The Battle Over Armrests on Planes: How the Pros Handle It

Has this ever happened to you?

FareCompare recently received an SOS from a passenger traveling cross-country who claimed she was dealing with a seatmate who was “totally hogging the armrests” and failed to respond to multiple, polite requests to cede some space. Our cramped correspondent asked, what do air travel professionals suggest we do? The responses are all over the map, but we like the last piece of advice best.

This’ll ease some of the pain – faster security

The Nudging Solution

A travel writer says he uses “well-timed nudges” to try to get his fair share of armrest real estate but only on long-haul flights. He admits this does not always work but is worth a try. If it doesn’t work, see the Life’s Too Short Solution.

The Etiquette Approach

Etiquette expert Lizzie Post told us she’ll only use a nudge if a sleeping seatmate has slumped over on her; she prefers the sharing approach. “I put my elbow way back on the armrest, and there’s plenty of room for my seatmate above that.” She also counsels travelers to be patient and polite but if that doesn’t work, she keeps her arms and elbows to herself, figuring that “if I can just get through my flight, I consider it a good one.”

The Restroom Solution

Wait until an armrest-hogging seatmate leaves for a walk down the aisle. Take over the armrest, but leave some space for the hogger upon his/her return.

The Life’s Too Short Solution

One anonymous frequent flyer told us his default position for armrest disputes is, life is too short. “I let the other person have at it,” he said. It’s only for a few hours, he reasons, and there’s always the chance of a more agreeable seatmate next time.

The Airline and Flight Attendant Solution

Another well-traveled flyer advises hitting the flight attendant call button but adds, this doesn’t always work, either. Maybe this is why: A spokesman for Southwest Airlines told us, “We don’t have any policies about the armrests. With that said, we don’t expect our flight attendants to police armrest disagreements.”

Make no mistake: The number one job of flight attendants is safety. However, one flight attendant who doesn’t mind getting involved is often told by the complaining traveler not to intervene. Maybe these travelers are concerned that, while they might get more elbow room, it could also lead to the equally uncomfortable situation of sitting beside a angry seatmate on a very long flight.

The Turn a Rival into a Friend Solution

Retired flight attendant Gary Taylor, who worked for a major U.S. airline for 30 years and continues to travel extensively as a civilian told us about one little trick that’s always works for him: Say hello to your seatmate, the moment you sit down.

“I always engage the person next to me in conversation from the start,” said Taylor, “and it is amazing how much more courteous they become! We both share our idiosyncrasies like, ‘I have to get up a lot’, ‘I snore’, ‘I don’t mind sharing the armrest’, like that.” Taylor suggests such friendly, conversational icebreakers allow passengers to see each other as fellow human beings instead of rivals vying for what few amenities still exist.

We like this approach. We’d also like to hear what works for you.

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Published: March 13, 2014