The Art of Being a Person on an Airplane

To and fro in 2016: 5 Lessons Learned at 35,000 Feet

During the last days of 2016, like so many holiday travelers, I spent hours up in the air. Normally I experience air travel as a kind of in-between state – a lull, neither here nor there, midway between where I was and where I’m going. But this season I found myself more conscious than ever of my mid-flight surroundings. I’m not talking about the lack of leg room (though, yikes: where did it all go?), but about the human pathos that occurs inside the metal cylinders we call jumbo jets. What got me thinking such thoughts? Carrie Fisher’s ailing heart.

By now, everyone knows that a few days before Christmas, on a flight from London to Los Angeles, the razor-witted actress and writer suffered a major heart attack 15 minutes before landing. She never recovered, and her death at 60 immediately prompted an emotional outpouring from Star Wars fans (followed by another collective outpouring a day later, when her mother, the actress Debbie Reynolds, passed away). To me, the fact that Fisher–who became famous playing a princess who traveled by spaceship–was stricken in-flight, added another layer of sadness. In life, she’d helped so many strangers. Many lauded her for destigmatizing mental illness (she was bipolar). That she lost consciousness surrounded by strangers at 35,000 feet seemed unfair.

But it happens all the time.

At any given moment, on any given day, as many as half a million residents of the planet Earth are not on earth at all. They are eight miles up in the air, strapped into the narrow seats of passenger planes, traveling at eight-tenths the speed of sound. Imagine every single person in Pasadena, Glendale, and Burbank, sitting all together while watching War Dogs, and you can begin to glimpse this alternate universe: a mini-world above our world. This is the world in which Fisher fell ill, and it’s a place that fascinates me.

Think about it: All aspects of human existence occur in the air. Illness, birth and death, fear and anger, compassion and embarrassment, boredom and heroism. It all goes down up in the clouds. People fall in love with their seatbelts fastened low and tight across their laps, and each year, a few even get married mid-flight. And because airplanes–like jury rooms or elevators or other circumscribed spaces–are difficult to escape at will, they provide a unique window on human interdynamics. In short, how we behave in flight reveals so much about human nature.

“One of the things that we always talk about in the research on social groups is that you always have the option to leave,” Craig David Parks, a professor of psychology at Washington State University, told me when I mentioned my airplane-as-ultimate-laboratory idea. On a plane, “you’re forced to be part of this group until the plane comes down. You lose the choice that you have in every other social group that I can think of.” Looking back on 2016, there is evidence that this lack of choice can act as a magnifier, revealing our true selves. Below, a few things the year taught us at 35,000 feet:

Lesson #1: Be Kind (Kindness is Everything)

Instructor: Flight attendant Kelly Davis Karas

In June, after a mass shooting at an LGBTQ nightclub left 49 people dead in Orlando, Karas – who works for JetBlue–discovered that the grandmother of one of the victims was traveling alone on a Florida-bound flight. She greeted the woman, who was grieving the loss of her 20-year-old grandson, Luis Omar Ocasio-Capo. Karas gave the grieving grandma a blanket, a pillow, and a box of tissues, and helped her get settled. Then she had an idea. Karas and her colleagues spread the word among the other passengers and provided paper for them to write messages of support. Pages and pages were given to the woman. Towards the end of the flight, Karas went on the intercom to ask for a moment of silence in honor of Ocasio-Capo. When the plane landed and people started to deplane, every single passenger stopped at the woman’s seat to offer condolences. According to Karas’ post on Facebook, “Some just said they were sorry, some touched her hand, some hugged her, some cried with her. But every single person stopped to speak to her, and not a single person was impatient at the slower deplaning process.” Her takeaway: “In spite of a few hateful, broken human beings in this world who can all too easily legally get their hands on mass assault weapons – people ARE kind. People DO care.”

Lesson #2: Honor Your Beliefs (But Don’t Impose Them on Others)

Instructors: Former NFL star Tim Tebow and retired lawyer Renee Rabinowitz

That same month, on a Delta flight from Atlanta to Phoenix, an older man who was traveling with his family went into cardiac arrest. The passengers swung into action, starting chest compressions, trying to revive him. The man was still unconscious when Tebow got up from his seat, joined the family, and proceeded to lead the entire section of the plane in prayer. According to a passenger, after Tebow “made a stand for God in a difficult situation,” the man’s heart started beating again. Whether or not you believe in miracles, Tebow’s faith provided comfort in a terrifying moment.

Another expression of deeply felt belief, however, resulted in a lawsuit filed in February that charges El Al Airlines with gender discrimination. Rabinowitz, an 81-year-old grandmother who walks with a cane because of bad knees, alleged that she was asked to move seats after a man in Hasidic garb alerted the crew he did not want to sit next to her (under the strictest interpretation of Jewish law, even inadvertent contact with the opposite sex is verboten). “I felt minimized,” she told the New York Times. Her takeaway: People who follow ultra-Orthodox practices are “wonderful, as long as they don’t tell me what to do.”

