Before a recent flight across the country, I bought a shawarma wrap at the airport to take into the cabin. At the time, it seemed like a brilliant idea: I knew I’d get hungry, and that Lebanese place looked good for an airport fast-casual spot. A chicken wrap would be much more satisfying than whatever would be available onboard.
The minute I pulled the shawarma out on the plane, however, I realized my huge mistake. The aroma hadn’t seemed fiercely potent on the ground, but now, things were different.
As garlic wafted into the cabin’s recycled air, so did my shame. I was the monster who brought this onto the plane, and now everyone had to inhale my meal.
I learned a lesson that day: Choose your plane food wisely.
It’s not only food you need to take into consideration. There are also issues with drinking, cutlery, trash. To get everyone on the same page about the do’s and don’ts of eating and drinking on a plane, we’re putting some rules in writing.
We consulted Shanie Peralta, a flight attendant for a regional carrier that travels between the southeast United States and the Caribbean and on chartered routes. Some of this stuff is common sense, "but common sense is not always common," says Peralta, a member of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA.
According to Peralta, most passengers aren’t traveling with their own snacks.
"It is a small minority of people who bring food onboard, but you do get offenders who like to bring egg salad or tuna sandwiches," Peralta says. "In their mind, they don’t think they’ve done anything wrong. They’re just like, ’Hey, I want to eat my tuna sandwich. I’m hungry.’ "
Don’t be that offender. And please, we’re begging you, don’t lick your fingers.
Peralta strongly recommends that passengers bring disinfecting wipes in their carry-on for tray tables. Give that thing a good wipe-down, because it doesn’t get cleaned every day.
"There’s a lot of things that happen on these tray tables," Peralta says. "People change diapers on these tray tables. That happens a lot, more than people think."
Other potential contaminants include previous passengers’ food remnants, or their drool, or their sneezes. Grab some Lysol sheets before setting up an in-flight picnic.
This really should be rule No. 1, but the tray table thing was so unnerving that we had to start there. Anyway, the First Commandment of plane eating is: Thou shalt not bring strong-smelling food on a plane. Flying is already stressful and uncomfortable.
There’s no policy about bringing on aromatic food; however, that doesn’t mean on your flight to Phoenix you should crack into fermented shark.
"You can bring whatever snacks you want, but be mindful that other people don’t want to smell what you’re eating," Peralta says. "It smells up the cabin immediately, and you can smell it from the back, from the front, wherever you’re at in the aircraft," Peralta says.
Before you start chomping into that perfectly crisp Fuji apple, consider the travelers with misophonia, a disorder that triggers physical and emotional responses to sounds like chewing, tapping, and gum-snapping. But beyond them, the sound of gnawing on that fruit, or on corn nuts, or carrots can be just plain obnoxious to everyone.
Eat clean, and we don’t mean a plant-based, minimally processed diet. Don’t go crazy with foods or drinks that run the risk of getting all over while you’re smashed next to strangers in a small space.
That can means granola bars, soup, and chips and salsa. Beware of exploding carbonated beverages like kombucha or sparkling water.
Your crumbs and spills aren’t affecting only the people near you. Flight attendants become de facto janitors. You’re making their job, and that of the cleaning crew who comes on later, harder.
"Toddlers are the biggest offenders," Peralta says. "They fuss and throw, and you find all sorts of interesting things under the seat. You have crushed chocolate chip cookies on the ground, and chocolate smeared on the seat. It’s a mess."
So be mindful of your kid’s ways when packing snacks for the ride.
Flying in economy requires some spatial awareness. Your seat is small. Your tray table is small. Your legroom is small. Clutter catches up with you fast. You’re going to be eating while playing Twister.
Don’t bring a bunch of condiments, an array of cutlery, or a cornucopia of containers and expect the eating experience to go smoothly. If you must use those artisanal cocktail kits, keep them close to you and make sure you’re not accidentally zesting your neighbors with garnish.
People can get sick from coming into contact with ingredients like peanuts and shellfish. Do vulnerable passengers a solid and leave those foods for another occasion.
Too much of a stop in an airport lounge can get you barred from even getting onto your flight. If you drink too much on board and cause problems, you could face legal ramifications and having to pay tens of thousands of dollars in fines, in addition to prompting the crew to land the plane immediately.
"If it’s affecting the security and the safety of other passengers, or they’re causing harm to themselves, then yes, we intervene and call the captain, and we have procedures for that," Peralta says.
It’s against the law.
You’re allowed to carry a small bag of miniature alcohol bottles — less than 3.4 ounces (100 milliliters) of less than 140 proof — but FAA regulations ban drinking any alcoholic beverage on an aircraft unless the crew has served it.
"If we didn’t serve it to you, you can’t have it," Peralta says.
You’ll have to dispose of your food waste somewhere. Don’t be one of the many, many people who tucks trash under the seat and leaves.
"We’d rather you give it to us than put it on the floor," Peralta says. "We can go through the cabin a hundred times [collecting trash], and you still will find all these bags of Subway, McDonald’s, everything under the seat."
Leaving litter behind slows down the cleaning process and could delay the next flight. Every banana peel you mash into the seat back pocket is more time and work for someone else. If you’re embarrassed to hand the flight attendant your mountain of trash, you’re bringing too much stuff.
"You can’t be getting a family meal at KFC and giving me all that trash," says Peralta, "because our trash cans are not that big."