Whose armrest is it, anyway? The unspoken etiquette of airline, bus and train travel.


Jacy Reese was just being polite when he offered to switch airline seats with a mother and her young son on a recent flight from Copenhagen, Denmark, to Toronto. But as the old saying goes, no good deed goes unpunished.

“I had pre-ordered a vegan entree,” remembers Reese, who works for a nonprofit organization in Berlin. “It went to my original seat. By the time I found out, the mother had already eaten my meal.”

Lesson learned: Let a flight attendant know when you switch seats, particularly if you need a special meal.

Seat etiquette isn’t as easy as it looks. Consider, for example, the recent passengers on a United Airlines flight from Sydney to San Francisco who had a conversation over a passenger seated in the same row.

The passenger in the middle seat didn’t take kindly to it, reportedly delivered a racist rant and ultimately forced the airline to divert the flight to New Zealand.

The incident raises the question: Is it acceptable to hold a conversation over someone in a middle seat?

“Yes and no,” says Maggie Oldham, a New York-based etiquette coach. The conversation must be brief. But if it’s anything longer than “a quick exchange,” then no.

“The polite thing to do is for one of those passengers to offer to trade seats with the passenger in the middle seat,” Oldham says. “Even better if you ask the middle-seater if they prefer the window or the aisle and then abdicate accordingly.”

Question: Should I lean back my seat in economy class?

Answer: No. Seriously, no. Even though you can theoretically lean your seat back, most airlines have removed so much room between the seats that you’re almost certain to collide with a passenger’s knee, laptop computer or lap child. And that’s likely to provoke a confrontation.

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Question: Sorry, I paid for the seat and it’s mine to recline whenever I want. Should I ask the passenger behind me before I do?

Answer: Yes, that’s the least you can do. If you’re going to lean, ask the passenger behind you if it’s okay. “If you’re shy about talking to your aft seatmate, at least do them the courtesy of slowly reclining your seat, lest you upset their laptop and land that complimentary soft drink all over their pants,” suggests Kathleen Starmer, a former research scientist and frequent traveler who lives in San Jose.

Question: What is seat sprawl, and how much is acceptable?

Answer: Seat sprawl happens when a passenger stretches, extends or invades your personal space with his or her legs, arms or head. How much is acceptable? None. “Don’t sprawl onto your seatmate’s territory,” says relationship expert April Masini. “Bring a neck pillow so you can be comfortable and avoid falling onto their shoulders when you fall asleep, as the pillows tend to brace you away from neighbors.” If you’re a large passenger, buy a second seat.


Question: Whose armrest is it, anyway?

Answer: Obviously, the passenger in the window seat controls the window armrest and the aisle seat controls the outermost armrest. But the middle two armrests – ah, that’s not an easy one! The consensus is that it’s a shared space but that the middle seat passenger has something close to the right of way. In other words, if you’re sitting in a window or aisle seat, the middle seat passenger gets to put his arms down first. If there’s room left over, great. If not, it belongs to the middle seat passenger. And one more thing, says Adeodata Czink, a Toronto-based manners expert, “Try to be nice about it.”

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Question: Shoes on or off?

Answer: Only you know the answer to this one. “We all know if our feet smell or not and need to base our decision on that fact alone,” says Bill Sechter, a Seattle-based frequent traveler who founded a company that designs workspaces. “If you know you have foot odor, by all means, leave your shoes on. If not, feel free to take them off, but remember to place them out of the way of others getting in and out of your row.” One more thing: Always wear socks. It’s just better for everyone. And you don’t want to end up on one of those passenger-shaming websites.

Question: Should I awaken a snoring seat mate?

Answer: If the snoring is keeping you awake on an overnight flight, absolutely. But the burden is on the snorer. “If you know you have a snoring problem, you may need to avoid sleeping,” says Maryanne Parker, an etiquette expert from San Diego. The best approach: Ask a flight attendant or conductor to help. You might be able to move to a different seat. “If the passenger himself asks us if we can hear him snoring, you can be honest, but still polite,” she says.

Question: Should I change my baby’s diaper on my seat?

Answer: No. Go to the bathroom to change Junior.

Speaking of kids, remember Reese, the passenger who lost his in-flight meal? Turns out there was one final lesson to be learned.

“I didn’t confront the mother,” he says, “but mentioned it to the flight attendant. I doubted that the mother would be in a similar situation again, so it didn’t seem worth bothering her about it, but the flight attendant might.”

