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?