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The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Who controls the window shade on a plane? What to do if it’s not you.

If you’re at the mercy of a fellow passenger, try a little courtesy

Illustration of man dressed as a king next to a window in a plane.
(Illustration by Heidi Berton for The Washington Post)

Absolute power corrupts absolutely, and nowhere is this more true than in the window seat.

Exhibit A: Rich Henderson, a professional flight attendant, was riding as a passenger on a transcontinental flight and sitting in the middle seat, between a couple. The husband, seated in the window seat, kept opening the shade to take pictures and slamming it shut. Opening it. Taking a photo. Then slamming it shut. Every five to 10 minutes, for the entire flight.

Though it was driving people crazy, and even the man’s wife was yelling at him from Henderson’s other side, he didn’t stop. Henderson didn’t say anything. He believes in staying in your seat. Because people sometimes pay extra to sit where they want, “I think they deserve full control over the window,” he said.

The unofficial rules for every seat on a plane: The window

Henderson worked on planes for a decade; he declined to identify his employer to protect his job. He said flight attendants will occasionally step in on a red-eye flight to ask someone to close the window if people are trying to sleep. “But I normally feel like the owner of the window is the window seat passenger,” he said.

His husband, Andrew Henderson, the other half of the Two Guys on a Plane meme account, says that that’s true when it comes down to it, but “with movies and screens and TVs now, there’s just a general etiquette to keep it closed in the daylight, so people don’t have a glare.”

But as anyone who’s ridden in a plane knows, general etiquette does not always apply. So we went to the etiquette experts to see what you should do when you don’t agree with the choice being made by the royalty at the window throne.

Check your tone

“Here’s the trick: In general, on an airplane, it is all shared space. Nobody owns anything,” says Nick Leighton, host of the podcast “Were You Raised by Wolves?

For the highest chance of success, he suggests asking for a window position reconsideration with the right tone: nonjudgmental and value neutral. That means not coming across as if you are morally superior and think having the window shade up is obviously tyrannical. Give a simple, snark-free, “Hey, would you mind lowering the shade?”

Add a why

You can add something into that question that will improve your luck, says Jodi R.R. Smith, president and owner of Mannersmith. Give a reason.

After turning to the person and greeting them, she suggests phrasing it as: “Would it be possible, as soon as we have reached the cruising altitude, if you could put down the shade? I was up very early and I would love to be able to get a nap, and the sun seems to be coming right in.”

“What psychology knows is that when you give somebody a reason you’re asking … they’re much more likely to comply,” she says.

For example, if you want the window open so your kiddo can see the mountains, you might mention that your child has never been on a plane before.

If the person says no, it’s open to negotiation. What about halfway?

“But,” Smith says, “the vast majority of people are happy to comply, unless there’s a real reason [not to].”

When is it okay to push the call button? Flight attendants weigh in.

If you’re the window ruler

If you’re in the window seat, of course, try not to get drunk on the power.

You still have to bow down to the instructions of the flight crew. You may, for example, be asked to open the window during takeoff and landing. It’s not an FAA regulation, according to a spokesman Ian Gregor, but an airline policy.

“It gives flight attendants greater situational awareness if an emergency occurs during takeoff and landing,” he said.

But you also want to be mindful of whether the people next to you might want to enjoy the cityscape. Same goes for if the captain announces an interesting vista out the window, like the Grand Canyon or Mount Rainier.

If you do open or close the window, Elaine Swann, founder of the Swann School of Protocol, suggests to “just glance over and take a look at the body language, pay attention to those social cues, to let you know whether or not your seat mates are in sync.”

You can go above and beyond and ask them if they have a preference, but she says to do this only if you really don’t care one way or the other.

“You do have the right to choose what you want to do with it,” she says. “But it is polite to be socially aware of how the choices you make might impact other people.”

If you’re in the middle or aisle seat and put in the request for the window to be closed, there’s always the possibility that the person in the window might not want to close it, even if it is too bright for your preference.

“Then you just take your sweater, tie it around your eyes, and try to get some sleep,” says Swann. “The window person definitely possesses the power.”