Airplane Armrest Wars

After 32 years of flying I had my first verbal confrontation with a fellow airplane passenger sitting next to me.  She accused me of being an “elbow assaulter” for  invading her seat space.  More specifically, my right elbow repeatedly made contact with her left shoulder

I was on my way back to DFW  from San Francisco after a terrible day in which I totally bombed a speaking engagement. It was the last flight out.  I admittedly was a little cranky.  The aircraft was a Boeing 737.  I was in window Seat 13A.   It’s a three seat row. All three were occupied.  If you have flown a 737 coach you know that it’s basically a flying bus with little leg or elbow room.  Add to the mix that I am 6’2  23o lbs and she was not a petite individual. That left about 1 inch max of shoulder room to maneuver around.  In that situation, it is extremely difficult to occasionally not make some type of body contact with the person sitting next to you unless you become a statute for the entire flight.  I was also attempting to use my laptop which was almost impossible because the guy in front of me reclined his seat into my groin.  To be clear, this was not a case of  my body spilling over into her seat.  She had simply taken control of the armrest to my right as she is entitled to do and had adjusted herself in a “sleeping position”.  She was not sitting upright in her seat.  It was  physically impossible for me to sit in a normal position and type or even adjust myself occasionally without my elbow occasionally touching the part of her shoulder that was on the armrest.  Sensing her annoyance, I made various maneuvers in my seat and tried to flatten myself against the bulkhead as much as humanly possible to give her as much room as possible while still being able to type.

After about the 3rd or 4th time I brushed up against her shoulder, she looked at me and firmly asked me to stay out of her seat. I calmly explained to her that I was as far up against the bulkhead as I could be. In lieu of sitting perfectly still the entire flight or in an awkward position there was nothing I could do.  Our bodies were inevitably going to make contact . That was not good enough for her.  She made it clear it was her seat, she had paid for it and I should cease my “elbow assault”.

The back and forth escalated to the point where I calmly but firmly told her that there was nothing I could do and she could either deal with it or call the flight attendant to be moved. I would have gladly moved but it was a full flight and there were only middle seats available. I was not going to give up my window seat to only find myself in a worse situation.   This was coach.  Space is tight.  Baby’s are going to cry.  There are going to be unwelcome smells.  People are going to recline their seat into your groin.  Shoulders are going to occasionally touch.   As I expected,  the flight attendants told her there was nothing they could do but move her to another available middle seat.  She was having none of that.  She had paid for her seat.  I was an unwelcome trespasser to be evicted by any legal or non-legal means.  It was that point the attendant began to feel my pain. I saw the slight eye roll.   A firmer tone took hold as she repeated told the passenger that  while I may be an “elbow assaulter”  it was not a capital offense.  The FBI and Homeland Security would not be called to the gate and I would not be given a parachute and ejected from the plane.  The passenger finally grudgingly got up, gave me a “f*ck you” glare and moved to another seat.

What is the proper etiquette here?  I am a big guy but not outside the norm of people who fly. I was not spilling into her physical seat space.  Ironically,  two seats up from me were two guys who REALLY had space issues.  They seemed to be getting along just fine. (see photo).  I frankly do not see anything I could do to appease her other than moving to a middle seat which I was not going to do or flatten myself against the bulkhead and sit perfectly still the entire flight.  To get some insight, I went to someone I know.  Flight attendant veteran  Heather Poole, who blogs about her flight experiences and allegedly has a book on the subject coming out.  In her blog “Middle Seat Etiquette”  she says:

  • Leave the armrest for the middle seat passenger. The window seat passenger has the window, while the aisle seat passenger has the aisle, but the middle seat passenger has nothing, nada, zilch, so please, for the love of god, give the person in the middle seat something, anything, an armrest, please!
  • Do not hit the middle seat passenger in the head with your newspaper, even when the middle seat passenger is asleep and you are fairly sure they will not feel it.
  • Do not use the middle seat passenger’s tray table. Even if the middle seat passenger is not using it.
  • Do not put your feet under the seat in front of the middle seat passenger, no matter how long your legs are, even if the middle seat passenger is short.
  • Do not place your luggage underneath the seat in front of the middle seat passenger. The middle seat passenger has luggage, too.
  • Do not bring aboard a pet, choose an aisle or window seat, and then expect to put the pet under the middle seat because it does not fit under your seat.
  • Do not raise the armrest between you and the middle seat passenger, no matter how well you are getting along.
  • Keep your hair away from the middle seat passenger, no matter how pretty or how manly it may be.
  • Remember, middle seat passengers are people too!

