Is there an unruly passenger on your flight? Here’s how to deal with it


Air travel is nothing if not unpredictable. Your flight may be delayed or canceled. Your gate may change at the last minute, sending you sprinting from one terminal to another. Or, the horror of all horrors, you find yourself dealing with passengers behaving badly.

You know the ones. The seat kickers. The people who refuse to listen to inflight entertainment with headphones. The crying babies. And, of course, even worse, the adults crying about the crying babies.

Headlines covering everything from “popcorngate” to a man screaming at a crying baby to a man eating a stack of ribs from his middle seat have become commonplace.

With the busy summer travel season fast approaching, the list of unruly aircraft passengers doesn’t seem to be slowing down. While you can’t control who is seated near you, there are several things you can do to help you prepare for some inflight situations you may find yourself in.

Related: TPG’s guide to getting started with points, miles and credit cards

Crying babies

The problem

This may strike a nerve, but as someone who has chosen to remain childless, I’ve gone out of my way to avoid being around children whenever possible. However, even I recognize that there are times when I’ll come across kids, including crying babies, while in public. They are just a part of life.

These interactions are unfortunate for everyone involved and have led to some frequent flyers calling for adults-only cabins on airplanes, with many even claiming they would pay more for such a service. It may sound controversial, but it’s already common practice at some hotels. Certain all-inclusive resorts, in particular, have marketed themselves as being adults-only.

The solution

Although adults-only resorts exist, adults-only flights aren’t a real option. Should you come across a crying baby while in the air, rather than yell at the child or parents in question, we suggest a different approach.

If you’re concerned about passenger noise, such as crying, then grab some high-quality noise-canceling headphones (those are my fave) or even some earplugs before your next flight.

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Relish the fact that you likely won’t have to see those children ever again once you reach your final destination. All you have to do is sit there and try to zone out, which is a much easier situation to find yourself in than the one the parent is facing as they use all their energy to try to settle their child down.

If you want to guarantee at least some distance between yourself and a screaming child, choose a seat in the exit row. Passengers younger than 15 are not permitted to sit in the exit row, so you’ll have at least a row or two between yourself and any babies on board.

Along those lines, also avoid rows with bassinets, especially on long-haul flights. Often, these are located in the bulkhead rows.

Related: How to pack — and prepare — for travel with a baby

Someone who isn’t using headphones


The problem

It blows my mind that in 2023, there are still travelers who listen to content on their phones, iPads and laptops sans headphones.

This happened to me during the 2022 World Cup when a man seated next to me was watching the Argentina versus Netherlands game aboard my American Airlines flight from Chicago to New York. When I politely asked him to put on his headphones, he replied, “It’s gonna disconnect once we get airborne anyways, but I’ll turn it down.”

The solution

Luckily, in my case, a flight attendant reminded all passengers of the existing policy requiring headphones to be worn on board shortly after our interaction. I felt comfortable asking the man in question to do so, but many of you may not.

If you find yourself in a similar scenario, either crank up your own noise-canceling headphones to help you ignore the problem or ask a flight attendant for assistance, as they will likely remind the individual of the aforementioned policy most major airlines enforce.

Should you need to get some headphones for yourself (or your kids) before your next flight, here are some options on Amazon, many of which cost less than $30.

Related: Bose Noise Canceling Headphones 700 review: Why I will never fly without them

Disruptive passengers

The problem

If your seatmate has had a few too many nips of vodka and won’t stop crying about crying babies, you, my friend, have encountered a disruptive passenger. Even if they haven’t been drinking, there’s always the possibility of being seated near someone who is being too loud, too confrontational or, worse yet, both.

The solution

When seated near a disruptive passenger, do your best to ignore them and hope the moment passes. If possible, pop on your headphones and put on an eye mask to discourage them from engaging with you.

The most important thing to try and avoid in this situation is getting into an altercation with the disruptive passenger. As we’ve seen lately, airline passengers can be … unpredictable. If the passenger is more than a mild nuisance to you and those around you, discretely talk to a flight attendant while heading to the lavatory. They are better equipped to handle the situation than you taking it on yourself.

Related: 9 ways to not be an annoying airline passenger


The problem

Over the past few decades, airplane seats have gradually gotten smaller, resulting in less padding and more seats crammed onto planes. As a result, legroom and the space between seats have decreased.

“When they run out of room to expand aside from really just marginal stuff on the fringes, the only way to grow profits is to find ways to cut unit costs,” explained TPG senior aviation reporter David Slotnick. “Fitting more seats per plane means lower operating costs per seat flown, which means a better profit margin. So really, over the past 20 years, reducing costs has been the main path toward profit growth.”

All of this leaves little room (pun intended) for “manspreaders” on board. While “manspreading” can be done by any gender, in my experience, it has often happened when seated next to a guy who spreads out and sits in a way similar to how he would on the couch at his home. Rarely does this type of traveler pay attention to the invisible line where their space should end and the next passenger’s space begins.

The solution

To set the record straight, I turned to an expert.

There are widely understood rules for passengers when it comes to seating, according to a flight attendant at a major U.S. airline (who asked to not be named because they were not speaking on behalf of their airline).

