Airborne etiquette from flight expert & FAA alum Mark Gerchick

Mark Gerchick

Formerly the chief counsel of the Federal Aviation Administration, Mark Gerchick is now an airline consultant. In other words, he’s gained a lot of insight into the air travel industry to go with his frequent flier miles…and he shares it in his new book, Full Upright and Locked Position: Not-So-Comfortable Truths About Air Travel Today. With the summer travel season kicking off, we asked him a few questions about minding your manners at 34,000 feet.


Brendan Francis Newnam: Was the name Abandon All Hope, Ye Who Enter Here taken? Because I think that might have been more apt. Air travel is the worst. Can you tell us a few of the things that made air travel so bad?

Mark Gerchick: Well, the industry confronted tremendous fuel cost increases in 2008. The price rose 10 times in a year and then of course we had the tragedy of 9-11 which changed the whole zeitgeist of the air travel experience. So we are kind of reaching a new normal now where people are somewhat adapting.

Rico Gagliano: Well, sort of. I can’t chop my legs off at the knee which is apparently what they want me to do to fit into these seats.

Mark Gerchick: Yeah, you are supposed to be making some accommodations but, the traveler is challenged today to make some serious accommodations to the new industry, which is making some money but not making and love among the passengers.

Brendan Francis Newnam: When you showed up at the administration what most surprised you?

Mark Gerchick: Actually, what most impressed me was that these people actually care about airline safety. There is a real commitment.

Rico Gagliano: It does feel safe it is just uncomfortable.

Mark Gerchick: That’s in a nutshell where we are going. It is safe and it is uncomfortable. If I could have rewritten the title, I would have put Safe but Uncomfortable.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Well, maybe the paperback. I do the full upright position by the way almost sounds like Full Metal Jacket — a movie about a war.

Mark Gerchick: The language of aviation is amazing. We always say two words when we can say one, like “full upright.” What’s the other option — partial upright? Or “take your personal belongings with you.” Well, don’t take the other guys belongings.

Rico Gagliano: Is there any good news? Will it get more comfortable?

Mark Gerchick: Yeah, actually it is. I love the kiosk. Basically you never have to talk to anybody to check into a flight anymore. So, stuff like that.

Brendan Francis Newnam: On the front end, you’re saying, before you get inside the plane.

Mark Gerchick: Exactly, and the planes are going to get better too. There is the new Boeing 77 and it’s lesser equivalent that are going to be more comfortable. They are going to give you more humidity, which is good because I hate that dry feeling that maybe your nose is going to crack off or something.

You’re also going to have more pressure in the airplane, so it’s going to feel like you are flying at 6,000 feet — sort of like a Denver high rise — instead of at 8,000 feet.

Rico Gagliano: I don’t hear anything about, it doesn’t sound like our knees or our elbows are going to get any

Mark Gerchick: Right, those knees are going to get crunched. The whole economics of air travel is to cram as many human beings into that tube as you possibly can. In fact, the lavatories are going to be getting smaller too so that they can add another row of seats.

Brendan Francis Newnam: When you are so close to other humans that’s when etiquette becomes important here. Let’s start with a question that came from Kristina. She sent it to us via Facebook. She asked, “To whom does  the arm rest belong?” The issue needs to be settled for once and for all.

Mark Gerchick: The answer is simple. The arm rest belongs to the middle seat. The person in the middle seat has authority over the arm rest. On the other hand, if the person in the middle seat cedes the arm rest, then it goes to the person who has the strongest bladder. Because if you get up, you ceded it yourself. So that is the rule.

Rico Gagliano: That’s the thing — ceding could mean reclining your chair or going into your bag.

Mark Gerchick: Not for an instant, try drinking that soda water with your elbow and your arm remaining fixed to the arm rest.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Claiming your space.

Mark Gerchick: Territorial absolutely.

Rico Gagliano: I guess the idea is that the middle person gets it because the middle person’s seat is the least comfortable.

Mark Gerchick: Exactly.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Here’s something for Lindsay in Durham North Carolina and says, “What do you do if the person next to you refuses to turn the phone off after the door closes before take off? Say nothing, give them the stink eye or rat them out?”

Mark Gerchick: This is a great question.

Rico Gagliano: Brendan I know cares a lot about this.

Mark Gerchick: Have you been arrested Brendan?

Brendan Francis Newnam: No, it bothers me to no end when people don’t shut their phones off because I don’t like take off. I’m frightened and I just want everyone to obey the pilot.

Mark Gerchick: That’s fair enough and you know Lindsay you don’t need to worry about this. The phone thing that flight attendants are looking for like hawks is the telephone. So if anybody is on the phone it is likely that they will catch that person without you giving them the stink eye or ratting them out.

If they talk back to the flight attendant it’s even better because then you are talking about getting into the area of a federal crime of interfering with a flight crew.

Rico Gagliano: I’ve seen this happen a lot that people put it face down and they are like grade schoolers hiding it from the teacher. Should you say something?

Mark Gerchick: Yeah I think you could ask them to turn it off. If they are willing to disobey the direct order of the flight attendant and the pilot they are probably going to deny that they’ve done it anyway and you’re going to have a great, involved conversation with the flight attendant, yourself and the individual. So, that probably isn’t going to work out.

I just would add if you are concerned about this that the FAA is now looking at this whole issue of cell phones and a lot of the observers think that that prohibition is going to go away. I wouldn’t worry too much about that one.

Brendan Francis Newnam: I can look forward to people talking next to me on the phone. That’ll be fun.

Mark Gerchick: That’s the issue. Some European and Asian airlines do allow cell phone use. Virgin Atlantic recently I think they are allowing 6 people at a time to talk on the telephone and they are saying only in “extraordinary circumstances.”

We’re talking about flights from New York to London with financial folks on it. What is an extraordinary circumstance a 30 point drop in the Dow or what?

Rico Gagliano: Like my nanny is late.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Is there anytime where we are allowed to rat out somebody though? It does seem like

Mark Gerchick: Well, if a guy is bent over his shoe and he’s trying to light it I would say…

Rico Gagliano: I would say if your sneaker is on fire that’s a sure sign. This next question comes from Ally in Westlake Village in California. Ally writes, “I am 6’4” and sometimes relegated to economy class. Is there any right to not have a passenger directly in front recline his seat into me?”

Mark Gerchick: The word “right” is a little loaded there. Each person has a personal space granted to them by the airlines.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Yeah, they paid for it.

Mark Gerchick: It’s a pretty tiny little space. That nob above your head it’s called a “gasper,” truly. You have a right to your own gasper. Nobody touches your gasper. Look, you can turn around and say “could you please not recline your seat fully?” and very often people are pretty nice about it.

But when it comes to rights, you’ve got to be careful about it because there have been incidents where this issue of the seat recline has caused major upset on the airline. A couple of years ago there was a flight flying nonstop to Ghana and one guy had reclined into the face of another guy.

An altercation ensued that ended up with the pilot saying “the heck with it” turned around and got rid his fuel and landed back at Dulles. I think they maybe even sent some F16’s up there. So be careful over fights over seat recliners.

Brendan Francis Newnam: So, there’s your answer, let the guy recline.