What about being tagged as a  window seat “elbow assaulter”  when there is no place to put the elbow but at your side?  Heather? Help!

Stay tuned for episode two of “Airplane Armrest Wars”


6 Comments For This Post

  1. Adam Barr Says:

    Brian, you behaved properly in my view. You tried to accommodate a difficult person who really did not deserve the extra effort.

    Fact is, flying requires brief episodes of bodily closeness and contact that would not be acceptable outside of an airplane. Aviation requires a spareness of space; too big means too heavy means not airborne — which, as I understand it, defeats the purpose.

    But seriously…we must all endure unwelcome touches, most of them less than a second long, if we are to fly. One armrest for two people requires cooperation, which she was unwilling to give. She was quick to point out that she had paid for her seat…but did she pay for more than her half of the armrest? Of course not.

    Of course — and here, I will try to drop the facetious tone — most of these problems are solved or avoided by reasonable adults cooperating and using manners. The root of the problem is that, against all obvious evidence, many people refuse to see flying for what it is: a communal activity. They expect privacy rights on an airplane that they would never demand on a city bus or commuter train. The fact that flying costs a great deal more changes nothing. Jet fuel is expensive, but a bus is a bus is a bus, whether it flies in the air or crawls the High Five.

    The lack of manners, sometimes belligerent, adds to the problem. I mentioned closeness — it's bad enough to have someone's posterior near my face as they heave their luggage into the overhead, but I have had such things IN, TOUCHING, ON, AGAINST my actual face in such circumstances. No apology was forthcoming, just as few seem to care if they clonk you on the shoulder as they rush past your aisle seat to Row 33 with bag on shoulder. People…unshoulder it and carry it down the center of the aisle.

    But don't get me started…..

  2. Sam Jones Says:

    I am one of those big guys who always tries to get an aisle seat because I know that I get into people's personal space. All I can do is my best and it sounds like that's what you were doing. If people don't want to be touched, they shouldn't fly coach. I watched a similar confrontation between a seated man on the front bulkhead and a woman who was in line for the lavatory. He was explaining to her that the area from his seat to the bulkhead was in his seating area and he was not happy with her standing there. This escalated until the woman gave him what can only be described as a 'devil look' and said 'Why don't you stop being such an old a-hole(the full version of a-hole)?' Frankly, I'm amazed that there aren't more violent confrontations on airplanes. People in such close quarters for such long periods of time is a recipe for bad things. I think that seasoned travellers understand what's involved and go out of their way to accomodate each other. It sounds like this woman who 'PAID FOR HER SEAT' doesn't travel much. Either way, some people are just bitter a-holes and there's nothing that you can do about it.

  3. SixFive260inCoach Says:

    As a frequent flier, this is a no-brainer. You're right. She's very, very wrong. Or insane. Or something. Let's just go with wrong. I watched this unfold on your Twitter feed and was curious to see the whole story. I'm sure she's got a side to this too. But from what I see here…? She doesn't fly much and has no concept of what it means to share space in coach.

  4. George Says:

    My bet was she was trying to make you move so she could take the window and have a free middle seat.

  5. Stan Rudman Says:

    OMG, Brian, I am on a flight right now! on AA 737 flight from Philly back home to Miami. I am cracking up. Crying Babies, unwelcome odors, so right now…..When I fly coach, I make it a point to always get the bulk head aisle or Exit Row aisle. Then no worries about someone in front of you ending up on your lap. Luckily today I am in Exit row aisle with a petite woman beside me….Sweet!

    Last week I flew back from Vegas to Miami (5 hours) in I flew standby and ended up in neither of my preferred seats but
    in the window with not one but two obese people sitting beside me, they were a married couple. Literally, their, not sure how to be respectful in this matter, flab, from their side was on top of me the whole way home. I spoke to them and they ended up being so nice and so concerned for me. The plane was oversold and no way I could move. But the woman was so sweet that I just let it go and stared outside…..
    By the way, she was my "arm rest"…

  6. Gayle (1 comments.) Says:

    People think that because they are paying tons of money for the flights they are entitled to be treated better than they normally are. I agree with Adam though, flying is communal and goes much more smoothly if everyone works together and is cooperative. Yes, people fly with babies, it is an unfortunate truth. However, I can say that when my child was a baby himself and we had to fly there was no one more stressed out when he was crying then me. Not to mention having to change diapers in a bathroom so small you can barely lay your child down properly.

    Bottom line, people should 'work together' to make their flying experience a success. It's all in the attitude.

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