Over 3 Billion People Fly Every Year and Some of Them Are Just Awful

When you fly you’re traveling with other people. Diverse people. Stuck in a metal tube. And flying is very democratic and surprisingly affordable much of the time.

In economy you’re in tight quarters with people you don’t know, thrown together randomly with other passengers who may not share your values. Although bad behavior is hardly limited to economy.

And that’s what is so difficult about stories like the one of the sleeping teen girl groped and kissed by a man on an Alaska Airlines flight from Portland to Anchorage this week.

She pushed it away, according to a police report obtained by the Alaska Dispatch News, thinking the unsolicited touch might have been a mistake. Then it happened again, and suddenly, the girl told authorities, the man sitting beside her was kissing her on the mouth. He used his tongue.

The girl pushed him away, the Dispatch News reported, and tried to decline his advances. But the man grabbed at her thigh about five times, she told police.

The pilot was informed and the flight diverted to Seattle:

It’s one of a number of recent flights where passengers have been accused of molesting women. In April I called a man the creepiest passenger ever after he rubbed lotion all over the bottom (underneath the clothes) of a sleeping passenger.

But there are even stories wondering how passengers are supposed to protect children after a spate of minors being molested.

Last week a man was charged with “abusive sexual contact” after inappropriate touching of an unaccompanied minor on an American Airlines Dallas – Portland flight. Apparently the flight wasn’t full but he chose the middle seat next to the young girl rather than the empty aisle in his own row. Creepy.

The problem isn’t lack of penalties, or ‘getting tough’ on bad behavior. Flights divert, people end up in jail. And passengers behaving badly isn’t limited to touching other passengers.

In May a drunk Alaska Airlines passenger started demanding hugs. In April two drunk women played music on their speakers, became abusive when flight attendants wouldn’t serve them more alcohol, went to the lavatory declaring “I’m a suicide bomber” and started an argument with a flight attendant over whether other passengers were behaving properly.

That same month a drunk American Airlines passenger urinated in his seat. A JetBlue passenger did this recently as well.

    American Airlines Passenger and Urinating Anti-Hero

Flight attendants had to take down a drunk passenger using an ice pick and a pot of coffee.

In the case of the Alaska Airlines flight that diverted, the ordeal was stopped when another passenger intervevened. They got a flight attendant’s help, who brought the incident to the attention of the captain.

To borrow a politically-charged slogan from the NRA, the only thing that stops a bad passenger on a plane is good passengers on a plane. The problem, though, is sometimes knowing which are which.

  • Young children should learn to speak up when they’re made to feel uncomfortable. That’s true in any number of situations, not just on a plane.

  • But inflight we’re all exposed to other people, difficult people, with their own problems and challenges.

  • It’s difficult to know when to intervene, and goodness knows flight attendants have been known to go on power trips. “See something say something” creates problems, because when you ask amateurs to do security you get amateur security. You get economists reported for doing math because it looks like a foreign language. You get flight attendants kicking off Muslim passengers for changing seats because that’s scary.

We need to speak up, but do so with humility. Instead of confronting passengers, flight attendants and fellow customers need to ask questions. Doing so without raising the stakes is difficult and we aren’t all good at it. So there’s a fine line, which most passengers won’t be good at.

Which is why at the end of the day we’re always going to have problems, and we’re going to have false reports in a society driven by fear as well. Because with 3 billion passengers a year, some of them are awful and some of us are too.

There are terrible people in the world and the more flying becomes accessible to everyone the more some of those people will be in the skies. There’s nothing you can do to make your fellow passengers better than they are because there’s nothing we can do to make humanity better than it is.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. I always enjoys your posts and this could not be more true! Flew a late night flight from Atlanta to Phoenix recently, a little boy screamed and cried must of the flight. The people behind me called the flight attendant to tell the parents to shut the kid up they were getting a migraine. She handled it well but they continued to complain and carry on the whole flight. Most of us thought they were worst. We felt sorry for the parents who were doing all they could. What were they going to do “kick them off” or divert the flight?! Guess the complainers should have chartered a private plane. Sometimes things aren’t ideal.

  2. I like reading your blogs Gary.
    You appear to be genuine in what you state.
    I am a member of AA and hope you would comment about flying from Miami to
    QUITO. Recently made Gold
    staus and looking for best deal as I probably won’t last
    long at this level.

  3. @Frank Selleck – I am not sure what you are asking, or how your Gold status relates to booking a trip to Ecuador? Best, gary

  4. This happened to my granddaughter (mid teens) on an AA flight. She had middle economy seat, I was in front. I thought it was handled very well by the FAs with re-seating various volunteers, including me. No drama. The passenger was met quietly in SFO and detained. He seemed bemused. I wonder if there are cultural influences (man was of different culture), not that that’s an excuse. I was pleased to see how seriously this was taken by the AA crew and San Francisco authorities. We even got follow up.

  5. Wow. I’m not sure what your actual message is here Gary. That it’s a child’s fault if adults do bad things to them and they don’t say something? That an airline that accepts (demands) money to supervise unaccompanied minors doesn’t bear some responsibility when that child is sexually assaulted under their supervision? That a grown man that would do that is merely “creepy” rather than a “disgusting criminal” or at least an “alleged disgusting criminal”?

    I think there is a basic point here that I agree with: that in extreme circumstances, where passengers become completely unruly or where it is clear they are presenting intentional danger to the passengers, we should be prepared as responsible citizens/passengers to try to intervene — particularly if flight attendants ask for assistance. I’m not sure how telling victims of sexual assault to “speak up with humility”, particularly when we’re talking about children, really furthers that point.

  6. How was she supposed to speak up with humility ? When she probably was scared witless. Unattended minors should be kept separate from adult passengers . It is insane to expect a child frozen by fear to speak up . That is why predators target them . They know they are verniable these way . And being frozen by fear is not easily over come . It’s a primitive instinct. Children should not be exposed to it in the first place .There ways for airlines to avoids this kind of thing from happening in the first place . I love how it seems in a nonsulont kind of way . It sounds as though the child is being blamed for not being able to speak up . Curious I think

  7. It seems pretty obvious to me that Gary is saying *we*, as in other adult passengers, need to address issues of problem passengers with humility rather than aggression. Asking questions rather than being immediately aggressive or making assumptions.

    At no point does he say that *children* should speak with humility. He says that *they* should learn to speak up in situations where they are uncomfortable. Because a lot of them don’t speak up.

  8. “In the case of the Alaska Airlines flight that diverted, the ordeal was stopped when another passenger intervevened. ”

    I’m sorry, but you need a grammar and spelling intervevention Gary. jk love your blog.

  9. Kim, sorry to be so nonsulant about this but I’m feeling verniable today: a more pressing need for children is, I think, to attend spelling class without approbriyum or resistation.

  10. What is in society is now onboard.
    I recall the classy days of travel. Low life’s need to dumped on the tarmac or stand in front of a nacelle. Why would anyone want to become an FA?

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