Most of us have heard that rats begin to attack each other when they're forced by researchers into an overpopulated environment.
That's a body of research that makes airline executives very nervous, because regardless of what Darwinian questions might remain about the DNA-driven traits we share with the great ape, the behavioral traits we share with the lowly rat are well-established: Overcrowding breeds stress, which in turn breeds the urge to throw those little packages of peanuts back at the flight attendants and growl at your seatmates. (The word "overcrowding," by the way, has become a bona fide aviation term.)
The branch of the human family we're discussing is Homo sapiens Airlinius Passengerius, whose response to such stimuli as being sealed into a 737 middle seat between two linebackers from Green Bay for five transcontinental hours is well-understood.
Often the little violations of our personal space committed in air travel trigger an inner need to strike back. And just as often, only the restraints of civility (and the fear of being met by the FBI on arrival) stand between in-flight harmony and the primal anthropological urge to pound the heck out of someone who appears to really need it (the classic definition of stress). Since your flight crew and the airline it works for approach such matters with the delicacy of Bree Van de Kamp from "Desperate Housewives" discussing sex, I suppose it's up to me to set the record straight in this column.
Bottom line: Courtesy defuses stress, even at 35,000 feet.
Prepare to Share Space, Calmly
Let's face this head-on. Most flights today are full or near capacity. Middle seats do exist.
Add then, a delay of any sort, a flight crew that is less than fully communicative, temperature extremes at your seat, a screaming infant section one row away, kids kicking the back of your seat and someone who steals your tiny, microscopic pillow because it fell through the crack between seat and window, and even Job would be hard-pressed to smile.
But these (and many more) irritations are fully within the realm of what today's routine flight may present to any of us, and therefore the first order of business before you get aboard is to fully embrace the reality that you are about to enter a shared agony of reduced movement and constrained space. In other words, unless you're actually riding in first class, don't get aboard expecting first-class space and service.
There is, in fact, a need for a sort of code of airborne behavior, and even though most of it is obvious, judging from the stress-induced responses we've all witnessed, it bears repeating.
First, if you're sitting in an aisle seat, please understand that you're in a thinly disguised physical fitness program: You will need to get up and down perhaps many times during the flight to let your middle and window seatmates get out and back in. Now, most of us automatically do this graciously. But even gracious passengers don't realize that when you've disassembled your personal possessions on the tray table and otherwise created such an elaborate nest of drinks, laptops, books and other things standing between your seatmates and the aisle, you've sent a very strong signal that getting up will be a major, unappreciated operation.
In other words, occupiers of aisle seats should really try hard to minimize the nest-building instinct and make the process of getting up as simple (and friendly) as possible. It wouldn't even hurt to turn to the guy or gal sardined into the middle seat next to you and say, "Hey, don't hesitate for a moment to let me know when you need to get up."
Those of you in the middle seat? It may come as a shock, but you're sharing the elbow room on the seat dividers. Sharing, as in both your left elbow and his or her right elbow have to dance their way into some sort of acceptable compromise. Please be courteous about this, and do not hesitate to discuss openly what works best ("Excuse me, does this interfere with your ability to use your laptop? Because I could sit more forward … "). And for the hermit in the window seat nested in blankets and pillows and ensconced for the count? A little planning, if you please, goes a long way. Yes, it's perfectly acceptable to ask your adjacent seatmates to get up and let you out and back in when necessary, but keep in mind that it really is your responsibility to minimize the impact on them, and at least apologize and thank when necessary. Also, when your seatmates are sleeping, don't try to climb over them. The seats are simply too close. He's in the aisle seat. He's supposed to wake up.
For those of you with children, a big, big warning. We don't really care how cute and precocious you think they are, excessive noise and movement in confined spaces is obnoxious, especially the repetitious noises kids can make. It is your responsibility to keep junior from kicking the seat in front or singing at the top of his lungs or grabbing the poor guy in the next seat (or suddenly reclining the seat so as to destroy the laptop behind him).
Yes, screaming infants are not necessarily controllable, and we all understand that. But sitting quietly while your little hellions wreak havoc on adjacent passengers is neither courteous nor acceptable behavior, especially in the crowded interior of a commercial jet. If you can't control them, may I suggest Amtrak, or the road? (Sadly, cages in the cargo hold are not a legal option.)
Other big points:
Be realistic and careful cramming things into the overheads. What goes in can come out unexpectedly, and if it's heavy it could hurt someone.
Be careful dragging bags and purses and backpacks down the aisle. It is your responsibility not to smash fingers and arms in the process.
Please, don't recline the seat unless you really must. The airspace behind you is very limited and ultimately shared, not owned. If you must, however, recline, turn around first and make darn sure you're not going to slam an open laptop closed on someone's fingers. Ask if they mind if you recline.
When the plane is taxiing in and you've fired up your cell phone, keep your voice low. We can hear you. All of us.
Finally, if you're one of the last to come aboard for whatever reason and there is no room for your roll-on bag in the overheads, please be gracious and courteous about getting the bag back to the front so it can be "gate checked." Better yet, always be prepared for such a possibility.
It's a shared challenge, this business of air travel. The more we can smile and be nice about it, the easier it will get..