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CNA Lifestyle

Passengers behaving badly – and what you can do about them

Being polite and firm can take you far, say travel experts.

Every time I board a plane, I repent. I ask for forgiveness for all those times I tsk-ed and eye-rolled at the slow-poker in front of me in the departure gate queue. It doesn’t always work though because karma has a way of coming down the aisle to bite my economy class-seated rear.

And it has. Several times. Like when the Hong Kong-bound flight I was on was suddenly “perfumed” by a top note of toe cheese and a vinegary base of unwashed socks right after take-off. Or the time when a small woman crept into the extended space in front of my exit row seat and laid there to sleep. I promise I wasn’t dreaming or drunk. I wish I were; otherwise, I wouldn’t have been so shocked.


At 11,000m, the recirculated air and 81cm of legroom (if you’re lucky) make people do strange things. Like the man who opened the aircraft’s emergency door after landing as he thought the air in the cabin was “too stuffy and too hot”. Or the elderly woman who tossed some coins at the plane’s engine for luck and delayed the flight for five hours.

READ: You knew it: Millennials and their parents are very different travellers

Fat shaming seems to be the latest in inflight antics – at least in a video that has gone viral. In it, a woman was shown complaining loudly as she sat between two overweight passengers on a United Airlines flight from Las Vegas to Newark. 

"Oh my goodness, I don’t know how I’m going to do this for the next four hours. This is just impossible ‘cos they’re squishing me,” she said loudly on her phone in front of her seat mates. The video was captured by the very insulted passenger on her left.

And it got nastier. “I eat salad, ok?” she announced when a passenger admonished her behaviour. When another passenger told her she should be ashamed of herself, she retorted: "I’m not politically correct. Why don't you sit between those two big pigs?" The woman was eventually removed from the flight.

It’s hardly the stuff of pleasant flights and it isn't the only incident that can plunge air travel deeper into flight hell. We caught up with some frequent fliers for their takes on how to handle these common situations.


(Illustration: Chern Ling)

A large group that boarded ahead of you has almost taken up the entire stretch of overhead compartment above your seat. What’s your play?

Common sense says to keep your belongings as close to you as possible because of the ease of access as well as security. “I had a friend whose passport got nicked on a flight, so I'm super careful with my belongings,” said travel blogger and host Jemimah Wei. If the spot above you is taken, you can also stash your bag under the seat in front of you, she said. The idea is to keep it close.

READ: One in two Singaporeans are adventurous travellers, according to survey

If you don’t like the idea of leaving your bag on the floor, “aim for alternative spots in the direction of the exit, so you are not going against the flow when it’s time to disembark,” suggested Charles Yap, Senior Director Communications of ONYX Hospitality Group.


(Illustration: Chern Ling)

Unless you’re comfortable sitting with your back ramrod straight throughout the flight, you’re going to need to recline the seat a bit. “I always turn back and acknowledge the passenger behind me before reclining, and I avoid going for the full recline,” said Yap.

Wei, on the other hand, would “just recline all the way because that's why the seats recline to that angle, right? In my experience, everyone reclines. The person in front of you will do the same so it evens out.”

There is no right or wrong but Richard Mungal, an in-flight service manager with Jetstar, said that “it’s always best to check the passenger behind. If he or she has long legs, be considerate.” If it’s a red-eye or long flight and you need the space to rest better, check with the crew if you can be reseated, he said.


It’s not your imagination that smells – whether from pungent food or a liberally perfumed passenger – seem stronger in an aircraft cabin. “Odours in a confined space such as the aircraft cabin can be intensified during flight, said Mungal. “There are even reported cases where a flight was diverted or had to make an emergency landing due to an unbearable stench,” he said.

READ: Why you should consider travel vaccinations even to places like Bali or Tokyo

You can forget about smuggling durian or dried cuttlefish snacks onboard. But what if the other passengers do? “Assess the potential for remedying the situation,” said Wei. “Will the smell go away if they close the bag? If yes, I'll ask if they can stop or if they can go snack in the galley. If it looks like the smell is going to linger, I'll take the opportunity to walk around the plane and stretch my legs. I always carry a roll-on tube of essential oils, so I might use it.”


There are places for feet to be in on a plane, and that is in shoes and on the floor. But as social media has shown, feet have been spotted wedged in between seats, on armrests or simply up in the air.

“You may be annoyed but as long as you hold in the annoyance and politely request for the action to be stopped, most passengers would not have a problem ceding to your request,” said Mungal. “The important thing is that you ask and be polite.”

If that doesn’t work, Yap recommended asking the cabin crew to intervene. The same goes for the passenger who is having a “kick” out of his flight. “If it’s a child, tell his or her parents that the kicking is unacceptable,” he said. Ask the cabin crew for a seat change if the behaviour doesn’t change.


(Illustration: Chern Ling)

Knee-to-knee contact with a stranger isn’t everyone’s cup of tea – and even less so on the plane. “If the passenger is seated in the aisle or window seat, suggest to him to spread toward those spaces, as long as it is not an obstruction to the crew,” said Mungal.

Wei is a fan of direct communication, too. “I've learnt to confront people about their behaviour in firm but non-dangerous ways, which is something I was initially very uncomfortable doing. But as a solo female traveller, you have to be firm about what's ok and what's not. If you’re not being rude or unreasonable, people mostly react with embarrassment and rectify their behaviour.”

In the only occasion where Wei encountered an aggressive passenger, she requested for a seat change and was moved immediately. “Speaking up and removing myself from an uncomfortable situation was far preferable to enduring seven hours next to someone who was behaving inappropriately.”


(Illustration: Chern Ling)

Other than being upgraded to business class, finding an empty seat between the window and aisle seats is akin to striking economy class gold. But which passenger gets dibs? “Both passengers should come to a compromise by talking to each other,” said Mungal.

If you’re sitting with Yap or Wei, well, you’re in luck because both of them would share the extra space afforded by the empty seat. “I’ll go with the 50-50 rule,” said Yap.

Source: CNA/bk