When your seatmate acts up, should you attempt to intercede as a peacemaker or stand aside and leave it to flight attendants?
The context for my story is my recent United Airlines flight from Denver to Los Angeles. A man refused to wear his mask and cursed out the flight attendant. I chose not speak up, even though I was seated behind him.
Some commenters questioned why I would not have been more aggressive in confronting my seatmate directly. To that, my response is: did you watch the videos? This guy was drunk, cursing up a storm, refusing to following rules, and dressed like a scrappy fighter.
Which raises the question of what can we realistically do when a passenger is acting up? What is the fine line between courage and stupidity? How can we exercise discernment in a cloistered metal tube in which air rage has proliferated in recent months?
Nicholas Goldberg of the Los Angeles Times wrote a column this week entitled, The jerk next to me on the plane wouldn’t wear a mask. Here’s why I didn’t do anything. He was flying on Lufthansa from Frankfurt to Los Angeles and his seatmate refused to wear his mask. Goldberg decided to speak up. As he describes it:
Everyone else — every single person I saw — was following the rules. This guy, though, was an American, middle aged, flying back to L.A. from Frankfurt, Germany. His mask was down around his neck.
I ignored him for the first half-hour or so, but finally, nervous about sitting for 12 full hours next to an unmasked man during a pandemic, I asked if he would put it on. I swear I was very polite. Apologetic even.
He ignored me. I asked again, and he finally looked at me and angrily told me that if I wanted him to wear a mask, I would have to get the flight attendant to tell him. He wasn’t going to take orders from me, he said.
So I got up and spoke to the flight attendant, who told him he was required to keep it on — covering both his mouth and nose — for the entire flight. But as soon as she walked away, he pulled it down again, sneered at me, and for the rest of the flight he wore it under his nose.
I said nothing more to him for the remaining 11 hours. I was actually afraid he might become violent if I persisted.
Goldberg captures the dilemma many face, indeed the precise dilemma I faced.
Part of me really wanted to be the “hero” who stood up for the five year old sitting behind me. Tap the guy on the shoulder, tell him to calm down, and exert the sort of peer pressure that often makes people comply.
But if you’ve read Live and Let’s Fly at all over the last years, you’ve noted the surge in stories about violence on airplanes. Was it really smart to even risk potential physical danger by getting between a drunk man and his political diatribes?
And what if he said no? Were we going to engage in a “yes – no” battle? I had no authority to compel him to do anything: that was the flight attendant.
Flight attendants should be consistent in enforcing mask rules as long as the federal mask mandate remains in place, but it’s not like the flight attendants can babysit a problem passenger. The flight was full and it was not a dereliction of duty or laziness that caused them to overlook the fact that the guy was drunk prior to takeoff.
Every situation is context-dependent to an extent, but extreme caution must be exercised in defusing a ticking time bomb.
I’d welcome your thoughts below on how you would have handled my situation or Goldberg’s situation. What would have moved you to act and what would you have said. Generally speaking, when do you speak up and went do you hold your tongue?
@ Matthew — Sic the FCQ on them, of course…
For me, I would have discreetly mentioned to the FA that his language, drunkenness, and behavior in refusing to mask properly is creating distress. And remind her that there is a 5 year old boy sitting there witnessing it. I would insist she brings it to the attention of the Captain who I would suggest intervene.
I was subjected to a drunk guy next to me who went on a tirade about women and politics and impossible to discern other stuff. When I refused to engage him he started throwing peanuts at my face. I actually did the above suggestion, the man was moved to a new row, and warned by the rest pilot that if he did not settle down the plane would land and he would be removed. This was Pre-Covid even. He went to sleep and never made another sound that flight. In these cases I do not expect the flight attendant to engage them. The Captain is in charge, has ultimate command, I expect him/her to take control of the situation.
Completely agree with this suggestion.
Of course you video it, post to social media and hope it goes viral so every travel blogger can post their daily article about an anti-masker or drunk/unruly passenger.
Matt: Use your old stand by, blame Sara Nelson!!
Wow. You win the stupid comment of the day award.
I just flew B6 on an RJ from ATL-BOS. The man seated next to me wore a black hoody, dark sunglasses and a black mask that he positioned so that it was placed just below his nostrils. As a woman, I chose to go to the flight attendant at the rear of the plane and ask for her assistance and not speak to him myself. She assured me she’d make an announcement and then walk by to see if this individual was complying. As I took my seat she was making her announcement, and my seatmate began cursing. He did briefly place his mask over his nose, prior to the flight attendant walking by. I think my gut instinct not to engage with this man was a good one. For the remainder of the 2 hour flight I just made sure my mask stayed on the whole time. Not much else I felt I could do under the circumstances. But I think this sort of behavior is occurring increasingly.
