A Refresher on Etiquette at 35,000 Feet

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.

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