With vaccine doses nearing 350 million in the U.S., and more than 70 countries falling into the low- to moderate-risk category for American tourists, some people may be looking to get back onto airplanes sooner rather than later. In fact, TSA data shows that the number of travelers per day of late is nearly back to pre-pandemic levels.
Unfortunately, the long time spent avoiding travel and the high stress of the pandemic may have consequences: There has been a surge of cases of unruly airline passengers in recent times.
To find out how the pandemic has impacted public views on airplane etiquette, we surveyed over 1,000 Americans about their opinions. We included questions specifically related to pandemic-era travel faux pas, as well as general do’s and don’ts.
- Being rude to the flight attendant is the number one biggest breach of airplane etiquette, according to 72% of travelers. The next two are kicking the seat in front of you and getting on the plane while sick.
- More than half (54%) of Americans agree that the pandemic caused flyers’ airplane etiquette to get worse. And in many cases, other passengers suffer: 24% noted another passenger’s poor behavior caused the plane to turn around.
- 81% of consumers support airlines’ decisions to pause in-flight alcohol service in efforts to curb unruly passengers. Additionally, 65% agree that getting drunk on the plane is a big no-no.
- The battle over yoga pants and leggings continues. 40% of consumers don’t think it’s okay to wear them on the plane. Men are more opposed than women: 55% of men don’t think that apparel is airplane-appropriate, compared to 26% of women.
The top 10 breaches of airplane etiquette, according to travelers
To find out what’s considered to be a breach of airplane etiquette, we asked about several potential offenses. For most (72%), the most commonly cited offense was being rude to flight attendants. That could be due to an awareness of the difficulties faced by those who work with the public during these high-stress times. Other top offenses included kicking the seat in front of you (69%), getting on the plane while sick (67%) and getting drunk (65%).
It’s important to note that when this survey was last conducted, in mid-February 2020, 56% of people named traveling while sick as a major etiquette breach; that number is now up to 67%. It’s a signal that some are taking the pandemic seriously — though perhaps not as many as you might expect during a time like this.
However, this trend doesn’t seem to apply to the youngest segment of Americans we surveyed: Fewer Gen Zers (48%) thought getting on a plane while sick was a breach of etiquette than other generations. That’s a slight decline compared to when we first conducted this survey (back then, 52% of Gen Zers said sick passengers were a breach of etiquette.)
"It’s possible that after over a year of being cooped up in quarantine, the younger generation isn’t as concerned with etiquette if that means it will interfere with long-awaited travel plans," says Sophia Mendel, a travel writer at ValuePenguin.
Interestingly, taking off your shoes while on the plane (34%) didn’t make the top-10 list:
Pandemic causes airplane etiquette to get worse
While most can agree about what counts as a breach in airplane etiquette, that doesn’t mean everyone is sticking to those guidelines. In fact, a majority of Americans (54%) agree that airplane etiquette has gotten worse because of the pandemic. This is in line with the sharp increase of reports of unruly passengers since the start of 2020, and the fines associated with those incidents.
In fact, half of respondents who’ve flown at some point since the pandemic began say they’ve witnessed passengers refusing to wear a mask while on a plane. Even so, by and large this hasn’t led to wide-spread plane evacuations or having to turn around in flight — though it has happened.
In the rare instances where a plane had to turn around and/or evacuate due to an unruly passenger, 63% said it made them less likely to fly that airline in the future. Mendel even notes that she’s been in a similar situation where an unruly passenger led to a delayed flight — an experience she says was especially frustrating because it was New Year’s Eve.
"In a situation like that, the fault lies with the unruly passenger, not the airline," says Mendel. "I don’t think boycotting the airline is the warranted response. Instead everyone should do their part to be respectful of airline policies and general human decency when choosing to fly."
Booze often spurs on bad behavior
The rise in unruly passengers has led to another consequence — limited alcohol on board, with major airlines like Southwest, American and United scaling back or even suspending it on flights. It’s a decision that’s widely accepted by consumers.
