Planes: They’re where we get drunk. Where we brawl. Where we disable the restroom smoke detectors and light cigarettes. Where we glare at crying children. Where we jam our knees into the backs of the fellow travelers who dare recline their seats. Where we allow our racial paranoia to imagine terrorist threats in the seats around us — a man taking a nap before takeoff, a college student speaking Arabic on the phone, an Ivy League economist scribbling some differential equations on a notepad.
We are not our best selves on airplanes.
The most recent passenger-panic incident came when University of Pennsylvania associate professor Guido Menzio was questioned by authorities because he had apparently freaked out his seatmate by doing math, and it renewed a familiar outcry: Has it really come to this? Why do we keep acting out on planes? What’s wrong with us?
The answer: lots of things! And they all come roaring to the surface when we’re strapped into a cramped seat at 33,000 feet. It’s a rather unnatural situation, if you think about it — you’re stuck in an airborne tube, miles above the Earth, surrounded by strangers. And psychologists note that there are even deeper reasons why planes especially tend to bring out our most unfortunate qualities.
Martin Seif, a clinical psychologist who focuses on clients with a paralyzing fear of flying, says it boils down to this: Whether people are consciously aware of it or not, a plane is a unique environment that forces us to confront the uncomfortable existential truth that we have no control over what happens.
“None of us like to feel out of control,” Seif says. “And in fact, we are almost never in control. But we have the illusion that we’re in control — and it’s very, very hard to maintain that illusion on a plane.”
And if that’s not enough to make you uneasy, there’s a slew of other worries that afflict passengers, Seif notes. Maybe you’re afraid of heights. Maybe you don’t like enclosed spaces. Perhaps you have social anxiety, or you’re germophobic, or you’re fixated on the possibility of a terrorist attack.
“The term ‘fear of flying’ is a misnomer,” Seif said. “It’s fears of flying, because a plane is a perfect storm, a connection of all these different fears.”
And all these fears can create an altered state of mind, which in turn makes it difficult to rationally assess a perceived threat.
“If you’re anxious, you have increased arousal to threat,” he said. “At that point, you are basically scanning the world for threats, so anything could be a threat, any element of something that seems odd to you. And today that can be a form of Islamophobia.”
When it comes to terrorist threats, there are plenty of other public settings that present greater dangers than air travel. The devastating November attacks in Paris were a gruesome reminder that our lives are surrounded by “soft targets” — the cafe where we grab lunch, the bus we ride to work, a nightclub where we go to see a show.
But unlike an airplane, those places are filled with distractions. You can talk with friends, dance to loud music. The illusion of control remains intact: There’s the exit, right over there. The next bus stop is only a block away.
Air travel, though, can be tedious and unstimulating; all too easy for the mind to run wild. And bad things have been known to happen. Air disasters, rare as they may be, are always major news stories; their vivid horror looms large in our minds. Seeing a graphic account of a traumatic incident makes it all too easy to imagine it happening — a phenomenon known as the “availability heuristic.”
“These sorts of fears increase in public situations, particularly in ones where we’re enclosed in places where it’s difficult to escape,” says Daniel Freeman, a research professor and psychologist at the University of Oxford with an expertise in paranoia. “It’s very easy for us to recall shocking acts of terrorism. And as soon as we can bring something to mind, we inflate how likely it is to actually occur.”
For some people, planes inevitably summon images of the 9/11 attacks, Freeman says. “We have it on our mind anyway. We’ve just been through a lot of security checks.”
Few understand the fragile equilibrium of an airline passenger better than flight attendants, who have the unenviable task of dealing with anxious (or unruly, or intoxicated) travelers.
“When we go to work every day, we know that in a confined cabin space with more people crammed into a smaller area, there is more likelihood for conflict,” says Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants. “We are de-escalating situations all day long. They may range from a very small problem where someone is just a little bit off, a little bit unpleasant, to actually being combative.”
Flight attendants have no choice but to err on the side of caution, Nelson says; the alternative is simply too risky. “We are trained that the first and best way to handle a problem is to keep it off the airplane,” she says.
They’ve experienced the alternative: The drunk woman who assaulted several flight attendants in February, the five women (two of whom were allegedly intoxicated) who came to blows over a loud boombox on a Spirit Airlines flight, the guy who tried to strangle a woman who reclined the seat in front of him.
The rich and famous are not immune to mile-high drama. Paris Hilton’s little brother, Conrad, faced federal charges after he threatened and intimidated flight attendants on an international flight last summer; the airline staff said he appeared to be under the influence of drugs. In 2011, Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong was kicked off a Southwest flight after he gave a surly retort to a flight attendant who asked him to pull up his sagging pants. (Southwest later apologized.)
These incidents make for memorable headlines, but they’re not actually all that common. Last year, the Federal Aviation Administration documented 99 cases of unruly passengers, down from 145 in 2014. This year, as of April, only nine incidents have been recorded. Of course, these statistics don’t include incidents such as the one involving Menzio, where a rule-abiding passenger is wrongfully profiled.
There is, perhaps, a silver lining: It’s possible that the stories of false alarms and overreactions might help defuse future incidents, Freeman says. The same way frightening stories stick with us, these other accounts could make an impression, too.
“My guess is that these stories might help to calm people’s fears,” Freeman said. “They’ll see that they shouldn’t overreact, and there wasn’t a threat.”