Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Fear of Flying

Hundreds if not thousands of times a day, we make decisions that are based on the presumption that the other people around us are not crazy, hostile or violent.  From crossing the street in front of stopped traffic to sitting down in a crowded restaurant, we, by our actions, are testifying to our general faith that no one is randomly going to try to harm us. 

There is perhaps no context where that faith is more evident than on a commercial airplane.  We voluntarily confine ourselves to a small, crowded space, operated thousands of feet in the air by someone else, where if something goes wrong we really don't have a whole lot of recourse.  There is no place to run, so the person sitting next to us had better be reasonably friendly, or at least not scary, or the next few hours are going to be awful.

Two stories in the news this week have attested to this very issue.  The first concerned director Kevin Smith, who was removed from a Southwest Airlines flight after airline personnel decided he was too large to fit safely and comfortably into a coach seat.  I have no idea whether Kevin Smith can actually fit into a coach seat (although I guarantee he can't fit comfortably -- no one fits comfortably into a coach airline seat), but this has brought into focus an airline policy that exists for two reasons.  The first and more official is that packing people too tightly is a safety hazard in the event of an emergency.  The second, less official, but very real one is that the person in the next seat over does not want their space infringed by a heavy passenger next to them.  This is one of a number of policies designed by the airlines to try to prevent the person next to you from making your flight miserable.  The controversy comes when that policy is enforced to benefit one person to the complete detriment of another.

There are situations, however, that are much more obvious, which brings us to the second news story this week.  On Monday on an Air Canada flight, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney asked the passenger sitting in front of his wife to raise his seat back.  The other passenger responded by trying to hit Romney.  He was subsequently removed from the flight, which hadn't yet taken off.

Most of us who fly have hopes about the people sitting near us.  We hope they won't smell bad or talk too loud or, if we are on the aisle, have a weak bladder.  We hope they won't have offensive political views which they share loudly or use lots of profanity in front of our children, and a lot of people hope they won't be extremely large.

Our expectations are different than our hopes.  While we know we may get a seat mate of size, we absolutely expect that they will not respond to civil requests with violence.  We expect it so clearly that we don't even know we expect it, because we never think about it until that expectation is violated.  In the rare instance where someone is hostile enough to try to hurt someone for asking them to put up their seat, it has to be a little harder for the victim to get on the next plane.  As they board, they are looking at their fellow passengers with a new and more distasteful eye, hoping that whoever they get stuck sitting with not only bathed this morning, but isn't out to get them.  That doesn't make for a relaxing flight.


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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at www.SchoolCrisisConsultant.com
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