By Matt Villano, on December 9, 2014

Expedia Airplane Etiquette Study 2014

There’s no other way to say it: Rude airplane passengers officially are a pain in the rear.

This was the key finding in Expedia’s second-annual Airplane Etiquette Survey, a study that asked 1,000 Americans to rank the most annoying on-board behaviors of fellow passengers. Responses to this year’s study ranked “Rear Seat Kickers” as the most aggravating airplane passengers, putting these back-bruisers in front of “Inattentive Parents,” the “Aromatic Passenger,” the “Audio Insensitive,” and the “Boozer” for honors as the most irritating.

It was the seat kickers’ first time at the top; last year, in the inaugural Airplane Etiquette Survey, inattentive parents ranked No. 1.

This year’s study, commissioned by Expedia and conducted by GfK, an independent global market research company, serves as a lighthearted reminder that few places require more attention to etiquette than the inside of an airplane. In a tight space at 30,000 feet with hundreds of fellow travelers, even the small things such as helping your neighbor stow a bag or switching seats to put a mom next to her child can make a huge difference.

Worst of the worst

Of course irritating behaviors can ruin that vibe quickly. More than 67 percent of study respondents tabbed the “Rear Seat Kicker” as the worst offender—meaning two out of every three passengers rates these people as worst. “Inattentive parents” came in at 64 percent, followed by the “Aromatic passenger” at 56 percent, the “Audio Insensitive” at 51 percent, and the “Boozer” at 50 percent.

(Interestingly, while one out of every two passengers rated “The Boozer” as worst, only 12 percent of Americans report that they drink more than two alcoholic beverages during air travel, while on board or in the airport. That means the ones who drink a lot are particularly offensive.)

Coming in at No. 6 on the list: the “Chatty Cathy,” or the passenger who won’t shut up. Roughly 78 percent of respondents agreed with the statement, “A little small talk is fine, but I prefer to keep to myself during the flight.” While 16 percent of Americans said they “use flights as an opportunity to talk to and meet new people.” 65 percent said they “dread” the experience of sitting next to someone else.

(As for me, it depends on my mood, the cabin in which I’m sitting, and how much work I’m hoping to accomplish on the flight.)

Other interesting stats from the study:

  • 15 percent of survey respondents “always or sometimes” use medication or alcohol to help them sleep on a plane, while 80 percent “never” do.
  • 48 percent of Americans report that they generally cannot sleep on planes.
  • A full 5 percent of American flyers report that they “have been intimate” with someone on a plane. Of that figure, 3 percent report having been intimate with someone that they were traveling with, and 2 percent have been intimate with someone who they met on that flight.

It also is worth pointing out that despite some of the study’s individual findings, American flyers remain largely upbeat: 78 percent agree that “for the most part, fellow passengers are considerate of other passengers.”


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Seat wars

Of course passengers who recklessly recline their seats also drew ire from study respondents—37 percent said they despised “Seat-Back Guy.” The year 2014 saw a number of examples of in-flight fights spurred by perceived legroom violations; within a space of weeks, three separate flights were diverted mid-flight because passengers taking issue with seats in various states of recline.

That people are upset about seat recliners is no surprise; 21 percent of respondents reported having experienced “major discomfort” due to a reclining seat. What’s more, people cop to abusing the privilege: A full 10 percent of respondents reported that they would recline their seat even if the passenger behind them was noticeably pregnant, and 55 percent of U.S. flyers do not ask permission of the passenger behind them.

Disapproval of this behavior has prompted some consumers to block it—the “Knee Defender,” the tool that sparked one of the fights earlier this year, prevents seats from reclining by deploying strategically placed clips. Overall, 38 percent of Americans believe the practice of reclining seats on airplanes should be banned entirely, or at least restricted.

What fascinated me about the data is that men are more likely to recline their seats than women: 32 percent of men reported that they “do not recline my seat,” while 38 percent of women said the same.

Also interesting: When people who recline actually recline. About 12 percent of respondents said they recline immediately after take-off, and the same percentage of fliers said they do so only if the person in front of them does. Roughly 9 percent said they recline once flight attendants have come through the cabin with drinks and snacks.

Shame on shamers

Finally, the study investigated the common practice of “shaming” those passengers who are committing some sort of etiquette violation in the sky—a practice made easier with mobile devices.

Some see this behavior as passive-aggressive and downright mean; when asked how they would react if a fellow passenger misbehaved on a flight, 48 percent said they would remain quiet and attempt to ignore the violation, while 22 percent would confront a misbehaving passenger directly. A surprising 12 percent said they would record the incident using a mobile phone or a camera, while only 6 percent said they would leverage social media channels, including Twitter, to shame a fellow passenger.

This last statistic brings with it the biggest etiquette victory of all; while many passengers might be guilty of committing bad and insensitive behavior from time to time, the vast majority still think it’s rude to embarrass other passengers online. That alone displays a certain kind of etiquette. Perhaps there’s hope for us travelers yet.

What is the worst airplane etiquette  you’ve witnessed, and what did you do about it?