If you’re standing in line at the airport, don’t do this!

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By Christopher Elliott

Here’s the first rule of standing in line at the airport: No brawling, please. 

I guess someone forgot to tell the folks at one of Chicago O’Hare Airport’s luggage carousels who were taking swings at each other recently. The incident, caught on video, of course, made headlines.

Things have gone downhill from there. There have been incidents and altercations, too many to count. I was almost involved in one last week, thanks to the drunken passenger standing impatiently in a passport line in Bangkok. My 18-year-old son had stepped away to use the bathroom, and then he rejoined his brother and me at the front of the line.

“You can’t do that!” the passenger slurred. “Get to the back of the line, mate.”

Before I had time to explain that we were traveling together, a stern Thai customs official waved us over to present our passports. 

Sorry, mate.

Airports are filled with long lines these days. There are check-in lines, security lines, lines to board the plane, lines to exit, lines for customs and lines at the luggage claim area. If you’re flying, you are probably standing in more than one of these lines, even if you have one of those platinum cards and a “do-you-know-who-I-am” attitude

Believe it or not, there are rules for each line — and there’s one piece of advice that may prevent you from missing your flight or landing in a holding cell at the airport. (Related: Here’s the secret to boarding a plane.)

Should I say something to a line cutter?

If someone cuts in line in front of you, it’s best to let it go, says Diane Gottsman, an etiquette expert who runs the Protocol School of Texas.

“Some people may be making an innocent mistake by not seeing where the line starts, and you can certainly say, ‘Excuse me, the line starts over there’ in a friendly, non-confrontational voice,” she says. But the whole “Get to the back of the line, mate” routine is a confrontation waiting to happen.

Line cutters are not the same thing as people who are holding someone’s place in line, as I was for my son. Typically, they are highly aggressive and easily agitated. (Related: Airline passengers are cutting in line when they board. It’s time to stop!)

“There is a certain type of person who purposefully does not give themselves enough time to get to an airport before a flight, knowing that they can simply take advantage of the kindness of strangers to cut in line when they arrive,” says etiquette expert Nick Leighton. “The technical etiquette term for them is ‘bad people,’ and they are tearing the fabric of society apart.”

Perhaps it is enough knowing that a line cutter is a bad person and that they will be miserable even if they make their flight.

Is it ever OK to cut in an airport line?

Related question: Can you ever cut in line without being rude? Etiquette experts say you can.

“While it is never okay to cut in line, it is perfectly acceptable to ask,” says Jodi RR Smith, an etiquette consultant. “We know from psych studies that people are more likely to accommodate a request when a reason is given.”

So, for example, you could say they’re about to close your flight for boarding, and “Would it be possible to let me sneak in here?”  Another possibility: Appeal to an official, like a gate agent, customs official, or airport staff, for help. They sometimes have the authority to send you to the front of the line without raising the ire of your fellow travelers.

Can you switch lines at an airport if one is moving faster? 

Andre Robles, managing director at Voyagers Travel Company, says: Go for it!

“It is generally acceptable to switch lines if one line is moving faster,” he says. “Especially in situations where multiple lines lead to the same destination, like security checkpoint lanes.” (Related: What to do when your airline offends you.)

But don’t forget your “pleases,” “thank-yous,” and “excuse-mes” when you’re making a switch.

Are you allowed to ask someone to hold your place in line?

Yes, says Jan Luescher, CEO of the travel social network ASMALLWORLD

“I see no issue with having a member of your travel party hold your place in the line temporarily while you attend to urgent needs like grabbing a quick meal or using the restroom,” he says. “After all, you can be stuck in these queues for hours.” (Related: Is this enough compensation? Missed my connection because of an emergency landing.)

But there’s a catch. Luescher says holding only works if you’re far enough back in the queue to ensure there is little to no risk of your companion reaching the front before your return. So if you’re close to the front, it’s best to wait.

If you reach the cafe or restroom and find that the line is long and could potentially cause your companion to reach the front before your return, it’s best to hold tight and promptly rejoin the queue.”

What can you do to make the time pass faster while you’re waiting in line?

There’s plenty you can do — and a few things you shouldn’t, says Shelley Ewing, president of Tier One Travel.

“You can read a book, check your flight status or browse your phone or tablet. You can listen to music on your headphones. Or you can have a quiet conversation with friends or family members in line,” she says. (Related: CLEAR almost made us miss our flight. I want an apology!)

And what shouldn’t you do?

“Don’t play loud music or videos without headphones. Don’t engage in loud or disruptive conversations. And don’t rush or push others to move faster,” she says.

So the important things to remember when you’re in line at the airport are: Mind your manners — and mind your own business. Don’t be annoying when you’re standing in line, don’t hold up the line, don’t start a fight. 

When you’re standing in line, everything is a negotiation

There’s a bigger issue here, and that is that there should be no airport lines. Airlines, airports and the TSA should find ways of processing passengers without making them wait in long lines.

There’s been some progress. For instance, CLEAR now allows you to reserve a spot in the airport security line for free. You can bypass customs and immigration lines by applying for a trusted traveler program like Global Entry. And if you’re stuck in an airline’s customer service line, you can fire up the airline’s app or contact it through social media for faster service.

And if none of that works? You can always ask an airport employee, says Bill McGee, a senior fellow for aviation at the American Economic Liberties Project.

“There are times when hospital emergency room triage principles take precedence,” he says.

For example, at Westchester County Airport in White Plains, N.Y., one recent morning, the facility was overwhelmed with more flights than there were gates. Eventually, TSA staff started calling for passengers based on the length of the backlog, sending passengers with imminent departures to the front of the line. (Related: Passengers are tuning out preflight safety announcements. They may regret it.)

It’s worth repeating: If you’re in a long line and it looks like you might miss your flight, ask for help. With any luck, a kind agent will send you to the front of the line, allowing you to catch your plane.

And what about the passengers starting a riot at the luggage claim area or the folks who fancy themselves the line police? They’ve always been there, but this summer’s record demand for air travel has made it seem like they’re everywhere. And now you know how to not be one of them.

Your thoughts, please

I’d love to hear your thoughts on airport line etiquette — and your horror stories. The comments are open. And incidentally, if you ever have a problem with an airport line, my advocacy team is always here to help.

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter.

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