in: Character, Etiquette, Featured

• Last updated: June 14, 2021

How to Fly Like a Gentleman

Victorian gentleman in airplane window air etiquette.

You stretch out your legs, take a look out the window to check the view at 31,000 feet, and then place the book you were reading on the empty seat next to you. An attractive, smiling stewardess leans over, lays down a cloth napkin and silverware, and asks which of the three available hot entrees you’d like for your meal. She quickly returns and sets down the dinnerware in front of you. As you dig into your delicious food, you can hear the sounds of music coming from the piano bar at the front of the plane…

….THUNK! With a kick to your seat from the toddler behind you, you awaken from your daydream to find yourself wedged between a large, unbathed man in a tank top and a teenager blasting music on his headphones so loud you can hear every word of the lyrics of his favorite heavy metal band. The flight attendant hands you a plastic cup of soda, along with a tiny bag of pretzels, and quickly moves on.

Air travel. It certainly isn’t the same as it was during its “golden age” several decades ago. It’s even gone downhill from how it was just 15 years ago, when flights weren’t always full, you didn’t have to pay to check a bag, and you could make a mad dash to the gate to finally confess your feelings for a lover right before she got on the plane. (Not as dramatic to confront them in the security line, is it?)

Sure, the Golden Age of Air Travel had its own drawbacks. Less flights, not as safe, and, a whole lot more expensive. The drop in ticket prices since the days when Pan Am ruled the skies has been a boon for the man of modest means who still wants to see the world (or, just his family a few states away for the holidays).

On the flip side, the democratization of flight has turned it into something that has to be endured, rather than enjoyed. When you’re being herded through security and made to wait an hour and a half on the tarmac, it’s easy to feel more like a head of cattle than a traveling gentleman.

But a gentleman always does what he must do, and regardless of the circumstances, makes things as pleasant and smooth as possible for those around him – friends and strangers alike. Through gestures big and small, he shows a respect for the needs of others and an awareness of how his behavior affects them. He knows his example encourages others to follow suit, and that the more individuals who choose to adopt common-sense manners, the more enjoyable life becomes for all. A small sacrifice in the present ends up benefitting not only other people, but himself as well.

This was true of the gentleman when he traveled by stagecoach and by train, and just as true, if not more so today, when he hops aboard a jet. Here’s how to take to the skies like a classic gent.

How to Fly Like a Gentleman

“To do nothing that can either annoy or offend the sensibilities of others, sums up the principal rules for conduct under all circumstances—whether staying at home or traveling.” Emily Post, Etiquette in Society, in Business, in Politics and at Home, 1922


Dress sharp. Now, there’s no need to don a three-piece suit, but do kindly leave the pajama pants and crocs at home. No matter how seemingly pedestrian it’s become, taking a trip is still a special thing. Dressing decently and with a little style can get you into that mindset and heighten your experience, as well as add a bit of the old charm back into travel for you, and for your fellow passengers as well. Putting on real pants that button will help your fellow travelers feel more like they’re getting away from it all, and less like they’re visiting a Walmart at midnight. For advice on dressing for travel with both practicality and style in mind, check out these tips from Antonio.

Gentleman at airport in desk suit with top hat illustration.

Be civil to the ticket agents and other airline employees. Despite their proximity to those automated kiosks, ticket agents are not machines. Just as you don’t berate a waiter for a poor-tasting dish, don’t take out your understandable frustrations on the ticket and gate agents for flight delays and other snafus they had no hand in or power over. Your own disgruntlements feel supremely important, but understand they’re burdened with dealing with the disgruntlements of hundreds of other folks just like you every single day; it’s not easy. So by all means, be firm in asking them to do all they possibly can to accommodate you when things go awry, but do your best to stay calm and cool, even friendly. It will surely be a sigh of relief to the agent to deal with a rational and perhaps even smiling traveler for once. And when an agent goes above and beyond the call of duty in helping you, be sure to tell them how much you appreciate it.

