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Airplane Etiquette in an Angry Age

An anti-Trump rabble rouser could be your seatmate — and other challenges of modern-day flying

Air travel isn’t what it used to be.

You could be sitting in your seat, minding your own business — when suddenly you’re accosted by a Trump protester who’s still bummed out big-league that Hillary Clinton didn’t make it into the Oval Office. This happened recently to a young man who did nothing at all to earn anyone’s wrath. Yet that didn’t stop a rude, loudmouthed older woman beside him from chewing him out repeatedly because he appeared to be in favor of the new president.

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Once upon a time, people looked upon air travel as a luxury. It was not uncommon for our parents and grandparents to dress in their Sunday best to board a plane to visit friends and relatives. Now, the world of airline travel is far less formal, and in some cases — downright ridiculous.

All politics aside, there are the incredibly thoughtless actions of some passengers. Once I saw a woman board the plane with a baby carriage the size of a small Mercedes-Benz. Then there was the time when I saw two teens hop on board wearing their matching onesie pajamas. But the kicker was years ago, when I was a flight attendant for a major airline and a woman put her baby’s dirty diaper on the meal cart and asked me to dispose of it. Really?

Unfortunately, the friendly skies are not so friendly anymore. It seems that a lot people forget to pack their manners (and their common sense) when they travel.

One woman boarded the plane with her entire life stuffed in a large duffel bag — then proceeded to take it all out.

No matter what happens around you, here are a few tips to help you keep your sanity and your etiquette in check — and we’re not just talking about the size of other people’s luggage:

1.) Count to five before you lose control.
Remember the five “Ps” when traveling: prior planning prevents poor performance. Since 9/11, seats have gotten smaller, airplanes are overcrowded, and service standards and amenities have all but disappeared. Peanuts and pillows are a thing of the past.

To alleviate some of your anxiety before you board the plane, give yourself enough time to park, check in, go through security, find your gate, get a cup of coffee — and check your email. More time equals less stress, so arrive early. If your plane is late, don’t throw a tantrum; go with the flow. After all, there is nothing you can do about it. If you have a complaint, it’s best to deal with the airline directly and not with the flight attendant or gate agent.

Related: Etiquette Errors That Can Sink Your Career

Social media, like Twitter, is usually the fastest, most effective way to share a grievance. You will get a response and perhaps a resolution fairly quickly.

2.) Give up the armrest.
Know the rules before you wrestle for the armrest: The person in the window seat gets the view, the person in the aisle seat gets quick access to the lavatory, and the person who ends up in the middle seat gets the arm rest. This is that passenger’s one and only benefit. If you feel you need to use it, be courteous and ask if you can share the armrest.

3.) Keep your arms and bags to yourself.
If it seems as if you’re packed in like sardines in a tin can — you are. So be considerate of your neighbors around you. Frequent flier Wayne Stockton of Phoenix, Arizona, says he’ll never forget the strange passenger who sat beside him on a plane home from St. Louis.

Here’s his story: “She boarded the plane with her entire life stuffed in a large duffel bag. Instead of putting her bag in the overhead bin, she shoved it underneath the seat in front of her. When the plane reached 10,000 feet, she proceeded to take everything out of her bag and put it on the tray in front of her. Then she began talking to her middle finger (like the kid in ‘The Shining’) and muttering something over and over to herself. All of a sudden she decided to go to the lavatory and she slid everything on her tray onto my tray, drink included. This caused my drink to land in my lap. Then she climbed over the woman in the aisle seat without saying, ‘Excuse me.'”

Related: Etiquette Excellence for Kids

Seriously, try not to disturb or distract those sitting around you. Wear headphones if you’re watching videos, maintain your physical space by keeping your elbows and belongings to yourself, don’t block the aisles with exotic yoga poses — and don’t climb over your seatmates if you have to go to the lavatory. Try to time your bathroom breaks before and after meal times. If the person next to you is sleeping, give a light tap on his or her shoulder and say, “Excuse me.”

Remember, if someone around you is being disruptive, don’t try to be the airplane police or get into a heated argument. Alert a flight attendant immediately.

4.) Be careful with smells.
Odors can permeate the entire aircraft, whether it’s blueberry body lotion or a Philly cheesesteak with extra onions. In an uncomfortable (and outrageous) situation in which someone is painting her fingernails or airing out his feet — it’s been known to happen — report your concern to a flight attendant or request another seat. Once I boarded a plane with someone who was carrying a batch of fresh fish in his suitcase. After we took off, a passenger finally complained, but it was too late. We all had to sit there for two hours and live with the smell until we landed.

5.) Handle the seat kicker with kindness.
One day you may encounter that small, enthusiastic child who loves to tap dance on the back of your seat. If this bothers you (and it probably will), turn around, give a smile, and say something like, “Pardon me, could you please not kick the back of my seat?” The child’s parent may not even be aware he’s doing it and will (one hopes) correct his behavior.

If an adult is tapping too hard on his TV monitor every time he changes the channel, handle the situation with the same tact and diplomacy.

Overall, try to keep your temper in check. Negativity breeds negativity. Set a positive example for others.

The over-worked staff will appreciate your patience — and so will your fellow passengers. It’s easy to be nice when all is going well. The test of good etiquette is how you act around others when things aren’t going your way.

Jacqueline Whitmore is an international etiquette expert, a best-selling author, and the founder of The Protocol School of Palm Beach. 

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