Strangers on a Plane

A few days ago a friend posted a story on Facebook regarding an EasyJet flight she took with her husband and two boys, aged four and two. She boarded the flight to find there weren’t any seats left close together, meaning her eldest boy had to sit beside a stranger. She asked people if they would mind moving so she could sit with her children but nobody was willing, and the aircrew weren’t interested. It took about an hour for her Facebook feed to go full Mumsnet, with women suggesting she should have told her child to cough all over the innocent passenger he’s sat beside, or cite safety concerns to the air crew who, apparently, would be forced to swap people around.

So I’ll start by saying I know the family well and they’re lovely, with no sense of entitlement. The mother posted the story just because she was disappointed nobody was willing to move. As it turned out, her boy did just fine on his own (last time I saw him he was about one and he rammed me with his sit-on tractor, so I think he can take care of himself). I’ll also say that the obvious solution is to not fly EasyJet if you want your family to sit together, and instead book with an airline which lets you reserve seats in advance. But it’s a situation worth looking at in more detail.

If it were me, I would have moved. Normally I pay for extra legroom at the emergency exit or the bulkhead, and I wouldn’t move to an ordinary seat in those circumstances, but if I’m in a regular seat and travelling alone and someone politely asks me to move, I always do. I’ve moved seats so kids can sit with their parents, or couples can sit together. I’ve lived in functional societies, and I’ve lived in dysfunctional societies. I believe the difference between the two is a culture in which people make dozens of small sacrifices on a daily basis which act as a lubricant for the society as a whole to get along. So you stand aside for people pushing prams, you let people out into traffic, you conduct yourself in a way which minimises the aggregate level of inconvenience and difficulty for everyone involved in a given situation. Annecy works a lot like this. For example, everyone stops at zebra crossings, and those crossing always give a little wave to the driver. People also hold doors open for one another and stand aside if someone is carrying something heavy. By contrast, drivers in Lagos will move two metres forward and block an entire highway because it means they have gained two metres. The fact a hundred cars are now blocked in because of their actions doesn’t matter one whit: the important thing is they have advanced two metres, and to hell with everyone else. This is why Lagos is the most dysfunctional place I’ve ever been to.

Britain is slowly but surely shifting from a society where people cooperated to ease things along to one where it’s every man and woman for themselves. Unfortunately, none embody the spirit of “f*ck you, I’ll do what I want” more than young mothers after a late-night session on Mumsnet. There was a time when parents didn’t take young children into restaurants because the inevitable screaming and toddler behaviour would disturb the other patrons. Now it’s “tough sh*t, I have as much right to be here as you”. There was also a time when, if a child was causing a disturbance, the mother would feel deeply embarrassed and get her kid out of there pronto. Now her approach is “so what, he’s a child, he can’t help it” or, worse, she does nothing at all. Breastfeeding in public is another interesting subject in this regard. I have no problem with it, and I’ve sat with a friend who breastfed her boy under a blanket and it didn’t bother me at all. But some people don’t like it, and rather than seeking a compromise or avoiding conflict the position of mothers has been “I have right to breastfeed in public, it’s your problem, not mine”.

The trouble with a society where people loudly declare they have a right to do X, Y, and Z and everyone else will just have to lump it, is the give-and-take compromises which act as the lubricant to make everyone’s lives a little more pleasant dries up. Eventually people will think if you have the right to do X, then I have the right to do Y. Or, to come back to the EasyJet flight, I have a right to stay in my seat. There’s also the related issue, which I’ve written about before, of parents thinking the whole world must changed for the benefit of their brats. If you see a highly illiberal policy idea being shared on Facebook, you can be sure it has the strong backing of over-entitled middle class mothers who want everyone’s freedoms severely curtailed “for the sake of the children.” By which they mean their children. I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s getting a little sick of this, and it’s not going to help matters when a mother needs too ask a favour of a stranger.

A lot of the responses to my friend’s original Facebook post complained how selfish the other passengers were, or how they despair of modern society. But this didn’t happen overnight, and I suspect one or two of them have helped bring this situation about more than they realise.


26 thoughts on “Strangers on a Plane

  1. There was once a time when “rights” came paired with something known as “responsibilities”. Now everyone simply wants rights because that’s their due it seems without a care for what the corollary might be.

  2. A functioning society provides rewards to people who bend to allow it’s smooth function, a bit of respect, a bit of reciprocation, that sort of thing.