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The flight attendant was appreciative and offered him an extra snack, as the flight was out of vegan meals. And now, Reese will always remember the value of avoiding a confrontation and being discreet when one of these unwritten rules is violated.


Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at chris@elliott.org. Got a question or comment? You can post it on our help forum.

  • ctporter

    With the checked bag fees many people try to pack everything into carryons (and slightly oversized ones in addition). Many cannot count either (3 or 4 carried on items do not make 2!) Do not put your smaller items up in the overhead until all roller bags have been stowed. Do not put your bag in the early rows (11-18 for example) when you are seated in row 25. By the time those passengers seated in early rows are permitted to board the only spaces left are back near the rear. That makes deplaning difficult as passengers need to swim upstream to get their bags slowing everyone down.

  • Jeff W.

    I will add a caveat to the armrest rule. While I agree that the middle seat should have precedence, if the armrest contains controls for the entertainment (on such planes where that still exists), that is the owner of the armrest. Sometimes the controls are on the side and sometimes on top.

  • JohntheKiwi

    “If you’re a large passenger, buy a second seat”. Or, you know, have airlines regulated to provide seating that comfortably holds, say, 90% of Americans, not 30%.

  • BubbaJoe123

    The vast majority of the US population fit fine into a single airline seat.

  • BubbaJoe123

    Agree on most, with one exception: if you only have one carryon, feel free to put it in the overhead bin, even if it’s just a briefcase.

  • BubbaJoe123

    Feel free to recline your seat. It’s designed to recline. Come back slowly, certainly, but have no doubt that you’re entirely and completely justified in reclining your seat. It’s your space to use if you want to. Period.

  • JohntheKiwi

    I wouldn’t say vast majority. Designing aircraft that allowed for seats to all be 1-3 inches wider would make everything a lot more comfortable for everyone. The average American man was 194 pounds in 2003-2006 (the latest figure I can find). I’m sure in the last 10+ years it has gone up from that. I don’t have a hard figure on gender split, but it would be a safe bet that the majority (55-60%+ of travelers) were men, and across both genders, 73.9% of Americans are overweight. I’ve always thought that any airline that had a few rows down the back where the seats were 17/17/20 inches instead of 18/18/18, and reserve the narrower seats for families with kids and the wider ones for overweight people when needed, they would have an advantage.

  • Bill___A

    Strongly disagree with you on that one. The airlines don’t give us enough space. It is bad enough to deal with that, don’t be a jerk. Just because it can recline doesn’t mean it should recline.

  • Bill___A

    They need to strongly enforce the one or two piece rule, including sizes. My bag(s) conform, I did the research to make sure they do. I don’t want some other person taking up the space with their many oversized carry ons.

  • Bill___A

    On the subject of the vegetarian or vegan meal, the flight attendants are usually quite vocal about “special” meals, bringing them out before the main meals on the trolleys. It is difficult to imagine how this mother missed this fact and ate the meal. It is also difficult to imagine how the intended passenger missed it. Maybe he went to the bathroom. He should have at least also told the mother about him having a special meal, but I find it unbelievable that this couldn’t have been prevented. I am also expecting this guy had a male name….and they do have those meals, as far as I know, with names noted and seats, the flight attendants have a printout.

  • BubbaJoe123

    You can absolutely keep your tray table down. Nothing’s stopping you.

  • BubbaJoe123

    ” I’ve always thought that any airline that had a few rows down the back where the seats were 17/17/20 inches instead of 18/18/18, and reserve the narrower seats for families with kids and the wider ones for overweight people when needed, they would have an advantage.”

    An advantage among the “one overweight person traveling with two kids” demographic, yes, but that’s a pretty small segment.

  • ctporter

    I agree, when the slightly oversize bags are used they often have to be stowed sideways, taking up more than one “space” in the overhead, which causes cascading lack of space for others. Saw this just yesterday on a Delta flight, guy put his suitcase up sideways, and then a large backpack and his coat next to it so he took up the entire bin.

  • DChamp56

    IMHO, it’s NEVER OK to remove your shoes on a plane, nor is it good form to place them on the bulkhead ahead of you!

  • Bill___A

    You would be, if you put your seat in recline. I do fit into one seat and do not use a seat belt extender, but I am 6’2.

