Carnegie Mellon University
November 19, 2023

Tips to Navigate Air Travel Challenges

Sheila Davis
  • Associate Director of Media Relations
  • 412-268-8652

A passenger is listening to a movie on their phone without headphones thus enraging the person sitting next to them. Someone else is yelling at the person in front of them for reclining their chair. Tis’ the season for holiday travel and potentially turbulent airline experiences. 

Once air travel picked back up after the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, incidents of disruptive and unruly passengers also increased.

Carla Bevins, Associate Teaching Professor of Business Management Communication at the Tepper School of Business, offers both verbal and non-verbal communication tips to help passengers navigate with ease the challenging situations that often arise with airline travel. 

For example, when dealing with problematic passengers on a flight, Bevins highlights common mistakes and offers communication strategies to improve the situation: 

  1. Avoid Rudeness: Instead of escalating conflicts with rudeness, communicate with kindness and a willingness to negotiate. If fellow passengers are unaware of their impact, a polite conversation can often resolve the issue. She notes that passive-aggressive approaches like staring, eye-rolling, or gesturing are not effective communication strategies and can often escalate the situation. Instead, kindness and understanding are more likely to result in a positive outcome.
  2. Ask for Help: Don't hesitate to ask flight attendants for assistance with seat swaps or other issues. They are ready to handle such situations and can help find solutions that benefit all passengers. Rather than aggressively pushing the call button, approach the flight crew calmly and discreetly to communicate the issue. Flight attendants are trained in de-escalation, conflict management, and can help diffuse situations. If a seat change is necessary, be cooperative in moving to a new seat if requested to do so.
  3. Stay Self-Aware: Be aware of your surroundings and follow flight attendant instructions. Early detection of issues can lead to timely resolutions with the help and support needed.

Speaking of seat swapping, changing seats mid-flight could irritate other passengers and make life harder for the flight attendants. 

“Switching seats mid-flight can be a delicate situation, requiring a thoughtful approach that considers fellow passengers and airline policies,” said Bevins. 

However, when passengers have specific needs like sitting with family members, medical requirements, or personal preferences, switching seats in those situations is usually considered courteous.

She emphasizes the importance of open and respectful communication while adhering to airline rules if passengers want or need to change seats: 

  1. Ask for Permission: Always seek approval from flight attendants before initiating or agreeing to a seat switch. Their role in ensuring passenger safety as a top priority makes their input crucial.
  2. Be Considerate: Politely request a seat switch and be understanding if the other person declines. Respect their decision without pushing or making them uncomfortable.
  3. Respect Other Passengers: If a seat switch is inevitable, execute it quietly and efficiently, avoiding disruptions for other passengers. If someone declines your request, respect their decision gracefully.
  4. Express Gratitude: When someone agrees to switch seats, a simple "thank you" goes a long way in fostering a positive and cooperative atmosphere.

Lastly, Bevins offers another tip that may help make the journey a bit easier – especially if a passenger needs something from the airline, like a flight change, or upgrade: Look presentable. 

She stresses that attire is just one element influencing upgrades or making special requests. Wearing clean and appropriate clothing, even if it’s casual attire, can contribute to a positive first impression and smoother interactions throughout the flight. 

From seat-switching diplomacy to managing problematic passengers, Bevins's most valuable advice for all air travelers is to initiate conversations with respect and empathy, while also appealing to what the other person values.