Travel Etiquette: Is It Rude to Bring Food Onto an Airplane?
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Welcome to Travel Etiquette, a new TPG column that explores the fragile social contracts and the delicate dos and don’ts of travel. Have an opinion or suggestion for a future subject? Sound off in the comments below.
Airplane food — not so much the foil-wrapped stuff of 1990s stand-up — but rather the etiquette of bringing your aromatic dishes on board is an issue very much on travelers’ minds today. Packing pretzels remains uncontroversial, but what about pizza? Loaded nachos? Curried lamb with fish sauce?
TPG readers had a lot to say about airborne eating when asked to share their biggest travel pet peeves in the TPG Lounge last month. Melissa D., for example, cited people who “[bring] really stinky food on the plane” as the number one thorn in her side, and Liza Z. doubled down, calling out “eating in general” as bad in-flight behavior.
Not everyone was so concerned about bringing malodorous fare on board, though. A sheepish Harris S. admitted, “I always feel bad about bringing a tuna sandwich on the plane…I can’t help myself.” (He does, at least, “scarf it down as fast as humanly possible,” so that’s something.)
So just where is the line when it comes to chowing down in the air? Are you a Melissa, a Liza — or a Harris? TPG asked around to find the consensus.
First, some ground rules
We’ll get to “should you,” but let’s start with “can you.” Because before you ever make it to the terminal’s food court, there’s security to contend with, and the TSA has published pages of regulations regarding what foods you can bring through. Anything liquidy is, of course, subject to the 3.4-ounce rule. But for the most part, solid foods that don’t impose a pest-contamination risk (like fresh fruit crossing international borders) are cleared for takeoff, and the TSA site explicitly green-lights things like cakes, candy, cheese, chocolate, meat, cookies, pies, pizza, sandwiches and snacks.
Restrictions do apply: ice cream must be frozen solid, for example, and live lobsters need to be cleared with the airline in advance, though anyone with a gallon of rocky road or a living crustacean in their carry-on is probably a scofflaw by nature. If you’re not sure about your own plane provisions, tweet at @AskTSA for clarification, like Chrissy Teigen did when she wanted to bring her “emotional support casserole” of scalloped potatoes onto a recent American Airlines flight. (Stars, they’re just like us!)
Once you’re through security, it’s pretty much a free-for-all. Airlines don’t restrict what (non-alcoholic) refreshments can be carried on, so anything from the terminal, with some duty-free exceptions, can be enjoyed in the air. But just because smelly foods are allowed doesn’t mean they’re encouraged.
In “How Not to Pack a Snack,” part of a series of in-flight etiquette videos JetBlue published to its YouTube channel, we see a passenger pull out some gross-looking grub the moment he hears that 10,000-feet ding. His seatmates gag and plug their noses as he tears into blue cheese, sardines, sauerkraut, raw onion and tuna. (Are you getting this, Harris S.?) They suffer his stenches in silence until — the last straw — he reaches for some kimchi. The skit’s message is unambiguous, one likely embraced by all airlines: forgoing fragrant foods inside a cramped tube of recirculating air is very much appreciated.
What the experts say
Etiquette experts agree. Maralee McKee, the Manners Mentor, lays down the law on her site: “Don’t bring meals onto the plane.” While she concedes that “snack crackers, granola bars and similar items are fine,” she draws the line at heartier, stinkier items like “a double cheeseburger or a salad with blue cheese.”
Jacqueline Whitmore literally wrote the book(s) on etiquette, and also worked previously as a flight attendant for a major carrier, so she knows a thing or two on this subject. “Anything with a heavy garlic, onion or fishy aroma should be avoided,” she told TPG, though it’s not just unappetizing smells that can get you into trouble: she remembers a passenger once carrying a pizza on board, and before long everyone in the vicinity was reaching for a slice.
