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Travel Etiquette: Who Owns the Right to the Window Shade?

June 23, 2018
5 min read
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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.

According to a controversial report last year, travelers who favor the window seat like to be in control. One behavioral psychologist went so far as to say that "champions of the window seat ... are more confident in disturbing others."

Whether or not that's true, one thing is for certain: The person in the window seat is the one with access to the coveted window shade. But is it their right to control its position?

It’s an ongoing travel etiquette debate. Should the airplane window shades stay up or down, and who ultimately gets to decide? For many travelers, the answer seems obvious — but not everyone has the same "obvious" answer in mind.

TPG Lounge members overwhelmingly agreed that the window shade is absolutely the domain of the window-seat passenger. For many — especially travelers who feel claustrophobic or nervous during flights — it's the main draw of booking the window seat. (Whether it’s a big enough draw to choose it over an aisle seat is a debate for another time.)

"If you pay for your window seat, you have the right to do whatever you want," Pedro Brandao wrote.

"As far as I'm concerned, it's the window seat passengers' prerogative to decide what to do with [the window shade]," Keita Salmon said.

What the experts say

Kelly Kincaid, a flight attendant and creator of Jetlagged Comic, said that the position of the window shade is entirely up to the person in the window seat — or, of course, the airline.

"Whoever is sitting next to [the window] gets to control it. If you're seated in the exit row, some airlines may have a different policy and it could be that the flight attendant has the final say," she said. "Check with your airline before you fly. Policies aren't always the industry standard, and different airlines will have different approaches."

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As members of the TPG Lounge pointed out, many airlines request that window shades be open for takeoff and landing for safety reasons. (Having your eyes adjusted to the outside light can be helpful in the event of an emergency.)

"Speaking for my own airline, the only time the window shades need to be completely open is if we're prepping for an emergency landing," Kincaid said. "But only the emergency-exit row shades need to be open for this type of scenario. [Other] airlines require exit-row passengers to keep the shade up before takeoff or landing. Passengers need be flexible with different policies at different airlines."

Myka Meier, founder of Beaumont Etiquette, agreed that the person seated by the window owns the right to the window shade. But there is, apparently, a wrong way to use the window shade.

“It is important that the passenger keeps the shade either open, shut or somewhere in-between," she said. "Having a passenger who constantly readjusts his or her shade can cause aggravation amongst nearby passengers.”

Pretty please? 

Is it OK to ask your window-seat seatmate to raise or lower the shade? Yes, but be prepared for him or her to decline.

"It's completely fine to ask that person in a polite way to adjust the shade so it's not bothersome to you," Kincaid said. "Most people are very courteous about this and don't even realize it might be a problem."

Unfortunately, she added, "the window-seat passenger doesn't have the obligation to comply with a request to close or open the shade. It's completely up to them."

If you're being bothered by a traveler's open window shade and you're seated in a position where you can't easily ask — in the aisle seat, for example, or across the aisle from a troublesome window shade — it's fine to ask a flight attendant to make the request on your behalf.

"We understand how difficult it is to maneuver in flight!" Kincaid said. "If the light from the shade is obviously disturbing to other passengers (very common on early-morning flights when the sun it just rising), use common sense and compassion."

Extenuating circumstances 

Sometimes it's not up to passengers whether shades are up or down.

"An announcement might be made to open or close all window shades; this is especially common on all-nighter flights where most people want to sleep, so it's important to keep the cabin dark," Kincaid said. "When deplaning in hot climates, another announcement might be made to close the window shades before disembarking to keep the cabin cool for the next round of passengers. It's also a very courteous thing to do so that the flight crew or cleaners don't have to do it."

Many travelers take their cue from the cabin lights.

"I typically close [the shade] once the cabin lights are dimmed and people are sleeping," TPG Lounge member Elona Karafin said. "Once cabin lights are on, I may take a peek outside or open it fully."

The best solution of all

If you’re seated by the window, shade rights are yours — but don’t fiddle with it too much. And if you're seated along the aisle or squarely in the middle, you can ask the person seated by the window to close the shade if the glare is bothering you — or to open it if you're feeling claustrophobic.

But if you really need to be in control of the window shade (whether you want to watch the views below or keep the glare from interfering with your inflight entertainment), your best bet is to book that window seat well in advance.

Featured image by Illustration by Getty Images