Experts Explain Why Airplanes Make Us Petty, Passive Aggressive Jerks

"It's almost a wonder that in-flight behavior has even been as good as it has been recently."

If you have flown on a plane recently—or even just seen videos from other people flying on planes, you may have asked yourself: "What is going on?" It does seem like everyone is on their absolutely worst behavior. There are fights among passengers. Passengers "voting each other off" the plane. Passengers fighting each other like toddlers. Toddlers causing grown men to have meltdowns as if they, too, have only spent a few dozen months on this Earth. Then there are the real wildcards; the passengers opening doors to the plane because taxiing on the runway.

To get to the bottom of why it is, exactly, that planes cause us all to so frequently abandon our manners, I spoke with two experts on behavior. Some of it seems a bit obvious, certainly; flying is stressful, expensive, and physically confining. There are few other things humans voluntarily do so frequently that are so thoroughly unpleasant.

It's the Anxiety

"The main culprit is anxiety. Then there is stress, caused by getting ready for travel and stress caused by the anxiety of travel. People are also generally tired and exhausted when traveling," New Jersey-based therapist Frank Thewes tells Thrillist. "Add these up and you have all the makings for someone being in an agitated, reactive-brain state."

Thewes could even be considered about the current flight predicament. All of the stress induced by flying these days could be causing even more chaos. The circumstances "... will greatly increase the chances of encountering or becoming an agitated, aggressive, or unpleasant traveler. Factor in the umbrella stressor of a major pandemic in the last three years and it’s almost a wonder that in-flight behavior has even been as good as it has been recently," Thewes says.

So in a way, if you've been on a totally uneventful flight recently it might be a bit at odds to the expected human response. And if everyone was positively cheery after a flight with turbulence or delays? Slightly miraculous.

In terms of why behavior on planes seems more volatile these days, Dr. Shaun Nanavati also told Thrillist that anxiety was to blame, and that the condition takes root before a traveler even arrives at the airport. Nanavati, a professor, neuropsychologist, clinician, and researcher, is also the co-founder of the AQ app, which aims to help users manage anxiety.

"This is a case of extreme anxiety, based upon a number of psychological factors, leading to a more intense response than 'ordinarily anxious' situations," Nanavati says. "The comparison of a current experience that is inferior to one previously at a higher price causes dissatisfaction and sets the stage for travel anxiety even before we leave our homes."

Basically, the anticipation of going through the rather unpleasant experience of flying only amplifies the anxiety and unpleasantness of the experience. And then, there are the actual physical circumstances of flying.

"The actual external environment is inferior. There is less physical leg room (39 to 28 inches, on average), luggage is often lost, staff is stressed, and food quality has degenerated," Nanavati says. "There is most-likely tension in the group from the recent pandemic, where an unspoken concern about contagion in a highly controlled closed cabin may also be contributing to the issue."

Stay Calm and Fly on

So what exactly can be done about it? Nanavati also has suggestions for how to better manage the situation for yourself. You may not be able to control whether other passengers are being reasonable, or if the food tastes good or if you have enough leg room. But you can make your own "micro-climate." Some of these tips might sound familiar if you've read Thrillist's guide to reducing flight anxiety.

"Control what you can: make sure you are warm or cool enough; bring your own food that you enjoy; make sure the playlist is ready to go with music and/or audio that will allow you to focus inwardly throughout your journey," Nanavati advises.

Looking for more travel tips?

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Opheli Garcia Lawler is a Staff Writer on the News team at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @opheligarcia and Instagram @opheligarcia.