Lesson #3: Don’t Act Ugly (and Underreact)

Instructor: Ivanka Trump

Three days before Christmas, the eldest daughter of the president-elect, along with her husband Jared Kushner and their three kids, boarded a JetBlue flight in New York City headed to Palm Beach. They were spotted by Dan Goldstein, a Brooklyn attorney who was flying with his husband, Michael Lasner, and their young son. Lasner soon tweeted: “Ivanka and Jared at JFK T5, flying commercial. My husband chasing them down to harass them. #banalityofevil.” What happened next is in dispute. TMZ reported that Goldstein yelled at Trump, “Your father is ruining this country!” But another passenger told Buzzfeed the man didn’t yell or accost her directly, but was shaking and upset as he remarked, “They ruin the country now they ruin our flight!” Either way, after Trump tried to diffuse the situation, distracting her children with crayons and telling the flight crew, “I don’t want to make this a thing,” Goldstein and Lasner and their son were asked to leave the plane and were booked on the next flight out.

The takeaway: Politics aside, it’s bad form to go after a family on vacation. Agree to disagree, but leave the kids out of it. Trump’s calm reaction was the opposite of haughty or entitled. It was something not often associated with her dad: Classy. The airline did the right thing.

Lesson #4: Don’t Get Crazy Drunk in the Air (Duh)

Instructors: Lamar Odom and Selma Blair

Blair was on a flight from Cancun to L.A. when she mixed wine and some form of medication and started to cry and express fear of an unnamed male she was certain would do her harm. “He burns my private parts,” she told anyone who would listen. “He won’t let me eat or drink. He beats me. He’s going to kill me.” She was carried off the plane on a stretcher. For his part, Odom ingested way too much whiskey and beer in the Delta lounge at LAX before boarding a flight. The former NBA player began vomiting before the plane got to the runway. Reportedly, in making his way to the restroom, he used other passengers’ heads to steady himself. He, too, was removed. The only takeaway: Keep intoxicants on land, or imbibe in moderation.

Lesson #5: Compromise When Possible (It Often Pays Off)

Instructor: JetBlue Airways

JetBlue, whose motto is “bringing humanity back to air travel,” has encouraged its executives to think a bit about this, and that’s led recently to several pretty fascinating attempts on the airline’s part to explore the sociology of flying. Officially, these efforts are part of JetBlue’s viral marketing campaign, such as seven videos on flight etiquette, in which actors depict passengers’ worst behavior (manspreading, oversharing, smelly-food-eating) with hilarious results. But a few months ago, JetBlue released a short film called “Reach Across the Aisle” that – while of course designed to sell more tickets — transcended the commercial and veered boldly into the realm of social science.

Here’s what they did: Passengers boarding a plane bound from Boston to Phoenix were greeted by a dashing emcee-like gentleman who took to the intercom and explained that he was there to conduct an experiment. “You’re part of something historic tonight,” he told them once the plane was in the air. “Everyone who’s willing to participate has a chance to win one round-trip ticket to anywhere JetBlue flies. But here’s the catch: the entire plane has to unanimously decide on that destination. You can only go one place.”

The film was made public just after Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s death, when Republicans and Democrats were squabbling over whether or not President Obama should be able to appoint his successor. But it wasn’t tied to any one controversy; it was a riff on gridlock and dysfunction in general in Washington. “As a social experiment,” the emcee explains in the film, “we wanted to find out if real people on a JetBlue flight would have an easier time putting aside their differences and reaching across the aisle.”

One hundred and fifty strangers had to come to agreement in about 90 minutes (JetBlue put a time limit on the negotiations). Sure, these people had an incentive: they wanted that free trip. But passengers told me the experience seemed driven by something more than that – by the embrace of a mutual challenge, and, yes, by the opportunity to show that they could be their best selves. “The unknown, from the very beginning, kind of created a situation–almost like a rite of passage–where it was okay to talk to your neighbor,” said Dr. Darlene Dumont, who was seated in 3A.

You can watch what happened–lobbying, filibustering, horse-trading–below. Passenger Jen Marchi in 3C, a human resources consultant who was flying with a colleague, admitted that in the interest of coming to agreement, “I did threaten to not pay a bonus to the girl who works for me” if she didn’t vote with the majority. “Might have been out of bounds.”

Convivial drinking (but not too much; see Lesson #4) also ensued. “I found out the next day that we sold three times as much alcohol on that flight as we normally sell,” said Jamie Perry, JetBlue’s vice president of brand and product development. “By the time the concept was finished, they all knew each other, and it became this party. If only every flight could be like that.”

So what broader truth can we learn from all this? “The subtext is, basically, don’t be a jerk, right?” JetBlue’s Perry said, and while he was talking about life-on-a-plane, his words also apply to life-all-the-time. “I mean, you’re in a small space for a relatively long period. We all have to get on together and survive this together, so how about if we all just, you know, be nice to each other? It’s really not a hugely complicated message.”

Amy Wallace is Editor-at-Large of Los Angeles magazine. She wrote: Moving Forward with Kindness.