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Ask a flight attendant: Middle-seat etiquette, drunk passengers and jet lag


“We all hate the middle,” writes Kristie Koerbel, a flight attendant for 20 years, about the center seat.

By Kristie Koerbel


As we say farewell to summer, travelers are surely hoping to say “so long” to the chaos in the skies too.


As a flight attendant who has been on the job for 20 years, I can tell you this season of delays and cancellations hasn’t been a picnic for us either.


Earlier this summer, I shared my tips on surviving a season of cancellations and delays, and answered readers’ questions about flying. I hope I helped you to avoid some stress.


Since your questions kept rolling in, it seemed like fun to answer a few more.


Here are my answers to your latest questions, some of which have been lightly edited for length and clarity.


Q: Does sleeping on the flight help lessen jet lag?


A: If you are blessed with the ability to sleep on planes, a nap is a wise use of your time on a long flight. On Europe-bound flights from the United States, I eat dinner then try to sleep, although I rarely manage it. When I land, I stay up until bedtime where I am locally. If I can’t keep my eyes open, I take a short power nap, so I can still sleep that night. This should put your body on the correct schedule to wake up the next day rested.


For the reverse route, which is usually a daytime flight, I force myself to stay awake so I’ll sleep as soon as I get home. A short nap on a long flight won’t hurt though, and if your flight is longer than 12 hours, sleep as long as you can.


Q: On the last few flights I took, my rude neighbor in the middle seat used both armrests, spread their legs and was constantly touching me and elbowing me. What’s the middle-seat etiquette? Is it truly a free-for-all?


A: Manspreading is not acceptable in any seat. That said, the middle seat is the dreaded torture device of flying. So, the unwritten rule is that the middle seat gets both armrests. The aisle and window each get their own armrest and room to lean over a little.


To handle someone invading your space, ask them nicely. Often, the person doesn’t even realize they are being rude. Try a joke, like, “they keep making these seats smaller and smaller.” That acknowledges your problem is with the seat, not the person, and that you are both in this together. As long as you feel safe, try handling it yourself before getting the flight attendant involved.


If the person is quite tall and is completely folded in their seat with nowhere to go, you could offer to trade seats. We all hate the middle, but it might be more comfortable for both of you over the flight.


Q: Do you keep track of how many alcoholic drinks a person has during a flight? When do you decide to cut someone off?


A: I do keep track. I start making mental notes once someone has had three to four alcoholic beverages. I consider the length of the flight and how the person is handling themselves before I decide to step in. Red flags are increasing aggression and demands, excessive slurring or just getting very loud. The effects of alcohol are actually felt more strongly in flight because of the decreased oxygen levels.


I have cut off several passengers in my career, and it almost never goes well. Almost everyone argues and insists they are fine. If things escalate, we inform them that their disruptive behavior could be in violation of federal law and that we could arrange law enforcement to meet them when we land. That usually solves the problem.


Q: Is it true that flight attendants don’t get paid until the plane starts moving?


A: That is true. Each airline is slightly different. I am paid as soon as the door closes, and we stop being paid when the door opens. It is also true for pilots.


That means if we show up to work on time and our flight is delayed for three hours, we are not paid for that time. If we board up, have a full plane of passengers and then have a maintenance issue or an air traffic control hold, we are also not paid for that time. However, if we get out on the taxiway and are number 27 in line for takeoff, we do get paid for that.


If a flight cancels, most airlines have cancellation pay that protects us, so we get the pay that was scheduled. Some airlines don’t have that protection, though. So trust me: We hate delays and cancellations as much, if not more, than our passengers.


Q: I get airsick when I fly, especially when the cabin pressure changes during takeoff and landing. Do you have any recommendations?


A: Sit as close to the wing as possible. Think of the airplane as a seesaw: The wing is the most stable part. Keep your air vent on. Wear layers you can take off if you start to get that sweaty feeling. Ask the flight attendant for a cup of ice, or whatever nonalcoholic beverage settles your stomach. I also recommend not flying on an empty stomach — but don’t eat too much right before a flight either.


If you do throw up, that is what that sick sack in your seat-back pocket is for. You can dispose of the used bag in the lavatory trash can, ring the call button or leave it sealed under the seat in front of you. Just please don’t leave it there for an unsuspecting cleaner to find, or hand it to a flight attendant who doesn’t have a trash bag in hand.



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