  • LDVinVA

    I think Bill’s point was that if the seat in front of you is fully reclined, the tray table will not lie flat and he has the right to a flat table for his drink or whatever.

  • BubbaJoe123

    The tray table will absolutely lie flat with a reclined seat, on every airplane I’ve ever been on.

  • BubbaJoe123

    I’m the same height, also don’t need a seat extender, and have never had a problem with the tray not lying flat when the person in front of me reclines. What’s it running into in your case?

  • BubbaJoe123

    So, I should keep my shoes on in bed? Seriously?

  • Alan Gore

    The recline feature was designed for the days when seat pitch was reasonably wide. In today’s economy cabins the only time you should use it is on a long-haul flight when everybody is going to sleep at the same time.

  • Bill___A

    Planes are all different. I’m glad you have never had a problem with the tray not lying flat. I do. Perhaps my laptop is bigger than yours. Perhaps my stomach is bigger than yours. I disagree with you on this point. I am always going to disagree with you. We can agree to disagree. It doesn’t need to be an argument. And I sincerely hope you are never, ever in a seat in front of me. I do not recline my seat in someone else’s face and I appreciate it when others do not do it either. Have a nice day.

  • Bill___A

    I was on a Lufthansa flight in Europe recently, on I believe an Airbus A320 and the seats did not recline at all in economy. Perhaps some airlines are fixing this recline problem that they created when they started to put the seats closer together.

  • MarkKelling

    And that’s why more and more airlines are replacing their economy seats with non-reclining ones.

  • MarkKelling

    Never agreed with you more.

  • Michael__K

    Which airline seat?
    Average male shoulder width is 465mm (18.31″).
    How many domestic economy airline seats are as wide as the average male’s shoulders?

  • exactlywatt

    My great aunt once took her shoes off during a long flight and when the flight was over her feet had swelled so that she couldn’t get them back on

  • BubbaJoe123

    Virtually all. Seat width is at shoulder level is typically 18.5-19″ (includes armrest width, which doesn’t figure into typical seat width calculations).

  • Michael__K

    If you include the armrest, that’s *shared* space you refer to, not the passenger’s own space….

  • BubbaJoe123

    I’m only counting the armrest once. The question was about shoulders, where the thickness of the armrest is irrelevant.

  • Michael__K

    The thickness is totally relevant if you are counting that space as part of the neighboring seats. Where are you getting your armrest thickness measurements from?
    BTW, I can’t readily find what the standard deviation is, but 20″ shoulders are not particularly unusual or a sign of obesity.

  • A “right” to enjoy your beverages? Really?
    Some people have sciatica issues and have to recline their seats by a few inches to take the pressure off their lower back. Under the Air Carrier Access Act they do have a legal right to recline their seats except for takeoff and landing. This is going to supersede your desires (not “rights”) about your drink.

  • BubbaJoe123

    You’re talking about shoulders, so you’re talking about seat width including half the armrest for each person. That’s another 2″ above the “seat width” measure (which is inside of armrest to inside of armrest). Armrests on modern seats are typically about 2″ wide. So, that’s 19″ or more in seat width at shoulder level.

    Adult men make up around 37% of the US population. So, even if half of them have shoulders wider than 19″ (unlikely, given the 18.1″ number you cited), you’re talking >80% of the US population fitting just fine into that seat.

  • Michael__K

    Where did you pull this 2″ figure from?
    And are you suggesting that it’s appropriate for airlines to include children and babies in their population size averages they use to justify their seat sizes?

    BTW, adult males fly more frequently than either non-adults or non-males.

  • BubbaJoe123

    I think it’s appropriate for airlines to offer whatever mix of products they want, and incumbent on customers to choose what balance of comfort and cost they prefer.

    2″ figure source in the chart here. Difference between B and C is 2″, which is right in line with my experience.

    https://runwaygirlnetwork.com/2015/04/30/those-confusing-aircraft-seat-measurements-explained/

  • Michael__K

    I think it’s appropriate for airlines to offer whatever mix of products they want
    Ok, so then it follows that you would not object if the vast majority of customers do NOT fit in the seats an airline sells.

    But you claimed above that the ‘vast majority’ DO fit…. Note that 60+% of air passengers are males. And this skew is based on adult passenger travel habits, so the skew must be greater for adult passengers. For minor children it would have to be very close to 50/50.

