Air Passenger Etiquette: Who Gets the Armrests?

A site called Neatorama polled various ethicists, travelers and air flight experts regarding who should get the armrests when all three seats in a row in coach are occupied.

Actually, the graphic accompanying the column suggests that it also discusses two other flyingetiquette issues as well: do you recline your seat, and if you have a window seat and need to use the rest room when the other two passengers are asleep, what do you do?

Ah, air travel. Such a pleasure.

I can’t find any answers to those in the column, though, and that’s fine I know them already:

  • Of course you recline, especially now, when most seats hardly recline at all anyway. I stopped being Mr. Nice Flyer when a passenger behind me complains about my reclining after I discovered that I had sat bolt upright on a four hour flight to accommodate a guy who was reclining his own seat. One exception: if the passenger behind me really is someone whose legs are so long he can’t extend them under my seat, I’ll avoid reclining—it’s Golden Rule time then.
  • Why wouldn’t you wake the other passengers, if you really needed to use the bathroom? They have no right to imprison you. On the other hand, if you can, as we delicate folks say, “hold it,” then it is kind to let the dears snooze away. This is one of many reasons I avoid window seats.

The armrest question is a little more challenging, and the “experts” polled by Neatorama don’t agree. The right answer? The poor sucker stuck in the middle row gets two armrests, if he or she wants them. Sometimes sharing is easy and comfortable, but if not, both armrests go to the middle passenger as compensation for the misfortune of being the stuffing in an air passenger sandwich.

11 thoughts on “Air Passenger Etiquette: Who Gets the Armrests?

  1. i was on a flight this morning, and pondered the armrest question then! i live largely by compensatory ethics and act on behalf of karma whenever possible. this morning the guy beside me (i had the isle seat) was blatantly trying to take up the whole armrest without any consideration for me – therefore as soon as i got the opportunity (when he received a drink) i took the whole armrest for myself for the rest (majority) of the flight.

    • Compensatory ethics—meaning if people treat you fairly, you do the same to them? Sounds a lot like “tit for tat” to me. Admittedly, it’s hard being nice to a jerk in the center seat.

      • in this case they had treated me inconsiderately, but generally i apply my karma balancing act when i have not been involved in the original transgression (less traceable to me – taking over an armrest is a petty example, other acts i definitely don’t want traced to me). i have some sociopathic traits but largely choose to be ‘good’. as a bit of a release i allow myself to make a person’s life worse if i know they have done something bad themselves and got away with it. more or less tit-for-tat but where the other party has been a tit to someone else 😉

      • I think it’s hawk-dove strategy at it’s finest. So long as they’re a dove, I’m a dove, if they go hawk, I hawk them forever. It’s good game theory, but not necessarily good ethics.

      • An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth!

        And Tevye replied, “Very good…and soon the whole world will be blind and toothless.”

        (Fiddler On The Roof).

        • you seem to imply this is a bad strategy for humans? actually the concept of fairness is ingrained into us (there are some lovely experiments with chimps showing their awareness of the principle too), and i’m sure you would say it is ethical for a country to stand up to a dictator of another state and punish them for their bad behaviour. why not apply this on a personal level – and as it does seem to be ingrained in us by evolution then it must be a good game-theory strategy. the consequence of letting people get away with shit is worse than not…

  2. In my opinion, the middle person gets two arm rests because the window seat can lean against the wall, and the aisle seat can lean against the aisle arm rest. But in the end, it’s kind of situational, to see how everyone sits, or who is flying together.

    With regard to reclining your seat, don’t slam your seat back all at once. Be careful that the person behind you doesn’t have a laptop open or an infant in their lap. You can get your seat to recline gradually, and it gives them a chance to adjust and prepare for your move (or give a verbal stop command if there’s going to be a problem.)

  3. I NEVER get an armrest. And why? Because I am 6’7″ tall and 250 lbs. I am a big guy, and my size sets off the “tit for tat” mentality in most people. My fellow passengers look upon me in disgust, as if I chose to be this tall. Little old ladies, short men, soccer moms and men of average height ALL take the full armrest, and when I look at them I regularly receive a condescending glare. I recall a recent flight in which I sat in the center seat and had no armrests. I sat for four hours with my hands between my knees. The “because I have been imposed upon, it’s okay for me to impose” is a highly uncivil mentality.

    • This depresses me. I would have thought just the opposite would be true: when I’m next to a big guy, I usually cede the armrest, figuring that he or she is uncomfortable enough. That’s horrible.

      And your last line is exactly right.

    • I second Jack. If you need the space, you get the space. That’s a completely separate issue from people who simply desire the space.

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