Airplane Etiquette: Armrest Up or Down?

Plus what about reading newspapers on a plane?

December 20, 2010, 5:09 PM

Dec. 22, 2010— -- Question: On a flight I took a few months ago, I boarded relatively early. The armrest between my window seat and the middle seat was up, so I put it down. A very large man had the middle seat, and after he sat down, he pulled the armrest back up.

"Actually, could we please put this down?" I asked. He said he would not be comfortable with it down. Well, he was spilling over into my seat, so I said I was sorry, but I would not be comfortable with it up. Before we got into a serious argument, a flight attendant intervened and reseated him. I don't want to be a jerk (I am not a size 0 myself), but having a stranger pressed up against the side of my body for four hours is not something I signed up for when I bought my ticket.

Was I overreacting? I haven't even told my friends about this lest they think I was being insensitive to someone who was larger than me.

Answer: No, I don't think you were overreacting. Airplane seats are, quite simply, ridiculous. They were designed ages ago, when people were shorter and thinner, and they are simply not suitable for the way many people are built today. This needs to be addressed. (And people need to stop coming up with hare-brained seat designs like the Italian manufacturer Aviointeriors' newest, with 23 inches of legroom, that make the problem even worse.)

But, still, despite the underlying issues with the seats, when you buy a ticket, you're buying a particular amount of space on the plane. It's not fair for someone else to usurp some of it. If you live in an apartment and buy a Christmas tree that turns out to be too tall, you can't just cut a hole in your ceiling and let some of it poke into your upstairs neighbor's place, right? That's exactly what the passenger leaning into your space was doing, and that's not cool.

I'm glad the flight attendants were able to reseat him (and I'm very glad you didn't say anything insulting to him), but I don't blame you for standing your ground.

Question: Could you please tell people that a book or magazine is a far better choice of reading material on a plane than a newspaper? This lady sitting next to me yesterday was reading a newspaper and half of it was in my lap. I was trying to do some work on my tray table, and it was really annoying.

Answer: Actually, it's possible to read a newspaper on a plane (or a bus or train, for that matter). You just have to learn how to fold it like New Yorkers do on the subway. The New York Times actually has a PDF illustrating exactly how this works. If you travel a lot, it's a very useful thing to know.

Question: I stayed at an all-suite hotel and was kind of shocked to find it didn't provide daily maid service. Shouldn't this be standard in a hotel?

Answer: I don't think it needs to be standard, but since the majority of hotels do provide daily maid service, any hotel that doesn't needs to make sure this is clear to potential guests before they book.

Lesley Carlin has been writing about travel and etiquette professionally for more than 10 years. As one of the Etiquette Grrls, she is the co-author of "Things You Need to Be Told" and "More Things You Need to Be Told" (Berkley). Have a travel etiquette question of your own? E-mail Lesley at

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