mental health

Shared space and interconnectedness on a flight: Is it too much for our overstimulated society?

Shared space and interconnectedness on a flight: Is it too much for our overstimulated society?

This week marks the third week in a row that I have back to back business trips. I fly Delta Airlines for most of my domestic flights despite their mileage rewards program not being as good as that of American Airlines.   Part of the reason I fly them is because they fly where I need to go, which is mainly places in the south.  The other reason I fly Delta Airlines as much is because I mistakenly believed that their company slogan was “fly the friendly skies.”   Apparently, that is United Airlines slogan and ironically enough I never fly them.  In case you are wondering “keep climbing” is Delta’s slogan.   Keep climbing towards what I don’t know.   Anyway, I have that slogan going over and over in my head these days because it seems to me that the skies are not that friendly nowadays.

I have written in the past about self-righteous individuals and how they rage all over the commuter trains these days. Apparently, a rage of self-righteousness extends to the so-called friendly skies.  People get perturbed and act out over bin space. There was an individual arguing with the flight attendant as to whether her ostensibly correct sized luggage should go up in the bin or be gate-checked. The interaction lasted way longer than it needed to be. Another individual was upset about having to momentarily shut off her phone. She kept arguing with the flight attendant that her cell phone service was in flight mode and thus she could keep on her phone. Technically, the passenger was correct considering the new flight regulations. However, at the end of the day the sheriff in that flight “town” is the flight attendant. Do we need to have our cell phone on for every moment of the flight. If you are an anxious flier like I am, get a drink or two or some valium.   However, the passenger decided to make it known to all on board the plane that she was right. No one really cared. We all just wanted her to calm down and not act out so that our flight is delayed.

Then you have those premium fliers, who get to board first before others. I get it, I took like being in first class or in Zone 1 so that I can calmly get on board and stow my carry-on away without worry about space.   However, need we be obnoxious about showing off our zone status?  On my particular flight these two women made a production of boarding the plane before others. They so happened to be seated in the row before me.   I barely paid them any attention. However, before we took off, the one directly in front of me decided to extend her seat back. Considering that she was a premium flyer she must have known that is not allowed during take off and landing. However, she quiet clearly felt entitled to doing so.   The flight was packed. My row had all three seats filled.  The two ladies in front had a seat in between them. Lucky them.

Once we are at 10,000 feet in the air. I reached down and grabbed my laptop and put my tray table down. Now, mind you, I barely had any room to do this, as the seat in front of me was already extended back.   As I navigated the tight space to bring the tray table down the lady in front of me huffed loudly and turned to look at me. I could not quite get what was wrong.   I then realized I left some papers in my bag underneath and had to close the tray table and reach down to my bag. Once I had the papers in hand, I again, let the tray table down. And I heard her sigh loudly. While she felt it completely ok to extend her seat (even before takeoff) she could not comprehend that her seat (the back of) was a shared space amongst her fellow passengers.  As I typed away on my laptop, she kept rocking her seat to try to annoy me. I have traveled with a kid now for five years, I have a ton of patience when it comes to flying. I just kept typing away. Her companion has to use the restroom so she stands up to let her through and then glaringly stood in my space looking down at my laptop as if she wanted to blow it up with her eyes. While all this is occurring my row mate at the window seat had his head down on his tray table trying to sleep. The lady in front of me decides to switch seats so that she does not have to deal with my use of the tray table. Do you know what she does? She plunges into the window seat and despite seeing the young man sleeping on the tray table she violently pushes back that seat so that she can sit reading the newspaper spread out.   Her self-righteous movement ended up slightly hurting the young man and she did not apologize.

I often wonder, while traveling, in this rapidly interconnected smaller world, how people can be so intolerant of the presence of others.   Shared space is just that, it is shared space.  Perhaps we are too interconnected and this is impacting our need to claim the air around us as our around. Perhaps we are over stimulated  as a society and can no longer adequately process our interconnectedness. An airplane flight highlights that sense of interconnectedness in a very immediate jarring fashion. Our seats are not our own. We must share handrests. We must share air vents. We must share the back of seat. It is almost akin to being forced to share the shirt off our backs.

In psychological parlance, the act of sharing is an instance of pro-social behavior.   Sharing can even at times be perceived as providing a gift.   It is not uniquely human as acts of sharing have been observed in other animals. However, when we purposely don’t engage in sharing behavior we come off as inhuman.  The nightly news and internet stories serve as constant reminder of how we like sharing space less and less; yet with our rising level of interconnectedness how do we maintain our own space.   When we pay more for an economy comfort seat on a flight that ostensibly provides more leg room, are we doing so because we need that space or because we don’t want to share space.  Prosocial behaviors tend to cultivate positive traits that are beneficial for society as a whole. Prosocial behavior eventually involves a sense of reciprocity. Yet, we are increasingly seeing instances where shared space is viewed as an infringement on our being.


I understand that the inherent anxiety that comes with flying may be part of why turf battles are waged over shared space.  I sure hope that regardless of whose slogan it is, that the skies be friendly to fly and that we can share space in a civil manner.

12 replies »

  1. Prior to retiring I was Executive Platinum on American. I rarely sat in coach although I always paid for coach. I came to the conclusion that there are people in the world who are asses. There are three places where people lose control:
    1. Behind the wheel of a car.
    2. At the airport
    3. On the plane.


  2. I agree that for some reason airplanes do bring out the worst in people, but I also think that somehow we Americans have developed a very defensive sense of personal space. Look at the waiting area in the airport and there will be open seats between every group. Even so, there will be single people standing or sitting on the floor rather than “invading” other’s space. Then again, maybe the “some people are just asses” theory is correct.


  3. I am often thoroughly disappointed by the bad behaviour I see at airports and on planes. I think those places bring out the worst in people (perhaps those who get stressed about travel/flying are the worst culprits, but the sense of entitlement that goes along with any sort of loyalty/frequent flyer ‘status’ – it’s even called ‘status’, may not help, at least with some people). But my mind is often boggled by the population of Tokyo, and the very small amount of space per person there, but the grace and politeness that also abounds. When a population larger than the population of the whole of Canada lives in a single city, there’s a strict code of social etiquette that is adhered to, and I guess that allows everyone to get on, despite the lack of space. It’s a shame there can’t be a similar code of etiquette that is required on planes, really.


    • I so agree with you. I have been to japan and noted how they handle small spaces with such calm and grace. we could use that sense for planes for sure. the “status” label is part of the problem,


  4. I’ve noticed that some people bring their “family room” attitude with them. If they are slobs they dump all of their stuff for people to hurdle in the waiting area, if they are noisy they turn their vol up…
    I used to enjoy flying back when the skies were friendly and people were considerate


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