Why Do Passenger Brain Cells Turn Off As Soon As They Set Foot In The Airport?

Most people don’t keep their commitments. How often has customer service called you back after promising to do so? And how many people are super smart? By assuming people won’t keep their commitments, though, I’m almost never disappointed. And occasionally I’m even surprised on the upside!

Yet even with my starting place that I don’t expect people to deliver, I’m still shocked sometimes by the extent to which their brain cells turn off even further as soon as they set foot inside of an airport.

I’ve always found the interaction when you board a flight and show your boarding pass to a flight attendant, who then directs you towards your seat, to be unnecessary. It’s even a bit of an inconvenience because on international flights where this is common, and on foreign carriers even for short flights, you have to keep your boarding pass out and that’s one more thing. Yet it’s also a nice touch even if it doubles at ensuring you’re on the right place. (It also strikes me odd that this is common on many international carriers short haul but not U.S. domestic.)

Still, for some people, it is absolutely necessary. A Ryanair passenger seated in row one could not find their seat. So they walked all the way down the aisle of the aircraft. More than two-thirds of the way to row 32 in the back, the passenger asks a flight attendant where their seat is. The crewmember walked that passenger all the way back to the front of the aircraft.

Even if you do not start out knowing that row 1 is in the front (maybe rows are ordered back-to-front?) surely when you’re looking for your row,

  • You see that each row you walk past gets one number higher
  • And you know that 1 is less than 22
  • Your mental model isn’t that airlines order rows randomly, like maybe sure the first row you noticed was 5 but then 16 came next, followed by 11, and then 22?

I don’t have a lot of faith in people, but I do expect more than this. Why am I wrong?

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. The FA checking your boarding pass isn’t really about helping you find your seat. It’s one last (and rather unnecessary) check that you are boarding the correct flight.

    And on widebodies – it does help people go down the correct aisle. Which does make a difference.

  2. Airports are weird liminal spaces?

    The real answer is most likely sleep deprivation and being off your schedule.

    And given this particular individual is flying RyanAir, they probably didn’t start from a very high level.

    (Had to get in the RyanAir snark, not sorry)

  3. let’s say you were from a village in China, had never been on a train or plane before, and had never seen english numerals or the alphabet, and found yourself aboard this flight…. that’s about the only explanation I can think of.

  4. I wish airlines would make passengers watch a 30-60 second video about their boarding process and answer a basic question before issuing their boarding pass.

    At the end of the video, they then have to answer a question like “Your boarding pass for this flight has you boarding in Group 4. When should you be standing in/near the boarding lane?

    Options are:
    – As soon as other people stand in that area
    – As soon as I see somebody boarding the plane
    – Ten minutes before boarding begins
    – When Group 4 is called to the boarding area to board.

    If they choose anything but the last option, then the airline’s system changes their boarding pass to Group 86. Furthermore, the boarding software will not allow boarding passes with group 86 to be scanned until all other groups have boarded.

  5. Always fascinated with those who board with seat in row 32, who stop and look at your seat in row 2 as if it’s been magically transformed into row 32.

    The only time I’m looking at seats is check I’m on the correct side.

  6. The first row of a plane is sometimes not numbered 1. There could be all sorts of things at play here I think it’s a non story. Could also be a hidden camera prank; inside joke; internal corporate test of how Ryanair employees respond to bizarre questions; some strange desire to walk the entire aisle of the plane before departure; confusion stemming from the fact that some planes board from doors other than the forward door; many things.

  7. We used to say (when we were medical students studying brain anatomy), that these people probably only have two brain cells, one of which is an inhibitory one…..

  8. Interesting, it’s been several years since a FA has displayed any interest in looking at my boarding pass. Maybe because so many storeit on their phone, now tucked away in pocket or bag? Or maybe I’ve just had a spate of FAs conserving their energy for my PDB service…

  9. I almost always sit in row 1 aisle. My personal pet peeve is backpacks. Someone has a row 32 seat. However, when the board, they turn to see what row this is. Maybe it’s 32.No. Surprisingly, it’s row 1. In the process their backpack whacks me.

    Also, @Robo. Do you make a political statement regardless of the subject at hand. You must be a joy at a dinner party.

  10. i use to work for the airlines in denver and the main entry into airport had two doors, one on the inside and one on the outside. I always thought there was dumb ass gas in between those doors and that was the reason…

  11. Surprised nobody has called this out, but my guess would be they struggled to read their ticket properly. When I first started flying I remember being mildly overwhelmed by the gate number and the seat number and the flight number and they’re all in different places on the ticket.

    Maybe it’s just me, but it seems more plausible they weren’t prepared and had a panic moment at the last minute hoping to decode their ticket as they boarded than that they were too dumb to figure out where Row 1 is.

  12. I have an explanation. The passenger rarely flies but when she/he/ze/zer does, it’s never in first class. So the person walks a little then starts looking for the row number. She/he/ze/zer doesn’t see 1.

    Maybe there may be a comprehension problem that “1C” is not seen as “one – C” but “IC”. Where is row IC? Is it near row KP or row MA?

  13. Airlines infantilize passengers, giving little information and processing them through. Airports are even worse about this. Granted you have large numbers of people, some very nervous, many confused and a lot is happening. Under these circumstances people can shut down and just be zombies. That can be nothing more than a nuisance for those trying to stay proactive and alert, but there have been past cases when aircraft accidents occurred and people just sat there waiting to be told to get out of burning wreckage.