    Once everyone has wised up to the fact the traffic is all one way, behavior changes.

  3. I once traveled back from Peru with my wife and 6 month old daughter (my wife is Peruvian and we were visiting her family with our new baby for the 1st time). As I had been working, I hadn’t been able to fly out with her and so our bookings had been made at different times but we’d managed to get on the same flight home. On our same flight was another couple with another baby of a similar age. For such a long flight (14hrs or so) with a baby you normally get sat on the bulk head seats so that they can fasten a bassinet for your baby to the bulkhead wall. Were on a 777 so – 4 seats in the middle row of seats. Should have been easy – mum & dad – baby on wall + mum & dad – baby on wall…..
    However one of the seats in the row of 4 had a middle aged French man (a right sleezy looking guy) who refused to swap seats with the dad of the other couple and sat for 14 hrs with a baby in a bassinet right against him with a face like he had a turd under his nose for the whole trip, waived away the flight crew when the asked if he wouldn’t mind moving, refused to meet the eye of any of us parents & ignored requests & pleas to move… (we did shifts so that the other couple could be together too)
    I know the world doesn’t revolve around kids, but I also think selfishness towards parents & kids is something that is rotten about the west nowadays – kids are not seen as an investment in “our” future (as a culture, race species etc) but rather a selfish lifestyle choice equally valid as any other passtime or passion in life.

  4. I’ll also say that the obvious solution is to not fly EasyJet if you want your family to sit together, and instead book with an airline which lets you reserve seats in advance

    Easyjet will let you do this, these days, if you pay extra (I fly with them a lot and always get an emergency exit seat, because it comes with extra legroom and first-on boarding, and if I need to get off quick to catch a train I try to get seat 1A (though unsurprisingly that one often goes first)).

    If you have been allocated seats at the gate then it means you didn’t pay to book them, you just turned up hoping you’d save a few quid and still get to sit together.

    I’m not sure how I feel about that: on the one hand yes, it’s polite to move. On the other hand, if you deliberately don’t spend the money to book the searts on the assumption that you can get people (possibly people who did pay to book their seats) to move, then you’re trying to take advantage of people’s good will, and that seems… off to me?

    (Personally, I think the correct solution is for Easy Jet to just make seat booking automatic and increase the standard fare, but I can see why they don’t want to do that).

    I always do. I’ve moved seats so kids can sit with their parents, or couples can sit together.

    I moved for one half of a couple once, at JFK. Meant I moved from an aisle seat to one in the middle of a row surrounded by Germans… and then, thanks to the weather, the ‘plane spent three extra hours on the ground waiting to take off. I cursed my accomodating nature the whole time.

  5. We all see examples of good and bad standards in our everyday life, especially when it comes to child etiquette. My wife can get quite vociferous about this at times about certain situations. Like say after a meal at at restaurant did you see this kid doing that or that couple not moving for a kid. I don’t think that her after the events protests makes one iota of a difference. Except maybe for her friends agreeing that standards have dropped. Whether they have or not is one thing, complaining to others after the event does nothing to address anything so why whine so much about it, is my view.

    I see that children on planes seems to be one of the latest hot topics, airplane etiquette is the new black.

  6. I’m afraid that I agree withS. If one boards an Easyjet flight without early check in which would probably have givens seats together or paying the eight quid for a guaranteec seat, then that’s tough tit and serves the parents right.

    I’ve moved for families and couples on flights, but if I asked and paid for a specific seat, I bloody wouldn’t.

  7. Rights are a funny old thing. If, to deliver your “right” you have to reduce one of mine, perhaps we’ve not got the correct balance.

    P J O’Rourke talks about “gerchya” and “gimme” rights. Gerchya being things like free speech and not being murdered.
    Gimme rights are things like the right to food and shelter. Sure, but how is that provided to you, from whom and how?

    As for kids on planes; I’ve been on both sides of the equation. As with all social situations, the first principle should be “do try not to be a dick”, which means paying for allocated seats on a budget flight and responding to polite requests to swap seats. I’ve booked us on budget flights before and accepted the risk that we won’t sit together. As it happens, we’ve never had to.

  8. “Britain is slowly but surely shifting from a society where people cooperated to ease things along to one where it’s every man and woman for themselves.”

    You’re “surely” becoming a grumpy old man. There’s nothing “sure” about that assertion at all, it’s just pure curmudgeonship. You’re probably making yourself miserable by reading Twitter or something, when instead you could be looking at evidence about animal welfare or charitable giving or care for the environment which might actually be a valid proxy for societal selflessness.