To really mind your mealtime manners, Whitmore advises disarming other passengers proactively to avoid a culinary confrontation. “I always ask permission before opening up something that I think might have a smell. And sometimes, just to be kind, I even offer to share if I have something I think my seatmates might like.”
Solid advice: when it comes to food (or anything, really), give your in-flight neighbors the chance to be gracious rather than ticked off.
What frequent flyers say
In an often cited 2015 survey, 48 percent of respondents said it would be rude to consume odorous food on a plane, so public opinion is split right down the middle on this one. We thought a few very frequent flyers could help find the nuance.
Christina Flounders, an adjudicator from Philadelphia who completes 40 round-trip flights yearly, told TPG that she used to fret over this, at first opting for “low-smell items like turkey sandwiches or pretzels.” But after several “crazy years in the air,” she changed her tune.
“Traveling for work is hard enough as it is. This is my job, and if I need to eat on a plane, I am going to eat what I want. If you don’t like listening to someone chew, put your headphones in; if you don’t like watching someone devour their meal, take a nap; if you don’t like the smell of someone’s food, remember that most of the people around you on a plane are actively passing gas, and be grateful that someone brought on a nice, fragrant dish to cover up that smell.” Well then!
In the other corner is Cate Sturgess, a New York–based senior visuals editor at Condé Nast who flies monthly for work and draws a stern boundary. “I think bringing on any food that has a smell (particularly something fried) is really obnoxious.” She does admit that doing so shouldn’t be banned, though, “given the indignities of flying coach.”
And Nick Chételat, a Swiss-Australian who works for an airline and flies more than 125,000 miles per year, nails it when he mentions respect: “It’s a great idea to be prepared for a long flight with limited food offerings, but passengers who bring food on board should be respectful enough not to discomfort other passengers in this confined space.” Bingo.
Foul-smelling fare aside, there’s also the issue of proper protocol for food allergens: How safe is flying for the 15 million Americans with food allergies? And for unafflicted passengers, is it rude to bring something like a PB&J on board?
Firstly, there are some simple precautions food-allergic passengers can and should take. Spokin, an app for people with food allergies, recommends alerting the airline in advance; packing any necessary medications, like an EpiPen, with all the proper documentation; and flying out first thing in the morning, for better chances of a cleaner aircraft.
And some airlines are, of course, more accommodating than others. Southwest, for example, just announced last week its plan to stop serving its iconic peanuts as of August 1, “to ensure the best on-board experience…for customers with peanut-related allergies.”
Emirates, on the other hand, warns that “nut-free special meals are not available” and that nut residue from other passengers can contaminate everything on board, from the seats to the air conditioning system.
But really, there’s no need to panic if you’re traveling with food allergies, as Hugh Windom, an immunologist at the University of South Florida, told TPG earlier this year. “You really have to eat a food to have a food-allergy reaction,” he said. “If you have a peanut allergy, you absolutely can fly and do it safely.”
Rachel Friedman, who works in sales for a social media company in New York and cracks 100,000 miles each year, is highly allergic to shellfish, and explained that she can’t even kiss her husband at dinner if he had a lobster roll for lunch. But she said she rarely ever worries about it while traveling.
“I mean, how many people bring lobster on a plane?” (See above, Rachel.) “That said, if someone busted out a shrimp cocktail and I felt my throat closing up, I’d politely ask them to put it away, or else request a seat change.”
The bottom line
Ultimately, this one’s a no-brainer: just be considerate of your fellow passengers.
After all, it’s your right to bring and eat whatever you wish aboard an aircraft — provided it’s TSA-compliant. And for some travelers, bringing their own food isn’t just something they do to kill time on a long flight — it may be a necessity. There are travelers, for example, with dietary restrictions, those aforementioned allergies and medical conditions such as diabetes.
But perhaps certain particularly pungent snacks just aren’t appropriate if we want to keep those skies friendly. Seek out more mild alternatives to your favorite smelly snack and, as always with air travel, try to be on your best behavior. Just maybe, everyone else will follow suit.
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