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With airline altercations on the rise, a guide to best practices for bystanders

Passengers don’t need to handle in-flight altercations on their own. Flight attendants are trained to deescalate conflicts. (iStock)
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The world is starting to reopen, but recent Federal Aviation Administration reports of an uptick in unruly airline passengers may have you rethinking travel plans. You’re not alone. I have always enjoyed the way the dimming of the cabin lights creates a safe and comfortable space for everyone to sleep. Will I still feel this way on my next flight? To counter these worries I reached out to a few professionals for suggestions, understanding that it may take some work to be good company to more people than I’ve seen in months.

A little personal groundwork can get your journey off to a peaceful beginning. Daniel Post Senning, spokesman for the Emily Post Institute and the great-great-grandson of the etiquette grande dame herself, says: “The biggest impact that you can have in terms of correcting behavior that you don’t like is to invest in taking actions yourself that run in the other direction.”

When I heard this, I was reminded of advice to model behavior for our children that we would like them to emulate. To this end, I pick up trash on sidewalks and make a point of making small talk with people I meet while running errands. My kids, who are now nearly adults, do this, too.

Perhaps, bring your compassion and your flexibility along with your roller bag. “Small actions that are positive, such as offering to help someone as they arrive at their seat, can go a long way to establish rapport with the people around you,” advises Senning advises.

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This kind of connection is Faith Adiele’s first priority. Writer for the HBO Max series “A World of Calm,” Adiele is also the author of “Meeting Faith: The Forest Journals of a Black Buddhist Nun” and founder of VONA’s “Traveling While BIPOC” workshop, for writers who are Black, Indigenous and people of color.

“Whenever I enter a space, I do a kind of inventory,” she says. “Where are the exits, who are my allies? I look for other people of color and give them a nod. I always greet my seatmate when I sit down so that I’m a real person to them.”

When these last months of isolation have distanced us physically but also philosophically, our shared humanity becomes an important common ground. As we return to the world, our reactions are often influenced by very personal experiences, perceptions and fears.

“It can be tricky to navigate when tensions are so high,” says Emily May, co-founder and executive director of the bystander intervention training movement Hollaback. “It’s anxiety-producing to walk through an airport, to be on an airplane. The stress kicks up our implicit bias,” she says, explaining that factors such as race, ethnicity and background along with social cues such as appearance or mannerisms can contribute to a perception of danger. “Who and what we are taught is dangerous is tricky,” she says. “It’s important to be grounded so that you can understand how your implicit bias is informing your action.”

Creating community and practicing self-awareness will help create a healthy reserve of equanimity that you can draw upon in the event of a conflict between your fellow passengers. An exchange of unkind words can be just as unsettling as physical violence, and it’s important to take care of yourself.

“Stay aware,” Adiele says, “Mindfulness is about not tuning out. Feel the fear and adrenaline, and create space to breathe and be calm and then do what needs to be done.”

Pressing your call button may be the first step. Flight attendants are trained to de-escalate conflicts and will work to restore order.

“Delegate,” Emily May says. It’s one step in an intervention process Hollaback refers to as the “5D’s.” Another “D,” distraction, is something everyone can do. “Drop your phone or pretend you have to get something out of the overhead bin. This creates a break in the moment.”

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May stresses that direct engagement with the harasser or stepping into the conflict should not be attempted without some personal check-in. “It’s not about making a big statement, being heroic or teaching the person,” she explains, “It’s about, ‘How do we de-escalate and how do we feel safe inside of that?’ ”

Documenting the incident is a way to bear witness from a safe distance. Using your phone to hold passengers accountable for their actions can be helpful, but it is critical to give the person experiencing the brunt of the harm the last say on what happens to the video. Automatically posting your images or video to social media can add to the aggrieved party’s distress. In the interest of safety, May suggests keeping a low profile while filming.

“Pretend to check your email or play a game,” she says.

Direct confrontation may not be the best course of action on an airplane, but if it becomes necessary, May stresses the importance of creating a boundary with a clear and specific request such as, “I can see you are upset, but would you please stop yelling?”

Adiele agrees, “You perform intimacy and perform listening. You have to connect to the pain and the fear that is prompting someone to act out and show you care about them as a human. You have to really be careful not to humiliate them.”

Often, by seeing and hearing this person, you will be able to turn down the heat in the situation.

“It’s important to interrupt these things, and to stop them. Silence is acquiescence,” Adiele says. “You can give other people strength and bravery if you step in and say, ‘That’s wrong,’ and you do it in a calm manner.”

Once the situation has been resolved, turn your attention to the person experiencing the harm (another “D,” delay.) If they are seated in an aisle too far away for immediate direct contact, check in with your seatmate and engage the senses to regulate your own emotions. Perhaps wiggle your toes in your socks, focus on a particular color in your environment, or see what scents your nose can pick up: peanuts, hand sanitizer, fresh coffee.

In a recent opinion piece, Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, wrote, “Our planes are a microcosm, the conflicts that bubble up in our public life always show up in the cabin.”

The best parts of us show up there, too. We lift the bulky suitcases of our fellow travelers into the overhead bins, strike up conversations around knitting projects and sports jerseys. We share armrests and book recommendations. We play peekaboo with the toddler in the seat ahead of us, and we close our eyes and rest, feeling safe and secure enough to dream among strangers.

Goodman is a writer based in Los Angeles. Her website is Find her on Twitter: @campfiresally.

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