    I also agree with other dissenters that people who are mean enough to forego (tiny) additional payments for stuff shouldn’t then hold out much hope that the rest of the world will accommodate them when they decide they want it anyway. I pay for seat allocation when I fly with my family – it’s just part of the cost of travelling with them.

  9. It’s those laws again. Unless there is specific legislation, some dickheads will assume bad behaviour is OK. If the legislation didn’t exist people would behave better.

    It’s like when traffic lights break down. Traffic flows freer.

  10. Yes, standards have slipped, but I think the rate at which it has slipped corresponds exactly to the rate in which the State interferes and regulates people’s behaviour in everyday life. It serves only to infantalise people and give a false sense of entitlement.

  11. You’re “surely” becoming a grumpy old man. There’s nothing “sure” about that assertion at all, it’s just pure curmudgeonship.

    You’re right. Increased geographical mobility, increasing urbanised populations concentrated in large cities, immigration, smaller families, increased government, and the decline of organised religion has had no impact on social cohesion. It’s all in my head due to age.

  12. In Birmingham several big roundabouts are being replaced with traffic light controlled box junctions. This is, I believe, because of the prevalence of, to use your distinctions, the Lagos style attitude to driving prevalent on the city’s streets.

  13. I’ve noticed the difference since I moved from a big city to a small village. Standards and cooperation still very much in evidence here, unlike in my old suburb which claimed to have an amazing sense of community, but in reality (well not reality, on the Facebook page) this meant no one was allowed to complain about or even point out poor behaviour and you’d be shouted down if you did. ‘Judgement’ of bad behaviour was a worse crime than any misdemeanour. Here you so much as sneeze and someone will be round to have a quiet word to complain about the noise. But everyone understands what the standards are and they’re maintained ‘for the greater good’ (to intentionally quote Hot Fuzz).

    I once saw a Facebook friend complain that someone had asked her to move out of the train seat she was occupying, as the person had booked that seat. She was disgusted. I’m still baffled by that.

  14. Old Canuck hit the nail on the head in that first response to this post – and is echoing what I’ve been saying for many years now when people bleat on about ‘rights’. They are counter-balanced with responsibilities. People of course try to blame Thatch for this selfishness, but it ain’t that: it’s lazy parenting and importation of different (dare, I say, lower) standards a-la Lagos.

  15. Nothing worse than being on a flight with a family who doesn’t know how things work, and expect others to accommodate them. I travel quite a bit, and used to see this more often than I do now.

    I very rarely fly on airlines with festival seating. When I do I’m usually flying alone. The trick is to check in and score a low boarding number. That said, when I do fly them Southwest is ruthless at enforcing fairness. I’ve seen them jam people trying to save seats for their friends. Usually though, the rules are known and people will work things out and shuffle around. Back when I had small kids, the SWA planes had bulkhead seats that faced each other. So we’d board at a low number and score 5 of the 6 seats. The don’t have those seat configurations any longer.

    I have elite status on a major carrier. I pick my seat, like Tim, I go for the exit aisles, or at least an aisle seat. Even though I enjoy elite status, some flights those seats are pay-to-play. No way in hell I move. Bottom line, you can get the app, or go on the web and pick your seat (generally). If you don’t know that, then tough shit. You’re at the mercy of strangers. The catch here is if you aren’t a member, or at least have some frequent flyer status, you may not see all the available seats. My wife logged in once, and the only seats for her were middle. I log in to my account – same flight, and I have my pick.

    The solution is actually simple for families and budget airlines- let those with small chillruns board first. They don’t do this any more.

    I was flying back from LA once, scored my coveted aisle seat, exit aisle. In the exit row, there was only one middle seat open after boarding. There were two in the row behind. Since it was American Air, it was guaran-damn-teed that everyone there ponied up for those seats (aisle and window). Late in the game a group of three – (Mother, Son, Son’s girlfriend) apparently scored standby. When they realized they’d have to sit separately, The princess girlfriend erupts in tears. No one was going to budge. A scene ensues. The steward show up and tells them it is what it is, and they have a minute to work it out, otherwise they’ll have to get off the plane. That caused princess to sob hysterically.

    A minute later he’s back and tells them they gotta go. More hysterics. In the end, the dude in the other aisle seat in my row took one for the team and took the seat next to me.

    Princess sobbed until well into drinks service.