"While this may be disappointing for passengers who like to have a drink while traveling, I do think that in the interest of both passenger and flight attendant safety, it’s an appropriate policy for the time being," says Mendel. "I would imagine airlines will start to feel comfortable serving alcohol again once the pandemic winds down and masks are no longer required on flights. When that will be, it’s still too soon to tell."
A vast majority of our survey respondents were in favor of this new policy, with 81% stating that they support the airlines' decision to pause in-flight alcohol.
Some airplane etiquette is up for debate
We also asked about more subjective etiquette do’s and don’ts, like apparel and pet peeves.
What not to wear
As the times change, so does the public perception of acceptable apparel. And while most say the least acceptable options are pajamas or sweats (37%), this type of casual wear is significantly more popular among the younger generations (49% for both Gen Zers and millennials.)
On the other end of the spectrum of acceptable clothing for air travel is jeans (84%), and baby boomers (92%) were most likely to say jeans were an acceptable option than any other generation.
"It’s a bit surprising baby boomers were more likely than Gen Zers to choose jeans for traveling, as that generation would have grown up in a time when dressing up to fly was the norm. That said, it seems that the older generation has changed with the times and now seems to prefer comfort to fashion when traveling," says Mendel.
We also asked about comfort-clothing items that are considered to be somewhat controversial by some: Leggings and yoga pants. Men were significantly more likely to rule this choice of attire inappropriate (55%) than women (26%).
Passengers’ pet peeves
Pet peeves can be especially individual, and what may irk one person may be seen as perfectly fine by another. However, when it comes to air travel, there is some consensus on pet peeves: In particular, 61% of travelers think you should check with your fellow passenger behind you before you recline your seat. On the other hand, 53% find it acceptable for the passenger in the window seat to open the shade without asking permission.
- Reclining your seat: 61% think you should check with the passenger behind you before reclining your seat, and 9% think you should never recline
- Throwing shade: 53% think the passenger in the window seat controls whether the window shade stays open or closed
- Wait your turn: 38% get annoyed when passengers immediately stand up after the plane lands
- Battle of the armests: 37% think the passenger in the middle seat gets both armrests
5 tips for smooth traveling
If you’re gearing up to start traveling again, here are some ways to avoid any faux pas in the (nearly) post-pandemic world:
- Get vaccinated: "This is the number one best thing you can do for yourself and others when partaking in traveling of any kind," says Mendel. Not only is it the best way to reduce the spread of COVID-19, it’s also the most polite thing to do as a traveler.
- Wear a mask when requested: "Even if you’re vaccinated, it’s best to respect the policy of the airline you’re flying, and it’s better to be safe than sorry when it comes to protecting yourself and those around you, especially when traveling for long periods of time within the confines of an airplane," says Mendel.
- Be aware of personal space: Social distancing may be easy to keep when you’re outside or at a large, empty grocery store — but it takes more effort when you’re in tight quarters, like a plane. "Don’t crowd people in line at the airport, and move to an open seat on the plane if it offers greater separation from other passengers," says Mendel.
- Maintain good hygiene: Again, being aware of public health is important when traveling. Doing things like washing your hands, as well as covering your mouth if you cough or sneeze, can help protect those around you from potential infections.
- Look up the COVID restrictions in your destination: If you plan ahead for the reentry process, you’ll be able to move more swiftly through the customs lines at the airport — and avoid holding others up as well.
ValuePenguin commissioned Qualtrics to conduct an online survey of 1,025 U.S. consumers from July 1 to July 8, 2021. The survey was administered using a nonprobability-based sample, and quotas were used to ensure the sample base represented the overall population. All responses were reviewed by researchers for quality control.
We defined generations as the following ages in 2021:
- Generation Z: 18 to 24
- Millennial: 25 to 40
- Generation X: 41 to 55
- Baby boomer: 56 to 75
While the survey also included consumers from the silent generation (defined as those 76 and older), the sample size was too small to include findings related to that group in the generational breakdowns.