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The final word on boarding etiquette: 'Civility costs nothing’

Boarding a plane is a patience-testing, stress-inducing exercise. Picture: Unsplash

Boarding a plane is a patience-testing, stress-inducing exercise. Picture: Unsplash

Published Apr 17, 2022

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By Christopher Elliott

Boarding a plane is a patience-testing, stress-inducing exercise. At least it is for passengers such as Krista Betts, a travel adviser from Austin. She wonders why some passengers don't know basic boarding etiquette.

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"My biggest pet peeve when boarding is walking down the aisle and the passenger behind me hits his luggage or bag on my ankles," says Betts, who works for Balboa Travel. "I usually turn around and glance, hoping that will alleviate the problem."

It rarely works. The stampede to the back of the plane continues. And, like many exasperated air travellers, Betts wonders whether there's a better way - particularly now, when social distancing is so important.

There ought to be. Conflicts - including disagreements about seat assignments, overhead luggage storage or personal space - frequently start during the boarding process. So, with the summer travel season just ahead, maybe it's time to revisit basic boarding etiquette.

"Boarding planes can be frustrating and confusing," says Anne Baum, an etiquette expert and author of "Small Mistakes, Big Consequences: Develop Your Soft Skills to Help You Succeed." She says there's a "golden rule" when it comes to boarding a plane: "Help others with their luggage, let someone go ahead of you and be the friendly traveller. Err on the courteous side."

But let's talk about boarding etiquette specifics. Here are the big questions:

Should I stand near the gate before my boarding group is called?

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Smart travellers who don't have elite status get to the airport early and stake out a seat close to the boarding area. Picture: Unsplash

Absolutely not. "You should steer clear of standing in line at the gate before your boarding group," says Bonnie Tsai, founder of the etiquette consultancy Beyond Etiquette.

Passengers stand up early because they think they'll get an advantage when their row finally gets called, Tsai says. But they're only slowing the boarding process and crowding the gate.

"It may also cause other travellers and the gate agents to become frustrated," Tsai says. "Lining up before your boarding group is called won't get you to your destination any sooner. Be considerate, and you'll all get where you're going."

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Pro tip: Smart travellers who don't have elite status get to the airport early and stake out a seat close to the boarding area. Then, when their row is called, they can line up, which means they get to their section first.

Do faster passengers have the right of way when boarding?

Etiquette experts say it's important to be flexible, and remember that it works both ways. Picture: Unsplash

We've all been there. Maybe you're hauling extra luggage. Other passengers are starting to crowd behind you as you stow your carry-on in the overhead compartment. Should you get out of the way and let the other passengers get past you?

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Again, no. Stepping aside for the faster passengers won't significantly accelerate the boarding process. "It is most efficient to the overall boarding process to have slower passengers board first," says Debbie Carstens, a professor in the College of Aeronautics at the Florida Institute of Technology.

This may seem counter-intuitive in the moment, but that's when we draw on our reserves of good manners. "I don't want to be that passenger that tries to rush past the mom pushing her kids in a stroller," Carstens says.

Who owns the space in the overhead bin above your seat?

Travellers traditionally feel that the storage space above their seats belongs to them. But don't be too territorial. Etiquette experts say it's important to be flexible, and remember that it works both ways. The overhead bin nearest your seat may be unavailable, and you may have to rely on another passenger's flexibility.

Furthermore, "if you're flying coach, do not use luggage compartments for business class or first class as you enter the plane," says etiquette expert Rachel Wagner. "Also, it's impolite to stow your items in the front rows of economy class if your seat is near the back of economy class."

Pro tip: Be patient. "If you need more room, then wait until people have all put their things up and see where there is a space to put your extra luggage," says Adeodata Czink, an etiquette expert. You'll often find some space, and you won't have to fight any passengers for it.

So there you have it. Stay seated until your row is called, give the passengers in front of you all the time they need to stow their belongings and share the overhead bin space. Those are the basics of boarding etiquette.

"My grandmother always said, 'Civility costs nothing,' " says Julian Walker, head of market communications and public relations for the travel management company CWT. "We tend to forget that when travelling. We're so wrapped up in our own worlds."

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