  16. I fly a lot. Quite a lot solo. Quite a lot with my small daughter. I think frequent flyers forget just how little most people travel and how rarely they travel with the same airline more than once every few years. The number of people sitting in row 15 when their seat says 35 is amazing, or they are trying it on.
    Having read this thread I am not sure which.

    Back on topic. A 4 year old though! Surely the airline software should have spotted this and realised it’s a court case waiting to happen and blocked a seat? Who the hell wants to be sat next to a stranger’s four year old and have no idea what they might be accused of? On a short flight I would move ina heartbeat. Three hrs in a middle seat is hardly life threatening. I would try to spot whether it was a middle between two whales though….

  17. I think frequent flyers forget just how little most people travel and how rarely they travel with the same airline more than once every few years

    There should be separate airlines for people who travel a lot and hence are able to carry out simple tasks such as empty their pockets of metal items and find their seats. Hell, there should be stringent competence tests before people are allowed to even enter airports.

  18. Andrew again reminds me of a flight a few years back. I was on a BA flight from Frankfurt to Heathrow, it must have been a company one as I would never fly BA voluntarily. I was placed next door to a little girl, an “unmin” I believe they are called, aged about 8-10. I was a bit concerned and expressed this to a stewardess who after giving me a typical BA-look ( ie you are scum, why are you polluting my plane ) said “I’ll think you’ll be alright.” The little girl then said “It’s OK, I don’t bite.”
    We were fine after that and had a very enjoyable flight, she was hilarious, especially when I pointed out an exceedingly ancient stewardess and she said “Oooh, she looks like death warmed up !”

  19. Unfortunately, none embody the spirit of “f*ck you, I’ll do what I want” more than young mothers after a late-night session on Mumsnet women.

    Fixed it for you.

    It’s called a “shit test”, and men as a sex have been failing them for two generations in a row now.

  20. There should be separate airlines for people who travel a lot and hence are able to carry out simple tasks such as empty their pockets of metal items and find their seats. Hell, there should be stringent competence tests before people are allowed to even enter airports.

    I am on board with that.

  21. Why didn’t they reserve seats? It’s standard now on Easy Jet (for a fee of course). It’s irresponsible to risk having small children split up from parents and inconsiderate to other passengers.

  22. I’ve recently come back from a holiday where we flew Easyjet with our 15 month old daughter.

    We were dreading being that family on the flight so we booked the very back seats, so that if she did kick off we could walk her around and the back of the plane away from other passengers (or just go hide in the toilets).

    The plan worked and I feel we managed to minimise the disturbance for others on the flight.

  23. The other telling point on unruly children and ineffective parenting on aircraft is that it is rarely seen in business or first class seats. The only incident I can recall which was quite recent was when two young brats were chucking tantrums just at the final passport cehck before boarding the aircraft. I was behind them and had a fairly harrowing day and was looking forward to being the last to board and then had to wait while everyone put up with this situation including the airline official that was smiling and the father trying unsuccessfully to get his boys to comply. They all looked at me as if to say, kids eh? whereas if it had being mine I would have physically dragged them out of the way in order that the folk behind me could have boarded. I met the parents later on at the bar and they recognized me and instead of apologising for their earlier behaviour, they started telling me why their boys were dysfunctional at the flight gate and how they were like that at times like this. Poor parenting in my books and the kids brattishness was left unchecked and if anything actually encouraged as they no doubt overheard the conversation of teir parents condoning it.

  24. I work a FIFO role, and one of the 1st things that I learnt was that there was an unwritten rule about how everyone got off the plane. This involved everyone getting off the plane in sequence with noone trying to push ahead in line.
    Compare this behaviour with when I flew on the non-FIFO flight, and the rush of people trying to get off the plane as quick as possible without any regard to the passengers sitting in front of them.
    This to me is a prime example of the difference between rights and responsibilities, in that you have the right to get off the plane, but there’s a responsibility for you to wait your turn to get off said plane.

  25. @ Robert

    Great post, aircraft etiquette and lack thereoff has become the number one social issue of our times.

  26. I travel back and forth between Amsterdam and Manchester at least twice a month. I’m staggered by the number of illiterate people that are allowed to travel. They can’t even read their own fucking boarding pass that clearly states which door to use on embarkation. There’s always some fuckwit in row 30 who gets on at the font of the plane.

    Sooner or later I’m going to get arrested for causing a ruckus with one of these morons.

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