Privilege: The Reason Why People on Planes are Assholes

August 9, 2014
Photo by Robert Couse-Baker via Flikr

I’ve only flown a handful of times in my life, and never internationally. So I really don’t claim to be knowledgeable about flying. But even from the few times I’ve flown to and from DC, to visit my family, or to go to a conference, I’ve learned that people on planes can be assholes.

And I get it.  I mean, being strapped to a tiny seat, sitting next to strangers, in a small tube with windows that can’t open for hours at a time can turn any decent person into a monster.

However, I also think part of the annoyance is because people who fly literally don’t know how to, or aren’t used to, being around other people on a cramped mode of transportation on a regular basis. And they aren’t used to this because of class privilege.

Those of us who are more familiar with the metro/subway train or the city bus know what I’m talking about. We spend most of our days packed into vehicles where we actually have to be respectful of other people. We have to sit next to strangers, or if the bus/train car is packed, we have to stand and hold onto rails, awkwardly facing other passengers while trying to avoid eye contact. We have to say “excuse me” to let someone pass by or get out of their seat. We’re used to saying sorry if we accidentally bump into someone, and giving up our seats for families with small children, pregnant commuters, those who are elderly, and those with disabilities. Parents with young children know that their kids need to sit down and shut up immediately, because other people on the bus/train car don’t necessarily think their kids are as adorable as they do. Even when, during rush hour, we’re packed in like sardines in a can, six inches from the next person’s nose, we do what we can to maintain the personal space, comfort, and sanity, of ourselves and others. We make it work, because we have to.


For some of us, taking the city bus or metro is mostly a convenience. For many of us, it’s a necessity. I’ve never been able to afford a car, so since I started taking the public bus when I was a teenager, I’ve learned to deal with the inconveniences and annoyances of using a method of transportation that is shared by the public. I’ve learned to put up with with long waits, interesting smells, managing personal space, walking to/from the bus stop, sitting next to strangers, and other things that one learns to tolerate with when riding a bus. My family was poor, and unlike my friends who inherited cars or were bought cars upon turning 16, my only options were the school bus, the city bus, or waiting for one of my parents to pick me up. Throughout college and my two years living in DC, public transportation has been my only option, as it will be when I move to Madrid.

When you can’t afford a car, chances are you can’t afford a plane ticket. I certainly couldn’t for most of my life. In fact, I had never even been on a plane until I was 22, when I was moving to DC. When I was a kid, we couldn’t even afford basic luxuries like cable TV, eating dinner out, or getting new school clothes every year. Plane tickets and vacations in general were out of the question. Having to use public transportation most of my life has taught me about sharing public spaces with others, dealing with inconveniences, and getting neither everything I want, nor the way I want it.  I believe it has humbled me, and has made me a more respectful air traveler.

People who have not been subject to sharing public transportation with others (because of class privilege) are the ones who I believe have the most issues with being on airplanes. They’re used to driving in their car (or taxi), getting from A to B when and how they want, having their kids act up and be as loud as they want, and being in control of who they sit next to. They’re used to having their travel experience like they have their Burger King–their way. They paid hundreds, perhaps thousands of dollars for those plane tickets and they’ll be damned if they aren’t fully accommodated. Perhaps, because of their middle class lifestyle or wealth, they exhibit their sense of entitlement in other areas of life as well.

So that’s why the parents of the kid sitting behind you don’t understand why their kid is being annoying as fuck. That’s why the guy next to you think it’s ok to fall asleep with his head on your shoulder. That’s why the couple, pair of friends, or travelers who just met on the plane believe that everyone in coach wants to hear their life stories and therefore it’s OK to talk loudly. Or why some people think they can hog the overhead bin, release whatever bodily or food odors they like, and be disrespectful to flight attendants and fellow passengers. It’s why they think they can slap your black 19 month old son and call him a nigger. Or why someone thinks he can talk down to a flight attendant like she’s a bug stuck to the bottom of his shoe. That’s why some chatty passengers don’t seem to understand that right now instead of engaging in conversation, you just want to relax. Can’t they see you trying to put in your headphones and opening your book? Don’t they understand social cues?

The answer is no. They don’t understand. None of the above described people do. It’s not because they’re bad people, and it may certainly be for any other reason. But I say it’s simply because they’re entitled. I’d bet they’re middle class. I’d assume they own several cars. I’d guess that they went to college. I’d imagine them gentrifying urban neighborhoods, and they are probably afraid to ride the bus in their hometown because it’s “scary.” Perhaps they’re the type of people who think they can “save Africa” (yep, the whole continent) with a summer volunteer trip.

One thing I know for sure, is that they (air passengers in general) are predominantly white, which possibly adds another layer of entitlement.*

Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary once said, “The problem with aviation is that for 50 years it’s been populated by people who think it’s a wondrous sexual experience… when it’s really just a bus with wings.” I like this idea. Because perhaps if air passengers treated each other they way bus riders do–putting aside their entitlement and expectation of being extensively accommodated–all of us would have smoother rides through the sky.

So during your next flight, just imagine you’re on a bus with wings. Yes, you paid a lot for those seats, but that doesn’t make you royalty. It’s not all about you. You’re just like the rest of us–people who just want to get from A to B quickly, safely, and with as few annoyances as possible. We’re in this together, and we can do this, but only if everyone pitches in and does their part to be considerate of others. So please, next time you fly, try not to be an asshole.



*And before you say it, I’m not assuming that ALL middle class/wealthy/white people are like this, or that only these types of people are annoying on airplanes, or that poorer people can’t be annoying, or that people aren’t at all annoying on the bus or metro, etc. Please don’t leave me a “B-BUT NOT ALL” comment, because I already know. Also, I really tried (so hard) to find racial demographic statistics about people who travel, but I could not. Though anyone who has traveled by air to, from, or within the US can easily look around an airport to see that the vast majority of passengers are white. Compare that to, say, the demographics of people you’ll see at a Greyhound bus station. Also, here are some statistics that show that the majority of students who study abroad are also white. Race and class are inextricably linked in this country, ya know. Read about it.


Photo Credit: Robert Couse-Baker


You Might Also Like


  • Reply dina September 1, 2014 at 3:06 am

    Love this. Just read a NY times article about reclining seats and personal rights. There were over 2000 angry comments justifying whose rights prevail over whose, and I was shaking my head thinking these sound like entitled toddlers on the playground. I appreciate your perspective!

    • Reply Keziyah September 1, 2014 at 5:43 am

      Thanks Dina…is a reclining seat really that much more comfortable on a plane? I’ve never done it, but I’m assuming it’s not, because it’s only like a few inches. I guess some people need their tiny “luxuries” in order to justify the $1000 the spent.

  • Reply Jessica September 11, 2014 at 8:58 pm

    I am a total fangirl for this blog. Yes! I am.

  • Leave a Reply

    CommentLuv badge

    Stay in touch!

    If you like this blog, please follow me on Twitter and like me on Facebook.

    Powered by WordPress Popup