Sunday, February 12, 2017

People You Hate on Planes

I can still remember the first time I ever flew on a commercial jet, as a fairly small child going to Malta on a family holiday. It was a huge adventure, including being trooped up to peer into the cockpit to watch the flight crew at work.

I remember sitting in the exit row, and being asked to change seats with my parents because we were about to make an emergency landing and I could barely reach the door release, let alone be expected to operate it. I thought all flights were greeted by a cavalcade of fire engines and ambulances on both sides of the runway.

Ah, what balmy carefree days they were, when you could carry just about anything onto a plane and pre-flight security was all but nonexistent.

These days, flying is a means-to-an-end endurance test rather than a pleasure in itself, even in the comfy seats. Long lines and partial disrobing to get through the metal detectors and body scanners and X-ray machines, liquids in dollhouse-sized bottles, all electronic items unpacked and laid out for inspection.

Hey, we all have to do it, so the guy who’s in a bad mood or the one who thinks he deserves different treatment because he’s some kind of big shot in vending machine sales make me grit my teeth a little. Not too much, I admit, because it’s all fascinating research for the next time I have to write a pompous arse.

But once I’m on board a plane I intend to shut up, sit down and try not to annoy the staff, and I expect those around me to do the same. Various travel companies have done surveys of travellers’ worst nightmares, and the results seem to tally.

The Drunk
Now that airlines can refuse to allow passengers to board if they’re utterly plastered, this isn’t quite the problem that it used to be, but it does still crop up. I’ve flown on the same flight with people who’d clearly started on the spirits before 8am and continued until their destination, and by the end of it they were not pleasant company. I was also once on the same flight back from Dublin as a stag party, all of whom were so drunk they carried on staggering up and down the aisle during both takeoff and landing, and then started a fight in the baggage hall. Joyous.

The Man-spreader
Now that ‘man-spreading’ has become a recognised vice, it seems to have expanded from the subway train seat to the airline seat as well. This is the guy who hogs the armrest, and overflows his tray table with laptop, iPad, etc. This also covers those passengers who are more generously proportioned, shall we say, who squeeze you into two-thirds of your seat by overlapping their own. Heaven help you if you’re on a long flight in the centre of a row of three, with one such example on either side of you. Especially if one of them then goes to sleep with his head on your shoulder.

The Skunk
Bad breath or body odour is not nice if you have to stand behind someone in a queue for the supermarket checkout or bank teller. Being stuck alongside them on a nine-hour transatlantic flight is my idea of hell. As are those people who take their shoes and socks off and stick their feet between the seats of the row in front. Especially disgusting if they’ve been to the loo. You really don’t want to venture into an airplane lavatory without stout waterproof footwear. Some people have so little aim I’m amazed they’re able to dress themselves in the morning.

The Screamer
I know babies only have one way to let their parents know they’re unhappy, and that’s to shriek, but once they get a little older, they should know it’s not acceptable behaviour – and so should their parents. And if parents are going to rely on an iPad or other device to play the electronic pacifier for their kids, a set of headphones would be a REALLY good idea. The tweedly noise made by a lot of those games is EXACTLY the type of sound used to torture detainees at certain government black sites. And it’s very effective …

The Loudmouth
A type I’ve occasionally had the misfortune to sit adjacent to on planes, but more often encountered on trains. The people who cannot have a conversation with their neighbour without projecting at such volume that half the cabin gets to listen in, too. Whether they like it or not. The trouble is, there is usually a direct correlation between how loud they are and how deadly dull their conversation is. Either that, or they voice views that make you want to punch them repeatedly in the mouth.

A variation on the Loudmouth is when they sit next to you and want to engage you in conversation for the duration of the flight. Or rather, they want to talk AT you for the duration. I once had a guy on a transatlantic flight who wanted to show me videos of the bottling machinery he’d just installed in a factory somewhere. I’m sure it was fascinating … just not to me.

The Nervous Flyer
The one who gasps at every shudder of the airframe, knuckles turning white on the armrest. Or, if you’re really unlucky, clutching your fingers. I’ve even had people holding hands across the aisle and praying loudly. And that was during takeoff, never mind turbulence …

The Fidget
This includes the window-seat passengers with the weak bladder, the one who put their bag in the overhead bin directly above your seat and wants something out of it every five minutes, and the one sitting behind you who can’t get out of their seat without heaving themselves up by clinging to your headrest every time. And the seat-kickers, of course. I recall being on a Boeing 777 flight that had touchscreens in the headrests. The person behind me was playing some kind of digital game for the entire flight that involved constantly tapping at the screen.


I’m sure there are lots I’ve missed, but what’s your idea of the fellow passenger from hell? And, alternatively, who would you love to sit next to on a long flight?

