Fight in flight

How does it feel to be between two groups of angry people in an airplane aisle who seem bound and determined to start a fist fight, you may ask? Well. Let me tell you!

Recently my husband and I made our sort-of regular trip to Iowa to see our family. The usual surprises ensued; my niece has blossomed into a sweet three-year-old with a charming smile uttering full-blown sentences, my nephew had grown a good 7 inches (they say he’ll be 6 foot 7 inches as an adult! And yes, that is pretty normal in my clan…), and my sister is about to burst with her first baby still in belly. All very pleasant surprises that don’t sink in via Skype.

In all my years flying around the country, this was the first trip my luggage was not at the carousel when I returned, the first trip I almost missed my connection, and my first I thought I would get a black eye or be tackled by airline security. The first two weren’t a big deal – they worked out. But, man, didn’t like the last one!

Our plan boarded at 5:30 in the morning after a short delay. Jake and I took our seats in row 5 across the aisle from a young woman with embroidery floss wrapped around a strand of hair (the 90’s are coming back, people!) and her son of six or seven years old. Shortly later, a young man in his early twenties paused at our row.

“This is my seat,” he stated apologetically. The young mother looked up in surprise, “Oh my goodness – they didn’t seat me with my son?! Why would they do that?” She was exasperated. “Where is his seat? I’ll take it,” the man said lightly. Off he went to row 12, and I was reminded how kind and decent people can be. Luckily after the plane was fully boarded, the young man was moved back near his buddies in row 3 for the duration of the flight.

We sat waiting for the plan to take off, learning the airport had not submitted the flight paperwork to the FAA. Finally after 45 minutes, we left the gate and jetted into the clouds. It was an uneventful journey; the mother fed her son cookies and a soda pop at 7 in the morning (!) and proceeded to “shhh” him louder than he spoke for the duration of the trip. I could live with that – at least he was a pretty good kid and the pilot was making up time.

At some point the empty seats behind the mother filled with a woman and her purse, which was surely a way for the lady to get out of the plane more quickly than otherwise. As the seat belt light went off at our gate everyone pounced into the aisle to get their feet off the plane swiftly as possible. Jake and I had accepted we might miss our connection, but I still popped in the line – I wasn’t losing my place either!

The young man from before approached and asked (with a smile) to get to the back of the plane. Everyone grunted and moved aside. Moments later he made his way back up the line to row three with his bag. The woman who had moved mid-flight into row 6 and an angry-looking man behind her ignored his approach.

I said politely, “I think that young man is trying to get through.”

“Too bad,” the lady scoffed.

“He can wait – not my problem,” said the man as he rolled his eyes. Shocked and angry, I turned away. How rude!

“Excuse me – can I get through please?” the young man politely asked, flashing his nice smile (dimples and all). The cranky woman and man let him pass, but as he did the angry  man scoffed, “Be more organized next time, buddy.”

“Hmph – no kidding!” said the lady.

My blood was boiling – could this be seriously happening? I glanced around the cabin – it felt smaller by the second. I could feel tension building as the young man passed me by with a dimming grin on his incredibly red face.

“Hey guys, I guess I need to be more organized next time,” the young man sarcastically joked to his buddies. They bellowed in laughter, shaking their heads and looking resentfully at the couple behind me. Little me – the only separation between Team Rude and Team Passive Aggressive. I wasn’t feeling very confident I could hold the line.

“There’s just a whole other degree of ‘stupid’ on planes these days isn’t there?” the angry man behind me remarked to his rude aisle buddy. “Gets worse every damn time,” she snidely replied, “Freaking idiots!”

I swallowed hard as I saw the young man glare back at the rude pair. More sarcastic comments erupted from his group of buddies, louder and louder as they continued. How long it would be before someone said something to begin a brawl? I watched desperately for the first person to de-board the plane.

If only Team Rude knew about the young man’s good deed which put him in this predicament that had so inconvenienced them. Would it make a difference, I wondered? My desire for peace got the better of me. “You know,” I said quietly to the woman, “The reason he had to go back there was because he had given his seat up to this little boy and then the flight attendant moved him back up front with his pals after he had stowed his bag. He didn’t plan on getting moved around I think.” I looked hopefully in her eyes.

She shrugged and looked away.

Just then the young man came toward me. “Excuse me – I need to get through again.”

“Are you sure you want to do that?” I asked with a dubious look on my face.

“I gotta.” He tilted his head apologetically, with that same sweet smile.

“Good luck buddy,” I said with a look of pity, and let him pass. Just then the front of the plane began to move and I quickly made my escape.


I had to wonder as I ran to my next flight, did my words have an impact on the rude woman and her cohort? Or were they so angry and impatient because of our late flight that they could not think of anything but themselves? From Team Rude’s perspective, they were the victims. From the viewpoint of Team Passive Aggressive, they were the victims. I was inclined to agree with the latter. The young man was courteous to a mother and her son, and when confronted with blatant meanness he fought back with misdirected sarcasm and humor rather than erupting in reciprocal anger. (Better to have been silent altogether, but nobody is perfect.) Team Rude only identified with their point of view and their inconvenience, without giving the young man any benefit of the doubt. To me – who had the misfortune of standing literally in the middle of the charade – Team Rude were two miserable people who had forgotten how to employ common courtesy. They had a right to be irritated I suppose, but they had an opportunity to keep it to themselves. Instead they chose to be self-indulgent and unkind. And all that seemed to accomplish was to make more people miserable.

I think we all have a choice. I could have chosen to allow the hyper child in my row to aggravate me, but I was excited to get home, so why would I sully that happiness with a futile effort to be angry at an innocent kid? Team Rude could have chosen to accept the situation for what it was and let it go. But they stewed about the lateness of the flight, and then reacted to a smiling passerby with disdain and condescension.

The whole experience made me think of how easy it is for us to judge, and how good it feels to behave as if we are the victim without blame. That kind of entitlement has an ugly face, and I am certain I have worn it in the past. Though some situations make it difficult to sort out feelings of frustration, there are many times some unwitting person becomes the whipping boy for our feelings regarding an unrelated issue. I think this is what happened on the plane that morning.

My purpose in telling this story is not to share a negative event and revel in the “Boy they were jerks!” element of its retelling. My hope is that people will realize we are all guilty of this behavior at one time or another, and that we can avoid it.

The basic philosophy that I subscribe to and believe people would benefit from is this:
1. Know what you are really frustrated with, and address the emotion constructively. If you find yourself aggravated at something which might not normally irritate you, don’t react. Rather, question what is going on to make you feel so short-fused.
2. Realize you have a choice how you respond to everything – from noisy kids on an airplane… to blatant rudeness from strangers… to kindness from others.
3. Give people the benefit of the doubt. Wouldn’t you want the same if you were in the unfortunate quandary you imagine them to be in right now? I’m thinking: yes.

Have a great week!

Just for fun – a picture I took back in Iowa years ago…. It was good to be home for a bit!

2 thoughts on “Fight in flight

  1. Jen, this is such great advice! I love how you’re able to share such a vivid story and turn it into a lesson that we can all relate to. I also admire your ability to speak up in a situation to help others see more clearly (even if they didn’t initially respond that way, I’m sure Team Rude was affected, in some part, by your comment and choice to intervene). Another great story that ends with “BE NICE!” 🙂

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