One of the great travel etiquette questions ever considered has to be who gets the middle seat armrests on an airplane. The aisle and window seats have their pros and cons. The person sitting on the aisle has to get up from their seat every time someone in the row wants to stretch their legs or take a bathroom break. And that’s just good airplane bathroom etiquette. The passenger sitting in the window seat generally has control over the window shade—will we be sitting in darkness or light? But the unlucky person sitting in the middle has only one potential saving grace: two armrests. Or do they? Who actually has control over those two middle armrests?
To expound further on the question, we messaged etiquette experts (some of whom are former flight attendants) and all independently came to the same unanimous conclusion: the person in the middle seat has control over both armrests. This may come as a shock to those who think middle armrests should be shared, but there’s a very good explanation. And it’s just another of those things you should know that your flight attendant probably won’t tell you.
“When sitting three across on a plane, the person in the middle has dominion over both armrests,” says Jodi R.R. Smith, president of Mannersmith Etiquette Consulting. “The person on the aisle has the benefit of being able to move freely and has stretching room into the aisle. The person at the window has the benefit of leaning against the window or being able to see the view, when there is something to see. Both the person on the aisle and the person on the window are only being potentially touched by one other person. But the person in the middle is not able to easily move or stretch, nor is there anywhere to lean. Additionally, they are potentially being touched by two others. Therefore, they have control over the arm rests.” In case you end up in the middle on your next flight, discover the secret button that raises aisle armrests on planes.
“The poor person stuck in the middle seat deserves both armrests,” agrees Benét J. Wilson, the credit cards editor and travel writer for The Points Guy. “The window person has the fuselage and control of the shade. The aisle person has access and can put their leg out when the flight attendants aren’t serving.”
So if you’re on a flight and haven’t snagged the coveted window or aisle seats, are there any benefits to sitting in the middle seat? “The only benefit that I see is that you get to your destination just as quickly as the people on either side of you,” says Jacqueline Whitmore, founder and CEO, the Protocol School of Palm Beach. Whitmore was previously a flight attendant for Northwest Airlines. (So maybe she could tell you the reason why most airplane seats are blue).
However, should the person in the middle seat be given any additional room? “Each person needs to stay in their own space,” says Wilson. “The middle seat person gets the armrests, but nothing more.”
When traveling during peak holiday season, a window or an aisle seat may be hard to find. While sitting in the middle seat may not be appealing, it’s just a fact of life when you travel. As more people worldwide are taking flight, we should all make a commitment to being a bit more considerate to our fellow passengers.
“Being in a small, enclosed space is exactly where you need to employee your best manners. We need to all get along to get where we are going,” says Smith. There are many rude habits you should avoid on an airplane. “Being smelly, drunk, or entitled is not going to benefit anyone in the long run. You want to know, really know, someone?… travel with them. People’s true personalities emerge when they travel during the busy holiday season.” A few tricky etiquette scenarios for getting through the holiday season can prepare you for anything.
Now that the case is closed regarding who gets the middle seat armrests on airplanes, what more can you do to be a good fellow passenger? Is there anything that can be done to help make the flight a good experience for everyone?
“Decide to be the polite passenger who helps others arrive at their destinations with a renewed faith in humanity.” says Smith, who like most flight attendants can tell these things about passengers as they’re coming on board. “Help others with their overhead luggage. Offer pieces of gum for take-off. Have a tissue at the ready for the person who sneezes,” she explains. “Allow the middle passenger the most space possible. Play peak-a-boo with the fussy baby. Chat up the person petrified of flying. Listen to the older person who is missing loved ones and just needs to feel heard. Look the flight crew in the eye and say ‘thank you’ for spending their holidays with all of us instead of their families. Be the passenger we all hope to sit next to on our next flight.” Read on to learn the little etiquette rules you should always practice no matter where you are.