This week’s Word of the Week is talion, from the Latin talio, and meaning retaliation. The principle that the punishment should be the equivalent or identical to the crime – the death penalty for murder, for example. The imposition of that punishment. Hence the Latin lex talionis meaning an eye for an eye.


  1. Good god, Zoë, I'm glad you love to fly. Someone has to keep the airlines afloat. (Why don't we have to keep the cruise lines aloft...???) I certainly hope the destinations have always been more than worth the getting there. I lost my love of flying some time back in the early 1990s.

    1. Yes, the drag of actually getting onto the plane has taken the shine off the fun of it, although I have to say that the view of the ground from the air is one of the things I've always loved about it.

  2. Zoë, I agree, I agree. However, being a tall lad who travels between 50K and 75L air miles a year, I'm particularly sensitive to legroom, or the lack thereof. Consequently I work hard at finding a seat that has some. Obviously there are many times I can't, then my fear is the person in the seat in front of me who snaps their seatback back, at great speed, without warning. (For a small price, I'm willing to show anyone my scarred patellae!) This happens even when I ask the person before take-off (which I always do) to warn me beforehand. The good news, I guess, is that legroom is becoming so scarce that some airlines are fixing the setbacks so they can't be moved.

    The other issue that I have hear about but never witnessed is the passenger who has acquired a device to prevent the seat in front from being reclined. The result is predictable: the man (usually a man) screaming that he has the right to recline; the person behind (always a man) screaming that he has a right to travel without a seatback in his face.

    I'm pleased I'm not a flight attendant these days.

    Even though flying is no fun these days, travelling as I do by boat would be even worse, as I suffer from mal de mer.

    1. There was a piece on the news a couple of days ago about two lawyers who ended up having a fistfight over the armrest on a flight. Yes, I've seen those anti-recline devices and they're fine as long as the person in front of *him* doesn't recline.

    2. Oh, and the best way to get a table to yourself on a cross-channel ferry, I found years ago, was to anxiously ask for extra sick bags. That normally creates an exclusion zone around you fairly quickly.

    3. Unfortunately it's difficult to create an exclusion zone on planes these days.

    4. Agreed! There are not many times when being of the vertically challenged persuasion is a useful trait, but flying on commercial airlines is one of them.

  3. Oh yes, Zoe, all of the above. My most difficult times where these: a flight from San Francisco to Singapore with a talker next to me who's only reading materials were fashion magazines and who insisted on telling me all about her favorite fashion models. That flight also involved an unexpected twelve-hour layover in Honolulu while we waited for a replacement piece of the aircraft to arrive from the mainland
    The other was a scaredy cat who insisted on sitting in the very rear of the aircraft where any turbulence is felt much more violently then say over the wings. She worked for a company who had had employees on a flight that crashed at JFK. The only people saved where her colleagues three men who had been in the very last seats of the plane. She believed that she was safer in the tail of the plane, but she was also terrified whenever the plane shook and those white knuckles were on hands that were gripping my arm. I flew with her often because she like the fashionista was a client. When the intolerable person in the seat next to you is your client,… well, you get the picture.

    1. You have my sympathies, Annamaria. To have a talker next to you -- but one to whom you have to be extra polite -- must make flying a nightmare.

      Best to feign sleep. Or even coma.

    2. The data support the belief that the further back in the plane you are, the better your chances of survival. For two reasons: energy is absorbed by the plane collapsing in front of you; the tail section usually breaks off, leaving it away from the inevitable fire.

      It is also the most uncomfortable! Sigh.

    3. Whereas on a rollercoaster you get more air-time at the front, but more G-force at the back.

      Somebody once told me that the last row of seats on a plane, right next to the loos, where only good for people who either suffered from diarrhoea, or wanted to meet other people who did.

    4. that should, of course be 'were' not 'where'

      bad writer, no biscuit ...

  4. Given that the odds of dying in a commercial plane crash are about 1:11,000,000, I choose to avoid being next to the back loo - whatever the other stats are.

    1. Reminds me of a lovely story about Douglas Adams, he of HITCHHIKER'S GUIDE fame. He did a book about endangered species and flew to all sorts of odd places to see them. At one point he went to Bali to look at Komodo dragons, and commented that he was a little nervous about flying with Balinese Airways, as he'd heard they bought all their planes second-hand from Air Uganda ...

  5. I'd venture to say a fellow I once knew is a likely sure thing for your list. Back before the "no smoking" days of airline travel, he always sat in the smoking section to avoid "noisy" children. And if a child should happen to sit in the row in front of him, he'd blow smoke between the seats until the parents convinced a flight attendant to move them away from the smoker.

    I'm sure you--or Charlie--could come up with a suitable talion.

    1. Smoked to death in a salmon smoker?

    2. You're too kind...though it does sound like a caper for Charlie....