Having just spent 19 days traveling in several countries in Europe and seeing how readily people mask up indoors in public spaces, because health and public safety has not been politicized, it’s depressing to return to the US!
Maybe start farting, belching or pretend to have dry heaves to get the passenger to mask up.
Masking was just a part of the problem. That might work in that regard! But how would you stop him from spewing obscenities and foul language and going on about nonsense? To me, that is even more disrupting to the cabin and other passengers.
That is why traveling comes with risks. It is the risks of unvaccinated, unmasked, and infected people sitting next to and around you. To me, most people should not be flying. Matthew is an exception because he is vaccinated and is doing a real service for all of us. I would like it if he writes only high value stuff, like Guatemala, but refrain from using the plane as an office, such as a round trip in one day.
My feeling is that I may make a comment to a cooperative person but, otherwise, I won’t say anything unless I want to fight to the death. This includes a 9-11 style hijacking. Either comply or fight to the death. I might try to change seats.
There’s a lot of grey area but I think Stuart has the best response. Or break out your stun gun.
The best thing would be to support this man and crush the morons who are destroying our country. Masks dont work, we are all going to get covid. If you got the “vaccine” then you should have protection (unless its not a real vaccine and does not work). You are all sheep being controlled by a government that created this virus and profited off the “medicine” they are forcing you to take.
Baaa baaa baa
Love how the sheep who regurgitates right wing talking points and can’t think for itself calls other sheep.
I’m not going to do a damn thing if someone on my flight becomes unruly. If they actually get violent, I’ll protect myself and others in my vicinity, but if all they’re doing is being “unruly,” the crew can handle it. It’s their job, not mine.
Fortunately, masks don’t actually do anything so everybody will be just fine – mask or no mask.
Actually the gateroom customer service agent who recognized drunken or behavior that could cause inflight problems should have barred that pax from flying on that flt and say get sober take the next flt. They are trained or should be trained with yearly retraining as crew are to handle any and all problems. Unfortunately there’s plenty of employees who forget conveniently the need to enforce and use their training. Onboard I usually ask the person to mask on, if they remain silly and stupid l ‘d ask crew to reseat him. If impossible, make a paper and electronic Complaint asap upon landing and get any perks the airline gives out in these situations. It’s a win for me. Make the airline work for you….you’re paying their hourly. What the problem?
Current FAA rules require the masks. Captains are 1000% responsible for the flight and the crew actions or inaction, not the pax. Immediate fine/ arrests at landing and the word will get out very quickly that the bs will not be tolerated. Pax don’t get to debate the efficacy of a mask. You click the button when you buy the ticket that states mask rules and you agreement to comply with all FAA regulations… not just the ones you find acceptable.
Marc makes the BEST points of any. If it were up to me I would just as well see them shoot the A Hole after landing.
Sometimes you have to fight. You may get punched back but you retain your dignity. Someone throws peanuts at me — they better be ready.
I grew up in the rough part of town so very little frightens me. For most people, I would suggest to talk to him and if that get him to comply, I’d leave it at that! But I can handle myself and I would’ve stood up and confronted the man. And if got physical, as I said I can handle myself. At worst, I might get injured. But the guy would be dragged off the flight and put on a no-fly list. And I could look forward to an upgrade on my next few flights at least or a large compensation payout from the airline at best!
Blame it on:
Not sure there are any other options.
I mean I’m all for the vaccine and shit but we’re not going to wear masks forever are we? And isn’t an airplane one of the safest places to be re the virus? Drunken idiots are never okay but let’s drop the whole mask thang soon please…
It’s worse now, but drunk and obnoxious passengers have always been a problem. I don’t talk to them, I talk to the FA.
But it was the problem of obnoxious fellow passengers that are the main reason I don’t fly coach.
IF everyone on the plane had to have a negative covit test to enter the US, I think it is a non-issue
Dave Edward’s pure IDIOT
Anyone who is “nervous about sitting for 12 full hours next to an unmasked man during a pandemic” probably should be cowering in his basement until he dies and can stop worrying about dying. What was he doing during every previous flu season, I wonder? Irrational safetyists like Harvard graduate Nicholas Goldberg are shaping public perception and policy. Our (supposed) elites are failing us.