“Your space doesn’t go past the metal divider under the seat in front of you (where you would put your bag during takeoff and landing),” this flight attendant said. “And the person in the middle seat gets both armrests, period.”

If another passenger’s arms, legs or feet are really infringing on the space in front of your seat, a polite request for them to arrange themselves more in front of their own seat may be the best solution. If that doesn’t work, it may be time to get a flight attendant involved.

Seat kickers

The problem

An accidental tap of your seat happens, but frequent kicking or pushing of your seat from behind is another. You shouldn’t have to suffer through what equates to the world’s worst back massage during your flight.

The solution

This is a clear scenario when you are well within your rights to turn to the person responsible and kindly ask them to stop kicking your seat. Or, turn to their parents, in the likely event this is a child at work. If the kicking still doesn’t stop, you can ask a flight attendant for assistance.

Stinky meal eaters

The problem

Let me start by saying that I never arrive at the airport without a full meal in hand since I have dietary restrictions and can’t rely on the airport to have what I’m after. While I generally show up with a Sweetgreen salad and my carry-on bag, I sometimes switch it up and bring a tunacado sandwich on gluten-free bread from Joe & the Juice.

I know, I know. I recognize to some that this behavior may be offensive, but it is not prohibited by the airlines, so let’s get into how to handle this if someone packs a tuna sandwich or worse on your next flight.

The solution

Seeing as airlines fail to prohibit certain foods for allergic passengers, it seems highly unlikely they’d ask someone to refrain from bringing on food just because it grosses you out.

Sorry to say, but this is one you may have to deal with and hope passes quickly. Although facial coverings are no longer required on commercial airlines, this may be a good reason to keep a mask in your carry-on to help “mask” any unwanted smells.

Along the same lines, look out the window or pop an eye mask on if the sight of whatever the person next to you is eating grosses you out.

Related: These are the TSA-approved foods you can — and can’t — bring with you on an airplane

Someone gets sick

The problem

Whether it’s from your seatmate downing the previously mentioned tuna-gone-wrong sandwich, a queasy kid or turbulence, another inflight possibility is being around a passenger who gets sick during the flight.

The solution

Of all of the scenarios on this list, I would encourage you to exercise as much empathy as possible in this situation. No one likes being sick, and few things are worse than being sick while 30,000 feet up in the air.

Unfortunately, not all flights reliably have air sickness bags at seats anymore, so while there isn’t much you can do if someone gets ill other than alert the flight attendant, a pro traveler move is to have a couple of plastic sacks or other emergency supplies like wet wipes or ginger candies in your carry-on so you can quickly grab them if sickness strikes for yourself or someone around you.

Related: Here’s what to pack in a carry-on bag every time you travel

Aggressive seat recliners


The problem

To recline or not to recline, that is the question. Unfortunately, there isn’t one widely accepted answer when it comes to reclining your economy seat, especially during the day. One thing all passengers can agree on, though, is that being caught off guard by an aggressive seat recliner can be a pain in the, well, seat. Not to mention, it can really hurt your wallet.

There have been many times when my TPG colleague, travel news writer Tarah Chieffi, was afraid her drink would fly right off her tray table when the passenger in front of her reclined their seat with seemingly the strength of an Olympic weightlifter. Still, nothing compares to the time an aggressive seat recliner caused her laptop to get damaged.

During a recent Friday evening flight home from Orlando, Tarah was catching up on emails when the person in front of her began to recline … quickly. Her laptop was just the right size and in just the right position that the corner of it caught in the lip of the seatback. Within seconds, her laptop was crushed, cracked and 100% inoperable.

It’s hard to say who was at fault — Tarah for trying to use a full-size laptop on the flight, the airline for the seat design that makes that tough, the aggressive recliner for popping that seat back without so much as a glance backward or nobody at all.

The solution

Though Tarah is now firmly in the non-recliner camp, for now, at least, people are well within their rights to recline their seats while in the air as long as they have that function. The best way to thwart aggressive seat recliners is to try and stop them before they start.

As soon as you are settled in your seat, nicely ask the person in front of you to alert you beforehand if they plan to recline so you have enough time to rearrange your tray table. Trust us, that’s a lot easier than crying over spilled ginger ale.

If you are the seat recliner, then do your best to either move your seat back very slowly or check with the person behind you before unintentionally being the one to ruin someone’s day or worse, their laptop.

Related: The best credit cards for purchase protection

Bottom line

Should you encounter one or more of the above unruly aircraft passengers, remember you can only control so much. Flights don’t last forever, even when it feels like they do.

It’s often best to ignore what you can safely and reasonably ignore. For what you can’t resolve calmly on your own, respectfully get the flight attendant involved when necessary. Don’t do anything that could potentially get you in trouble, cause you to get in a heated exchange or go viral for the wrong reasons.

As always, don’t forget to pack your patience. Kindness goes a long way, especially while sitting mere inches from babies, tuna sandwich eaters, seat recliners and other potential “problem passengers” for several hours at a time.

Related reading:

Tarah Chieffi contributed reporting.


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