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For many families, March Break is a time to pack up the kids and head to Walt Disney World or Virginia Beach. That means gearing up for the inevitable seat-back pummelling by the child behind you, battling over the armrest with your neighbour or getting your knees whacked when the person in front of you reclines his seat all the way back.

Everyone has an opinion on the etiquette of their fellow passengers, and the consensus is that people are horrible. As Noel Coward so eloquently replied when asked about his flight, "Well, aeronautically it was a great success. Socially, it left quite a bit to be desired."

How did it all go so wrong?

Jennifer Gaines, a contributing editor with Travelocity.ca, explains that unlike two or three decades ago, when flying was a mode of travel reserved for the wealthy, there are more people flying than ever before. And "when you pack that many people into a small space, tensions can flare, so I think that it's kind of natural that you can expect to run into some rude travellers."

In fact, a December, 2007, poll by Travelocity.ca revealed that 39 per cent of respondents believed that their fellow passengers were less polite than in years past.

The poll also found that air travellers are more turned off by other people's nasty behaviour - 44 per cent listed it as the No. 1 drawback of flying - than by environmental factors such as a dirty airplane washroom (16 per cent), recycled air (15 per cent) and not getting a preferred seat (12 per cent). Nasty airplane food was the most irritating part of flying for just 5 per cent.

Is general civility in decline, or are there other things at play here?

Caroline Tiger, a writer in Philadelphia, set out to put together guidelines for modern etiquette when she discovered that there were no rules for things such as how much armrest space one can claim or the proper way - if there is one - to recline one's seat.

Tiger says she wrote her book How to Behave: A Guide to Modern Manners for the Socially Challenged because "it seemed like a niche that was screaming to be filled. I was just witnessing so many gaffes just walking around during the day. People need to be schooled."

A good portion of the book is dedicated to good manners when flying. While there are many reasons why air travel these days is particularly frustrating - including security-gate indignities and endless lineups - Tiger believes that the main reason tempers flare is a feeling of powerlessness.

"Travel is difficult because the person who is [doing]it doesn't have any control over what's going on, whether it's in traffic or whether they're on a plane and they're taxiing down the runway for two hours. I think those sorts of situations where you don't have control over your destiny - that causes rage and that causes people to act in an unmannerly way."

And there is the waiting. Last year was a record year in North America for travel delays, Gaines says. One in four flights was delayed because of weather or a mechanical problem. The main thing to remember is that there will inevitably be frustrations, so "pack your patience," she says.

To ease the pain, then, here are some sensible rules of flying etiquette, as cited by a number of frequent fliers.

Checking in: Most customers agree that the staff at check-in counters could use a bit of happiness training. But it goes both ways. Being polite and smiling can usually get you that better seat or upgrade much more effectively than being a jerk.

And getting there early helps everyone arrive at their destination faster. Michael Drabot, general manager of PS Production Services in Winnipeg, a film equipment rental company, says he has had it with business travellers who show up late because "then I stand in line longer because they rush them through because they're late and then inevitably I'm late." The message: Be on time - at least an hour for domestic flights and two for international.

Children: Frequent fliers are often appalled at the lack of empathy others have for children. For instance, a crying infant whose ears may be bothered by the pressure.

"I have seen people lose patience with kids," says George Habib, president and chief executive officer of the Ontario Lung Association. "When you travel, you have to learn to relax and you've really got to expect you are going to experience a whole lot of things."

Learn patience, by practising breathing techniques - or listening to really loud techno on your iPod.

And take control of your own children. "There are a lot of times that parents don't want to control or discipline their kids, so they make us do it," says Mel, a flight attendant from Toronto who did not want her last name used. "You'll walk by and they'll be, like, 'Maisey, won't do up her seatbelt. Can you tell her to do up her seatbelt?'"

Personal hygiene: It seems obvious, but many people are clueless when it comes to what should be a public act and what should be private. Mel says she has seen everything from people "picking their nose and flicking it" to people clipping and polishing their nails to passengers using the wall as a footrest. And using strong perfumes or taking off your shoes is just inconsiderate.

Personal space: A major annoyance that crops up repeatedly among frequent fliers is a seatmate who monopolizes the armrest. Eighty-six per cent of Travelocity.ca passengers found that to be impolite.

"Be aware that there is not a lot of space per passenger. Just be aware when you are kind of piercing the other person's bubble," Tiger says. Her book suggests that the poor sucker in the middle seat should always be granted at least one of the two armrests.

George Burger, president and CEO of specialty channel The Fight Network, says armrest etiquette could definitely use a bit of polishing for most people. To some extent, he fights back. "I'm always sort of conscious of staking out a bit of territory on the armrest."

Personal space part 2: The dreaded reclining seat. Drabot says it amazes him how often a person doesn't look before slamming his seat back. "I've been whacked pretty good. No one has ever actually turned around to make sure that you're not there or to give you some sort of a signal that they are going to do it." If you enjoy a reclined position, be sure to check first.

Talking: Loud talking or swearing irked 97 per cent of those polled about rude behaviour in the 2007 Travelocity poll. And being trapped beside an incessantly chatty seatmate is one of the top annoyances cited in Tiger's book. If you are this person, gauge whether your travelling companion is in the mood to chat. Habib says that if he doesn't want to talk, he usually puts on his headphones or pulls out some work. The best approach in this case is usually indirect, Tiger says. "Maybe you can say, 'Oh, I've really wanted to see this [film] to get out of the conversation mode. … It's not advisable to just say to somebody, 'Look, I need silence.'"

Baggage: Many people forgo checking their bags altogether, resulting in overstuffed overhead bins. A survey by Harris Interactive and Yahoo! FareChase found that almost 20 per cent of travellers admitted to bringing carry-on luggage above the airline maximum. It bothers Drabot. "It's always very irritating. I don't understand how luggage is carry-on."

People also try to get away with other tricks. "I've had super elites that aren't sitting in executive class get on, throw it in the first overhead bin and go to the back of their plane. That's a no-no, and if we catch it, we will chase them down," Mel says.

Common courtesy: Giving up one's seat to accommodate a family is cited by frequent fliers as an often-seen generous behaviour. A 2004 Travelocity.com poll found that 45 per cent of passengers don't mind doing so.

As well, many frequent fliers say they often help people gather their bags from the overhead bins or assist elderly passengers.

Burger says that while he sometimes notices rude behaviour, he finds people are quite civil - especially considering the cramped quarters. "It's a remarkable example of the ability for human beings to co-exist."

If you're ever in doubt about how to act, follow the Golden Rule, Tiger says. "Put yourself in other people's shoes. I think that's the main thing - think about what would irritate you." And don't do it.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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