    BTW, your link seems to be specific to a “post-Evolve” seat for an A380, which is not the experience most domestic passengers will have, especially on their local regional jets. And even according to your link, the tightest configuration option will NOT accommodate two average-shouldered males side-by-side without shoulders touching, even if they are perfectly centered in their seats.

  • Michael__K

    BTW, I found a paper with data on firefighters. Of course firefighters are expectedly larger than average, but they are generally in healthy physical condition.

    The median male firefighter has a shoulder width of 20.8″ with a standard deviation of 1.4. For female firefighters, it’s 18.5″ with a standard deviation of 1.5. So according to that, 80+% of male firefighters and 37% of female firefighters would have shoulders as wide as 19″ or more.

  • JewelEyed

    Overweight does not automatically mean that you can’t fit in an airline seat, you can’t just use one statistic to assume the other.

  • michael anthony

    Airlinrs are currentky using outdated stats fir average weights. The most current stats are nearly 28% obese and around 31 overweight. So, if you have a 200 seat plane, statistically half of the paxs are seated in unsafe seating. Include the very tall and you’ve got problems.

    Overweight and obesity has so many factors involved, most if which have nothing to do with choice. Genetics, disease, medications, can all significantly alter a person’s body. Oh, but it’s no big deal, just make them buy another seat. How unfortunate for those in a disease state yo be penalized because you don’t have one if those glamour diseases.

    Yes, carriers can do as they wish. But there will be a lawsuit someday because of their willful ignorance to the reality of bodies today.

  • AAGK

    I agree with these tips, except for the recline. I do not mind at all if the person in front of me reclines and I wouldn’t think twice about doing the same. Everyone should know how a seat works. I don’t see the big deal. Pax have it bad enough and shouldn’t have to sacrifice this minor comfort. I have no idea why it’s upsetting.

    Re: mom, I doubt she knew she was even eating a special meal.

  • AAGK

    I can’t even believe the requested meal actually got served. Mom probably had no idea it was special. This guy forgot about it when he made the kind offer and realized too late.

  • AAGK

    That’s a good tip. I don’t remove but may have placed my shoes on the bulkhead before without thinking about it and I know that it is rude.

  • DChamp56

    Well BubbaJoe, if you have a bed on a plane, in a private area where others can’t see you, go right ahead and take your shoes off. If not, I’d say it’s kinda rude.

  • Shirley G

    I disagree. FAs always tell you, if it fits underneath the seat, that’s where it goes. They don’t use a qualifier that if it’s your only carryon, it’s ok.
    Some of us can’t check medical equipment, etc. If we lose them, we are really screwed. So if you are taking up space for a briefcase and that means my medical equipment is in danger of having to be checked and lost, then shame on you. Be considerate and thank your lucky stars that you don’t have the same affliction.
    My husband is tall and never has an issue with having a briefcase, etc. under the seat in front of him. Using that as an excuse is just being selfish.

  • BubbaJoe123

    It’s not a private area, it’s any business class seat.

  • Shirley G

    I had some idiot take off his shoes and put them on the unoccupied middle seat between us. And this wasn’t a short flight. London to Newark. Disgusting.

  • BubbaJoe123

    Why is it more selfish for me to put one bag in the overhead bin than it is for someone else to put one bag in the overhead bin?

    Based on your argument, I should bring a rollaboard instead of my briefcase, and take up MORE room in the overhead bin.

  • DChamp56

    If there’s people nearby that can see/smell your feet, my personal opinion is still not to remove shoes.

  • Shirley G

    I’m not going to argue with you. You know that FAs announce this on every flight so as to leave room for rollerboards.
    You know that planes don’t have room for all of them and that some will need to be checked. Wish it wasn’t so, but it is. If you don’t require a rollerboard, once again, be happy that you don’t have cart medical stuff with you every time you travel.
    And there are people, you know there are, that bring a rollerboard and still put the briefcase and coat up in the bin even though FAs tell them not to. FAs need to start enforcing this.
    I’m guessing that you would be the person that wouldn’t remove his bin items in order for a destination bride to put her wedding gown in the bin so she doesn’t risk the chance of it being lost. I’ve been on at least 3-4 flights when this has happened. Most people were more than happy to do so because they are considerate.

