Unwritten Rules For Air Travel, According To An Etiquette Expert

It’s time to take to the skies.


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Whether you’re catching that flight to your ultimate dream vacation or you're heading home to visit family, air travel can be an exciting and also stressful experience. While there's no way to control if your flight gets delayed or if the airline loses your baggage, we can share tips to make your flight as enjoyable as possible for you and those around you. Southern Living talked with etiquette expert Sydney Dunn of Sydney Dunn Etiquette, who shared her best tips for travelers preparing for take off.

Sydney Dunn is an etiquette instructor at Sydney Dunn Etiquette.

Have an attitude of gratitude

On your way to the airport, be sure to take the time to think about your expectations, particularly those for yourself as well as for others in your travel party. “It’s all about tempering your expectations and knowing going into the airport is itself part of my trip,” Dunn reminds us. You have to take this journey to reach your destination, and until teleportation is invented, flying is usually our quickest mode of transportation. When you arrive at the airport and head through security, remember that the TSA agents and all other airport staff are human, too. “A lot can come from just good eye contact and using their name if they are wearing a name tag,” Dunn says. She explains that since thousands of passengers go through the TSA line, some eye contact, a thank you, and using their name can go a long way.

Be mindful of chit-chat

You’ve made it onto your plane, and now it’s time to sit back, relax, and enjoy the flight. And maybe, just maybe, make a new friend? It’s no secret that Southerners love nothing more than sitting back and engaging in conversation with a neighbor. However, Dunn reminds us that not everyone wants to talk. From her classes and other experience, Dunn finds that there’s about a 50-50 split between those who love to chat and those who try to avoid casual conversation at all costs during a flight. 

On either side, there are a few pointers to keep in mind. “If you’re a chit-chat person, your responsibility is to pick up on key signs, so if the person you’re talking to is starting to give you one word answers, not reply, just get a little quiet, or turn their body language away from you, then that’s your cue to reign it in and curb the questions,” says Dunn. 

On the other side of the split, Dunn says “You’re never required to have a conversation with someone in public if you’re not up to it.” However, there is one thing even the most timid flier must do “what’s required of you is a basic greeting,” Dunn says. Just a simple nod and a brief hello are all you need to do, then you can pop on those headphones and enjoy your flight. 

Refrain from talking about the weather

When striking up a conversation, Dunn recommends that you start with things you have in common. Since you are on the same flight, Dunn says it's likely that you are headed to the same destination, so you can ask, “What brings you to [insert destination of choice]?” However, Dunn suggests not getting into the nitty gritty by asking specific questions which might lead to a taboo topic like money.

The biggest topic that’s off limits, however, is the weather. Dunn says that while you're waiting at your gate, it's best to avoid talking about the chance of rain or impending storms. Once weather becomes a part of the conversation, you and your neighbor will be gripping your seats in anticipation of turbulence that might not happen. You’re already on edge enough on your flight, don’t add this to that cocktail of worries you’re sipping.

Remember kindness goes a long way

Dunn likes to say that the crux of etiquette is being considerate towards others, and if you're flying with kids from ages 7 to 17 or so, air travel is the perfect time to teach your children some valuable lessons. If your flight is delayed or there is not enough space at your gate for everyone to sit, Dunn says a really easy and valuable gesture is giving up your seat (to clarify: at the gate, not on the plane) to someone who needs it. Just that one little change of standing up and giving up your seat can make someone’s day or their travel all the more easier.

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