Angry People on Airplanes

June 15, 2008

Human behavior is magnified on airplanes. The reason, of course, is obvious. They are mere feet from you, sometimes only inches, and you-can’t-get-AWAY.


I fly a lot. I’ve gotten used to talkative children, crying babies, balding guys reclining violently into my lap (why don’t people just gently recline their seat backs, giving the person behind them time to get their knees—or face—out of the way?) and the coughers. (OK, I haven’t gotten used to the coughers yet. They make me want to keep a clean tissue plastered over my nose and mouth, like Asian women who ride public transportation. They make me want to emphatically sit up, turn around and loudly admonish, “COVER-YOUR-MOUTH!” as if they were my two year old.)


But this post is about angry people, not slightly annoyed people. Lately there seem to be more of them. On my last trip I sat next to one on each of my two flight segments home. From San Antonio to Dallas a woman next to me began her drama with sighs. Really heavy ones. The kind you hear from 14 year olds who don’t get their way. The sighs graduated to under-the-breath comments like, “For crying out loud!” and “OH! This is ridiculous!” which graduated to not-so-under-the-breath questions like, “What is wrong with you people?!” and “Are you kidding me?!


I was the lucky passenger in the middle of a row of three next to this emotional time bomb, bouncing and huffing around in her window seat, alternately pulling on her straggly hair and rummaging loudly in her oversized carry-on full of crunchy objects. She never did pull anything out but seemed, rather, to hope she would find something important with each search. To my knowledge she never did. It wasn’t the lack of finding that seemed to tick her off. Whatever it was it was up front: Every 30 seconds, between the huffs and sighs, she’d crane her neck looking in the direction of the cockpit. Maybe she was married to the pilot and she was upset at having to fly coach. Maybe she felt the plane wasn’t moving fast enough. Perhaps she had fine-tuned navigational senses and knew a more direct route to DFW. Regardless, I was glad it was just a one hour flight.


Until the next segment: Dallas to Oakland. Me in the window seat this time, I sat next to a member of the Aryan Nation. Young, shaved and all mouth. I remembered him from the gate area. He was the pacer with not-so-nice comments about people who try to board before their group is called. He started in as soon as he plopped down next to me. His first comment was directed to the flight attendant: “You should get yourself some guns to use for the people who try to board before their group is called.”  (!)  “Young man,” she replied, “We don’t use that word on airplanes. Are you in the military?” He rolled his eyes but didn’t reply.


On this flight the pilot was late for work. OK, that kind of thing ticks everyone off, but it doesn’t do any good to get angry. You can’t DO anything about it. And who knows what caused the man to be tardy – maybe he had to take his kid to the emergency room, maybe someone rear ended him on the freeway, maybe he had to wait an extra 30 minutes before he could legally fly after that last drink. In any case, when the cause of the delay was announced, off goes our Aryan dude. Every third word started with “F” and he wasn’t too quiet about it either. As he was almost young enough to be my son, I gave him the obvious mother-of-an-obnoxious-behaving-son-look. You know the one, where you lean in, lock eyes, and deliberately purse your lips and furrow your brow as if everything in your scrunched up face says, “WHAT IN HEAVEN’S NAME IS WRONG WITH YOU – YOU SHOULD BE ASHAMED OF YOURSELF – WHO IS YOUR MOTHER – AND WHAT-IS-YOUR-PROBLEM??!”


That didn’t really work. I got the Vinnie Barbarino response, deadpan, ignorant: “WUT?”  [Hint: Welcome Back, Kotter. The Sweathogs. John Travolta. Look it up.]  Then off he went some more. Thankfully, the guy fell asleep shortly after we finally took off and stayed that way until just before landing, where he picked up where he left off (and also found a lot of pleasure in pressing the flight attendant call button every five minutes).


I notice people who are stuck in the vicinity of the angry people don’t often get angry themselves. Most appear mildly interested or pretend to ignore them. Others of us find them entertaining, almost humorous. It truly is amazing that adult people so overtly express their anger in front of so many others. The amazing thing is not so much that they are angry (I mean, everyone is annoyed at being delayed and inconvenienced) but that they are completely oblivious to the fact that the rest of us have judged them as morons while they think they are obviously the most important thing on the planet.


Gives me pause and helps me to remember, when I am annoyed by life’s little inconveniences, to stop, look around, assess the situation, and decide whether I want to entertain others with my moron-ness, or just take it all in and go for the ride. I hope I opt for going for the ride.



  1. You are right. It seems people have gotten angrier lately. Could be that planes rarely leave on time anymore. Could be that you now have to buy your snickerdoodle cookie. Pay for your luggage. I’m waiting for the airlines to blow cold air in the cabin and ask you to pay for the blanket.
    In the newest book by David Sedaris, there is a great story about him being seated in a plane next to an angry woman. Hilarious!

  2. This is a great post, written in an entertaining way about a problem which is escalating in our society. Restraint and poise are quite unknown words among us.

    Thanks for sharing.

  3. I so agree with this, love how you put it, and just want to say that I believe you are the kind that opts for the ride.

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