Gentleman in suit getting through the security check line at airport illustration.

Get through the security check as quickly as possible. Have you ever been standing in a security line that snaked up and down, knowing your flight was going to take off in half an hour, and sweating whether you were going to get to the gate on time? Your blood pressure soars, every minute that passes is excruciating, and when you see folks at the front of the line moving very slowly and not following the clearly-marked instructions, your eyes fairly bulge out of your head.

Sure, some people are late because of their own dumb choices, but sometimes it’s because of something out of their control, and they just really, really want to catch their flight home to their family. So next time you’re in the security line, just imagine there’s a guy behind you on the verge of an aneurism. Plus, everybody, late or not, truly appreciates moving through the chute as quickly as possible.

Have your ID and ticket (or smartphone, nowadays) out and ready when you get to the first checkpoint. Then take off your shoes and remove your laptop from your bag while there are still a few people between you and the conveyer belt. When they say everything out of your pockets, they mean everything. And once it’s your turn, move quickly and efficiently to load up your stuff and walk through the scanner.

Don’t clip your nails while waiting in the gate area, and then leave your pile of clippings there. Yes, dear reader, I saw this happen.


Board the plane in an orderly fashion. Whenever boarding is announced, people tend to stampede to the door…and then creep forward in a giant line to get on the plane. Unless you’re flying Southwest, or are very concerned about finding overhead compartment space, there’s no rush. I personally don’t want to be sitting in that flying capsule for any longer than necessary, and tend to wait until the line has died down to get on. Even if you do want to board ASAP, wait until your “group” is called.

Try to avoid smacking people with your bag as you make your way down the aisle. Hold your carry-on in a controlled fashion in front of you. You don’t want to knock an old lady unconscious with your Saddleback briefcase.

Gentleman carrying-on chest and trying to shove it in the overhead compartment of airplane illustration.

Don’t try to avoid the fee for check-in bags by bringing a carry-on that’s too big. You know this guy – he holds up the line of people trying to get down the aisle of the plane as he struggles against all odds to cram a bag that’s never going to fit into the overhead compartment, and then finally has to give it to the flight attendant to check. Saving money by avoiding the checked-bag fee is great, and so is traveling light, but make sure your bag will fit before you haul it onto the plane; most ticket counters have a measuring box that will allow you to verify this before you check in.

Gentleman helping woman to load her luggage into the overhead compartment illustration.

Help people put their bags into the overhead compartment. If you see someone struggling to put their bag up, offer a helping hand.

Once you’ve put your belongings in the overhead compartment, sit down. Don’t stand there in the aisle rummaging through your bag to find your Jujubes. If you need something from your bag that you can’t grab easily, you should sit down, put the bag on your lap, and then return it to the overhead compartment once you’re through.

Gentleman requesting woman to have his seat in airplane illustration.

Let separated couples/friends/family sit together. If a couple gets put in different rows, and you’re a single gent who doesn’t care which seat he’s in, offer to move so they can sit together. It means a lot to folks.

On our first flight with Gus, Kate and I were pretty nervous about keeping him pacified, and were ready to team up to do it. So I was really disappointed to find out the airline, contrary to our reservations, had put Kate and Gus in a separate row right behind me — the very last row on the plane. It was one of those prop planes that had two seats on one side, and one seat on the other. The guy across from Kate offered to switch, but the guy sitting next to me refused, saying he didn’t want to sit in the back row because the chairs didn’t recline. At that exact moment, somewhere in the world, a chivalrous kitten was killed.

Take Off (and Landing)

Return your seat to the upright position and turn off your electronic device when the flight attendant asks. Don’t be the guy who tries to squeeze in a few more minutes on the phone after they make that announcement, and makes the flight attendant come by to give him a nudge.

In Flight

Airplane armrests etiquette illustration.

