes harnessing and bridling this energy in a confined space for the extended time it takes from a plane to get from one location to another can be a challenge. Gynecologist and obstetrician Dr. Anjali Rao, parent of a two-year-old said she doesn’t know how her parents flew with kids in the days before iPads and DVD players. Her toddler will play games on the long flights to Hawaii, and that will keep him happy. Just remember to either turn the volume to its lowest setting on the games or provide the child with earphones. Others sitting around you don’t want to hear the squawking of Angry Birds.

Certain airlines, like Virgin America, have a manager in charge of what they call “in-flight training”, which teaches flight attendants how to deal with passenger complaints such as a child kicking the back of a passenger’s seat. (Virgin America’s flight attendants are trained in psychological theory such as emotional intelligence which the airline feels helps them better respond to customer concerns. Anna Post, etiquette experts, says, “It's not good to try to discipline someone else's child. Ask for what you want, but don't try to justify it. Tone carries a lot. You don't want to get into an argument with parents.” Of course if it is your child doing the kicking try to get them to stop. One flight attendant said she has stopped a kicking child with the phrase, “we’d really hate to make the pilot land and to throw you off the plane.”

Similar to the seat kicking is the tray pounding that some children do. Mom or dad may have put the tray table down so the child could color or rest a DVD player on it but the child might get bored and decide drop a beat or pretend he’s playing the bongos. This behavior does not usually endear the child to fellow passenger; the same tactics in the paragraph directly above can be used.

Anyone who has flown in coach probably has noticed how the seat pitch and the seat size keeps getting smaller and smaller. Cramming adult-size humans into the allotted space can make things uncomfortable, but few things irritate business people quicker than a seat on fast recline that dumps their laptops into their laps.  While you and your child have every right to recline your seats as far back as they will go, 2012’s common courtesy as the pitch gets smaller is to warn the person behind you.

Babies on flights sometimes cry. We’ve all been there with our own children so we can have some empathy. Some people believe it is the pressure in the baby’s ears. The former flight attendant who writes the blog,, says, “The delicate time is not during take-off or landing/touchdown but at the top of descent. Be very careful as most articles on flying are written by parents who usually have never worked in the industry and misuse airline terms. This is usually 40 minutes to an hour before landing and everyone's ears have to reverse internal pressurization.” Sometimes a mild decongestant helps this, but the physical act of crying can also often clear a baby’s ears.

The last bit of etiquette for flying this year is if you are walking, either by yourself or with your child, stay clear of the galley, never go through a curtain to the next class, and never loiter near the cockpit. These are three things that flight attendants say at the start of every flight during their FAA-regulated safety announcements but are sometimes easy to forget when you need to move around, stretch, and burn off some of your toddler’s excess energy.

Remembering all of these things will help you and your fellow passengers have a more comfortable flight.