Every passenger has a story…


Recently, I read one of those posts that really resonates with people (me included). It’s titled, “10 passengers you don’t want to see at the airport or on your flight“.

Absolutely, count me in. I even thought up a new one (that bloke with an op-up who was served far too many gin and tonics across the Atlantic).

But then I thought — that bloke probably has his own story. Maybe he’s excited. Maybe he’s got something else going on in his life. Maybe he needs to dull out some pain. And who am I to judge? Shame on me for judging. Shame on me.

So I looked back at that list of ten passengers, and tried to imagine the stories behind the situation that presents itself to me as a problem.

1) The smelly one. They’re from a rural village in South Asia. When you leave the seat, they’re talking about how you smell so perfumed and milky. They don’t perceive themselves to have a noticeable body odor. Oh, great, that person moved to a spare seat. That gives us the three to ourselves and she’s taken her funny smell away.

2) Loud cell phone talker discussing personal information. He’s on the verge of a breakdown, and this is the last chance for five hours he’ll have to call his therapist or best friend. She’s got to get in touch with her boss to clinch the deal and ensure that she clears the bar for this quarter or she’ll be fired. No matter if the conversation has to take place in a gate lounge so she can sit down and get off those heels.

3) The switchers. They’ve been planning this trip to see grandma for the past year, but they misconnected and ended up on this flight, and the one flight a day to the regional airport near grandma gives them just a 30-minute connection in Chicago. O’Hare. Mom’s in 28B while dad’s in 3C with little Susie.

4) The baggage claim hogs. He’s been up since 6am yesterday connecting from Bangalore, and all he wants to do is get home, pet the dog and fall into bed. He was forced to gate-check this bag two connections ago and has been in the same shirt and trousers for sixteen hours, and can barely keep his eyes open.

5) Do you know who I am? Her boss has been on her all day about how important this meeting is. This is the third flight she’s been booked on today. She’s been passed from phone agent to supervisor to gate agent to the ticket counter, and her patience is fraying. She’s followed all the advice to try to fly with one airline to get status so that they take better care of her when things go wrong. So why is this still so hard?

6) The overhead bin hog. He has to dash on arrival, but his partner wanted some things from duty free (and he’s been away two weeks, so needs some brownie points). He didn’t want to check anything at his departure airport if he could avoid it — he’s been burned before and it took four days to get his suit back — so he’s schlepped this through the airport to discover that the Signature Interior 767 he was expecting is now a 757 with 1980s-sized overheads.

7) The smelly food eater. She’d love to be on a diet for vanity reasons, but her chronic digestive disease means that if she varies from her medically recommended diet she’l spend the whole flight in the lavatory. He’s just left his family after too brief a visit, and his mother packed him his favorite lunch for the plane. He got it past security (no, that’s not a liquid) and the pain of leaving home is, for just a moment, relieved by the taste that brings him back to being ten years old again.

8) Chatty Kathy. He knows that he’s babbling, but it’s either that or break down into great heaving sobs. It’s just — he’s at the end of his tether, and a stranger won’t know about his ex or those family problems, and he’s been in the cubicle all week, and suddenly there’s a real live person sitting next to him and he’s nervous about the flight and it’s all coming out.

9) The call button ringers. On Cathay Pacific, her usual airline, she likes that the crew give her privacy until she lets them know that she needs something by ringing the bell. She’s noticed that the crew are just sitting in the galley reading magazines until she calls, so it makes sense that they want the same thing here, right?

10) The inattentive parent. The terrible twos are aptly named. Mr 2 won’t stop shrieking. No idea why. Miss 4 is relatively occupied with her iPad, but the headphones got caught in the armrest on their previous flight and snapped in half. Hopefully the person in front won’t mind if it’s on really quietly. Oh, no, Mr 2 is making plane noises now. Is that too loud? We’ve been going since before dawn and it’s all starting to be a blur.

These stories might be true. They might not. Our South Asian couple might in fact be from Dallas and on their way to a medical appointment to fix their unusual body odor problems, and braving a flight is the only way to get there. Or our Chatty Kathy might have had a death in the family.

The problem is that we imagine ourselves at our best and our neighbors at their worst. Even if we have to move away from that couple, can we do it without rolling our eyes? Can we use a bit of a pleasantry to keep things civil? “Oh, I see an empty seat — why don’t I move to give us all more room?”

Can we suggest something to the overhead bin hog? “You know, the crew took my coat to hang up in the closet. May I pass you your coat so I can fit my bag overhead?”

Or can we explain the situation to Chatty Kathy? “I’m so sorry, I’d ordinarily love to chat but I’ve had a hell of a week and I really need some down-time with my book.”

Sure, some small percentage of our “problem passengers” may say “no”, or give you the evil eye, or keep behaving in a way that you find problematic. But I like to think that most of them will understand. Because, at the end of the day, we’re all human beings in this metal (or composite) tube hurtling at nearly the speed of sound towards somewhere else.

Will we be better people when we get there?