Honor the unofficial code of armrest dibs. Who gets which armrest? It’s always a little awkward, isn’t it? No need to wrangle over them and throw elbows. Here’s a sensible code of conduct: Each person gets at least one armrest. In a three-seat row, the middle person gets the armrest on each side of him, while the person in the aisle seat gets the outside one, and the person in the window seat gets the one next to the window; the thinking here is that the person in the aisle seat can lean into the aisle, the person in the window seat can lean into the window, but the man in the middle is stuck. In a row with five seats, the person in the very middle seat gets the two armrests around him, while the passengers to his left each take their left armrest, and the passengers on the right each claim the one on their right.

Keep your kid as calm and occupied as possible. Despite being separated on the aforementioned flight, we were fine because we had a Gus-pacification battle plan: lots of books, snacks, trinkets, and, God’s gift to traveling parents: the iPad. Cranky kids top the list of traveler pet peeves, so don’t bring a tyke along and expect him to spend his time browsing the SkyMall catalog. Sure, it’s the crying itself that’s annoying, but equally frustrating is a parent who ignores the meltdown while immersing herself in Fifty Shades of Grey. Sometimes there’s nothing you can do to turn off a kid’s waterworks, but fellow passengers will be more understanding if you’re at least making an effort to walk ‘em back from the edge. If you want to win over your seatmates even more, these parents had a pretty ingenious idea: hand out goody bags of candy and earplugs to those seated around you!

Listen to your movies/music at a reasonable volume. Airlines really cram people together these days. People’s heads are only a few inches apart during flight. So don’t crank up the volume on your headphones, and treat your seatmate to the sound of every single explosion in The Expendables.

Initiate conversation only when welcome. It’s fine to chat with your fellow passengers a bit; it’s a little strange that we sit side-by-side with people and never acknowledge each other whatsoever. But if your seatmate doesn’t seem interested in engaging with you, don’t continue to prattle on.

If you end up next to an unwelcome chatterbox, follow Emily Post’s old advice to steamship passengers in the same scenario: “If you receive them with any degree of enthusiasm, your response may be translated into a willingness to talk. But if you answer in the merest monosyllables, it should be taken to mean that you prefer to be left to your own diversions.” If you really don’t want folks to talk to you, head off the possibility by slipping on some headphones; doesn’t matter if sound is being emitted or not – it’s an unofficial “do not disturb” sign.

Give those behind you a heads up when you’re going to recline your seat. The person seated behind you may have drinks or a laptop on their tray table, so don’t surprise them with a rapid recline of your seat. If you can, turn around and let them know your seatback is incoming. That’s easier to do in the aisle seat, and if you find giving the heads up awkward, at least recline very slowly.

Don’t get up to use the head when the flight attendants are serving food and drinks. There are plenty of good times to cram yourself into the plane’s tiny loo. During the beverage service is not one of them. Don’t create a game of chicken between you and the bev cart.


Exit in an orderly fashion. Get up row by row. Once it’s your turn, gather your things as quickly as possible and get going. If you’re seated towards the back of the plane, and worried about making a connection, instead of charging into the aisle and trying to bulldoze your way to the front, ask a flight attendant before landing if there’s an available seat near the front of the plane to which you can be moved. They’ll usually be happy to oblige.

Thank the flight attendants and pilots. They just safely hurtled a metal can eight miles above the earth’s surface, without crashing into the Andes and forcing you to become a cannibal. A tip of the hat is in order!

Baggage Claim

Gentleman standing near baggage carousel at airport illustration.

Stand a few feet away from the edge of the baggage claim conveyer belt. It may help you grab your bag 2.5 seconds faster, but standing with one’s shins up against the baggage claim conveyer belt blocks the view of others who are looking for their bag. Stand back a little. No need to bunch up right where the bag comes out, either; pick a different spot, wait 40 seconds, and the bag will come right to you.

Polish your monocle, sir. You’ve made it to your destination safe and sound, and got there like a gentleman.

All illustrations by Ted Slampyak

What are your tips on flying like a gentleman? Share them with us in the comments!

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