  14. Been flying all over since 1970, never encountered more idiots than I the last 15 years. Lack of discipline, courtesy, saying please, thank you, excuse me, helping someone older, handicapped or a mom with kids, education, reading and math skills, common sense and much more.
    It all adds up !
    Now we have all these people that have those blinders on that scream its all about ME ME ME!

  15. I think TJ has the best solution so far. Make them watch a video and then have to answer a multiple choice question at the end.

  16. I am a former airline employee who once worked at a smaller Texas airport where we were the only airline that served this particular city. Once while standing behind the ticket counter (in my uniform) between flights, an elderly gentleman entered the airport terminal and asked me where “blankety blank” airline was; I turned and looked over my shoulder to make sure that the entire back wall still had our airline name spelled out in about 2 foot letters at least 20 ft long, only to reply that we were right there. (I have many more similar stories as well). LoL

  17. Having worked for more than one airline, and in a very busy airport, I can tell you that this is nowhere near the top when it comes to strange stories. Most everybody who has ever worked for an airline, especially those of us who have worked in an airport, could probably write a book about the amusing things that people traveling will say and do. You cannot find that entertainment anywhere since Candid Camera is no longer on TV.

  18. It is important to remember that most airlines operate by relying on two (2) important rules:
    1. Never give out all the information:

  19. With all of RyanAir’s fees, this person should’ve been charged a $75 “Seat Search Assistance Fee” 🙂

  20. That sound that you hear when entering the airport (the fan to the HVAC system) is actually a device that sucks the brains right out of people!

  21. Gary, you’re wrong in assuming that people turn off their brain cells once on board. In reality, those people are stupid all the time. It’s just not as obvious in day to day routines. Don’t forget, we are the country that invented the “easy button”.
    We all know if you don’t physically exercise you lose fitness and get fat.
    Our easy button culture makes it possible to live day to day without needing much brain power. Like your body, your brain atrophies with non-use.

  22. Why do airlines treat customers like baggage! What happens to CEO’s brains while making policies, why do airlines lose luggage etc! So many mindless humans in charge of corporations. Some passengers act out from examples by the Countries leadership where common sense , politeness and humanity have taken a back seat!

  23. I have only noticed showing the boarding pass to the flight attendant on wide-bodies where it helps which aisle to go down or in some European airlines who boarded single aisle planes through a door somewhere past halfway down the plane.

    About turning the brains off, yeah I had that experience this week. Had someone completely insisted they had paid for comfort plus on a Delta flight even though their boarding pass shows a seat farther back. Not sure why they thought randomly sitting in a forward seat is the right thing to do.

    During another flight on the same trip an older couple misread the numbers and sat a few seats ahead even though they were also comfort plus. I was 8A but somehow through all this confusion sat down next to that older gentleman at 9A and wondered how they could be so dumb. They feeling of superiority only lasted a few minutes until the right passenger for 9A showed up and I had to move up to 8A . Apparently my brain was turned off as well 🙂

  24. That people turn off and act like zombies is because it’s the sole workable survival technique and that is what airlines and airports want… zombie pax.
    I zombie the moment i enter the parking area. Luggage, travel vest with 15 zipped pockets, passport, brain off, looking totally absent to the horizon…
    Then the queue at checkin and the alwys recurring remarks over the laptop bag which cannot go into the hold because of airline regulation about batteries…
    Then the interminal queues at the security check and thieving security agents who try to snitch sunglasses watches, wallets hence the travel vest… And the incredulous looks when security staff is not knowlegable about prosthetic devices and spare batteries for the prostetics…
    Then the endless queues at passport control and automated passport gates that are put out of order by immigration officers intend on harassing passengers both ways…
    Lsst but not least the totally unorganised way gate operations are done (note in europe they dont call pax in groups) with queues at the gate and in the gate tube as a result.
    I often wait till the last call before signalling to the gate staff i’m the last pax… By the time I get to the plane ive queued with the last 25 pax… And then some d*mba**e is occupying my seat
    I love the prospect of being hanicapped enoygh to
    get assistance and getting on a future flight with a guide dog for the blind…

  25. You give people too much credit. Why do you assume they had brain cells before they boarded the plane? When someone turns 18, they’re not automatically gifted with common sense, logic, or reason. Some will never possess it, as evidenced by our politicians and multitude of narratives being pushed.

  26. Ask yourself the same question about your response to the government edicts during covid. Every blogger (and definitely every Boarding Area) turned into a mindless robot, parroting government propaganda. Did your brains turn off too?

  27. Actually its a legal requirement for a F.A at the door, flying into the USA , since 911, to physically check a persons boarding pass, dont really care about the seat number, its flight num.ber, date that are important. You would be surprised how many arrogant people who wont show their pass are on the wrong flight. Of course its always the F.A s fault.

  28. I’m sorry, all of these people giving these people a pass, STOP IT! I have watched these people who speak English and who have no issue buying a plane ticket act like rocks when it comes time to get on a plane. They hear the FA tell them to put there bags in there class and you see, without fail, someone try and throw their bag in 1st and they’re at the tail. These people aren’t dumb, they know what they’re doing!

  29. There’s a ridiculous amount of signs and placards. Yet people still ask:
    Where’s my gate
    Where’s the baggage claim
    Where’s the bathroom (lavatory)
    Is the bathroom occupied

    In 2013 11% of Americans were illiterate. In 2023, it’s higher.

  30. Well. the “turning off brain” doesn’t happen only in airports/aircraft…Happens everyday, everywhere, as soon as folks get into their car.

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