Some thoughts on air travel and human behaviour …

Despite my best intentions, I’ve ended up having a break from blogging while I was away. I wasn’t even able to do my usual Monday travel post this week as I didn’t have a Monday – it was lost somewhere between LA, Sydney and the International Date Line. But spending plenty of time in airports and planes this past week has got me thinking a little bit …

I often think that flying can bring out some of the less attractive sides of human behaviour (mine included). Put a large group of people into the confined space of a plane for more than a few hours and many of us seem to become a bit passive-aggressive, self-focused and/or self-righteous. From people not getting things right in the security queue to the race for overhead compartment space, the challenges of silently negotiating elbow room and knee space, and the scramble to stand up and get off asap … everyone is in a hurry and everything everyone else does is a potential inconvenience. It can feel like flying is a competitive sport, and not necessarily a friendly or non-contact sport at that!

And yet here is what I find really interesting. While all the insignificant inconveniences of air travel are often responded to as if they were major problems, when something actually does go wrong, the whole mood changes. When my flight was delayed for hours due to the snow, strangers in the waiting area starting talking to one another, sharing the latest up to date information, asking one another about connecting flights and onward journeys, even sharing food. When Dallas/Fort-Worth airport was shut down overnight and 4000 people stranded, the airport brought in cots, food and even clowns and face painters. While it may not have all been fun, we can imagine the sense of “we’re all in this together.” Thankfully I’ve never been in a plane that has had to do an emergency landing, or worse a crash, but the stories told from those kind of circumstances are usually ones of people working together, helping one another, supporting, encouraging and caring.

So here is my question. Is one of the key differences between a classic “first world problem” and a true experience of distress that the former tends to isolate us from one another and make us judgmental of those around us; whereas the latter somehow brings people together? I haven’t thought this through so I may well be wrong. But the idea that suffering somehow paradoxically can create community is certainly one that is biblical. Whereas what we in the modern world can sometimes perceive as “suffering” (but is really just inconvenience) can often have the opposite effect. And what does this say about us and our contemporary culture?

These are just the musings of a tired and jet-lagged brain, so I’m very open to hearing how this theory may actually not hold up, but it has certainly got me thinking. What do you think?

Finally, if you haven’t seen this yet, here is the feel good flying story of the year … WestJet’s “Christmas Miracle” happened the same day I was flying home. I guess I picked the wrong airline!!

5 thoughts on “Some thoughts on air travel and human behaviour …

  1. Agree very much with your theory – mateship formed among war vertrans – people who have been through tough times together – form bonds that are rare in todays western culture. Perhaps it goes at least part way to explaining the joy we sometimes see in people who have nothing, but who struggle and work together to survive?


  2. That’s not only a good observation of air travel but can be equally applied to supermarket lines, traffic congestion in Adelaide’s “peak hour” and any other activity where you don’t get immediate attention & service. Here is an opportunity to be the person in the queue who smiles and reminds others that this 4 minute delay does not have to ruin the rest of the day.
    PS: I don’t ever expect any Australian airline to provide customer service like that!!


  3. The more I think about this, the more it challenges me!
    Glenn, I can relate to the supermarket and traffic examples. Driving up the freeway in peak hour can feel very much like a race/competition – and not in a good way!
    And like Mark said, then there are those who have experienced true suffering and have formed the kind of bonds we rarely experience.
    The question is how to respond well. I know I don’t find it easy sometimes to not get caught up in the mindset of inconvenience/competition/hurriedness. I definitely need to do some more thinking about this …:)


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