After a spat of recent incidents, experts emphasize in-flight etiquette

TORONTO – From a booze-fuelled dustup to squabbles over reclining chairs, recent skirmishes onboard commercial flights have seen passengers grounded after tempers flare in the air.

A fight between two Toronto-area women allegedly drinking and smoking in an airplane bathroom last month prompted Sunwing to turn a Cuba-bound flight back to Canada along with a brief military jet escort.

Three separate flights have made headlines in the past two weeks after planes were forced to divert due to passenger disputes over reclining seats. In one case, a man aboard a United flight prevented a woman in front of him from reclining her chair by using a gadget called the Knee Defender which attaches to a passenger’s tray table. After being directed by a flight attendant to remove the device, the man said the passenger one row forward threw a cup of soda on him. The Denver-bound flight landed in Chicago and the passengers weren’t allowed to continue on the journey.

Representatives from Air Canada, Air Transat and WestJet told The Canadian Press they don’t permit use of the Knee Defender onboard their aircraft. Porter Airlines spokesman Brad Cicero said the carrier may consider disallowing them as a formal rule in the future for clarity.

Air Transat states on its website that crews won’t tolerate any disorderly behaviour, citing verbal and physical abuse, intimidating behaviour and refusal to follow crew instructions as examples of interference. Neither Air Canada nor WestJet have specific codes of passenger conduct, with representatives noting that most customers are respectful and use common sense and courtesy.

Civility Experts Worldwide president Lew Bayer said the recent spate of scuffles onboard aircraft are indicative of a larger issue.

“A lot of people are just at the end of their rope generally, and if they’re in a confined space and they’re stressed it doesn’t take very much these days to put people over the edge,” she said from Winnipeg.

“I’m hearing about increased incivility and issues in taxicabs and on buses and cubicle spaces. And this notion of shared space I don’t think it’s not something that everybody understands. We’re all responsible for making it easier and better and more comfortable.”

Etiquette expert and educator Julie Blais Comeau, author of “Etiquette: Confidence & Credibility,” penned a blog post on the subject of airline civility, with guidelines including advising passengers to act courteously, smile and acknowledge in-flight personnel and “maintain discretion with smells, sights and sounds” once seated.

In the case of reclining chairs, Blais Comeau suggested in an interview that passengers check behind them prior to reclining their chairs.

“Is there someone with a small child? Is there somebody that’s working away on their laptops? And then go slowly in increments,” she said from Montreal, adding that it doesn’t hurt to ask the person in the row behind them if it’s OK to recline first.

Bayer said passengers should do what they can ahead of time to select a seat which affords them a bit more space if they so desire, such as one on the aisle or in the emergency exit row. But she said it’s in poor form to infringe on someone else’s ability to be at ease.

“The fact is it’s a confined space and you know that when you get on the plane,” said Bayer, co-author of “The Power of Civility.”

“We’re all forfeiting something and we know that going in. But you can’t say: ‘I don’t want to sit by a heavy person’ and ‘I don’t want to sit by a baby’ and ‘I don’t want to sit by someone who reclines.’ How do you give one person what they want and decline everybody else’s preference?”

Bayer said individuals need to be mindful that they’re in a shared space and act accordingly.

“What you expect of yourself, that’s reasonable to expect of other people,” she said. “If I’m not going to follow the rules about the baggage and I’m not going to keep my music down, I have no business expecting that of other people.”

Blais Comeau said passengers should do what they can to maintain their sense of calm and cool, such as listening to soothing music. But when it comes to potential conflicts which may arise, the best approach is to voice concerns to the proper authorities and not engage with those displaying inappropriate behaviour.

“Because someone is doing it, it doesn’t make it right for you to do the exact same thing or to take it a step above, to take it into your own hands because you don’t know this other person,” she said.

“We’re all in this airplane together confined, and it’s not as if you or the other passengers can escape somewhere else. I think that when you choose to take it into your own hands … then you’re putting at jeopardy the other passengers and the entire flight.”