  • BubbaJoe123

    1. If people have two bags, one definitely goes under the seat. That’s what I do when I have two bags.

    2. The vast majority of rollaboards don’t have critical medical equipment in them, so that’s pretty much a red herring.

    3. If it were a dress like that, I’d certainly move my stuff.

    4. I’m happy to be considerate. That said I don’t see any reason why I should be penalized for bringing _less_ stuff on the plane.

    5. The FA on my last flight (this morning, actually) said that your smaller personal item needs to go under the seat in front of you. As I didn’t have two items (and hence didn’t have a larger or smaller item), that clearly doesn’t apply.

  • BubbaJoe123

    Smell? Sure. See? No problem at all.

  • pauletteb

    Agree. I’m 5’10” and (unfortunately) by no means skinny, but I fit into the average airline seat just fine. My 34-inseam legs are another story, and my knees are usually bruised after even a short flight.

  • pauletteb

    If someone puts his/her coat in the overhead on a full flight and it’s not on top of his/her bag, I always “manage” to place my carry-on on top of it.

  • pauletteb

    The space under the seat in front of you should be used first, especially if your single item is small. Otherwise you could be forcing someone with a larger legitimate bag to have to gate-check it.

  • pauletteb

    Invalid analogy!

  • BubbaJoe123

    So, your solution is that I should bring a bigger bag, that won’t fit under the seat in front of me, and that will take up MORE space in the overhead bin than my briefcase does. I’m worse off (carrying luggage I don’t need), the airline’s worse off (carrying weight they don’t need), and the other passengers are worse off (since they have less bin space to work with). Somehow, that doesn’t seem like a great solution.

  • cscasi

    I believe that if I have a carry on; like my CPAP machine and my wife has her small tote bag, we should be able to put them in the overhead bin above our seats if there is room. If we board first, then we should be able to use the space. There is still room for others. However, I do not believe we should have to wait for everyone else to board and put their roller bags have been stored as most of the time, there is no space left. If there is not room for another’s big roller bag, then he/she can gate check it. What I am saying is that this is “shared” space and just because someone or two others want to put big bags in that space and take up all the room, I should not have to give up the little we use space for them. Lots of times people bring in these big bags and have to shove and cram their oversize roll aboard bags or carry ons to get them in the overhead bins and I have seen many who use most of the space for their one bag.

  • cscasi

    In that case, there are lots of roll aboard bags that can fit under one’s seat, so why do they put them in the overhead bins. That is because there is no actual rule that says one has to put them under the seat in front of them. The flight attendants may ask people to do that so there is more room for those bringing along everything they own, but we all paid for our seats and the overhead space and we should all be able to share it. Besides, I like to use the space underneath the seat in front of me to stretch my legs a bit in the cramped space we now have between sears (unless you purchase Premium, Business or First class seats).

  • cscasi

    If one needs all that space, he/she has the option to check the bag(s), right?
    And, your one example of a bride and her wedding gown; that is something that is rare in the thousands of flights a day. But, having said that, if asked, people can certainly give up the space a briefcase takes and allow the bride to cram that into that little space. Better yet, most flight attendants will hang up that dress/gown in the spaces they have for hanging coats.

  • Shirley G

    I have to wear night splints. If I don’t, I cannot walk–period. The pain is too intense. These night splints are large–the size of large ski boots. There is no way to put them in a smaller roller. They take up the entire roller as it is. Would I rather have healthy feet and not have to deal with this? Of course. Plus I am very allergic to fragrance–both on contact (hives) and respiratory (migraines). I have to bring all toiletries with me. Between the night splints and the toiletries, if I have to check the bag and it is lost, I am screwed.
    Be a little compassionate. Would you rather be able to stretch your legs or allow a fellow human being to able to walk? And breathe without migraines? And not be covered in hives?
    And to answer the latest person re wedding dress–the FAs asked for folks to move their stuff so obviously they had no room to hang it.
    Geez!

  • cscasi

    So, what is wrong with gate checking a bag if there is no room left in the overhead bin? I have done that before and that is just the way it goes in today’s full flights. People have just gotten to where they do not want to check a bag or bags because there is a charge for that (unless you have frequent flier status or an airline credit card that allows you to check for free). I understand that, but it is the airlines that decided to charge for checked bags as a way ti increase revenue and this is what has happened as a result.

  • cscasi

    Very thoughtful (even though I understand your point).

  • Carchar

    My fear is that when I’m leaning forward to retrieve something from under the seat in front of me, that person will put his/her seat back. The pain would be dreadful.

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