First Class, Low Class, No Class: The Passenger Hall of Shame

June 20, 2016

I’M OLD ENOUGH to remember when people dressed up to fly. I remember my dad putting on a tie before we left for the airport. And that was on a trip to Florida, of all places, as recently as the early 1980s.

One of the reasons, though, that people once took flying so seriously, is that so few of them had the means to partake in it. Not all that long ago, only a fraction of the population could afford to fly on a regular basis. When I was in junior high, in the late ’70s, maybe a third of my classmates had ever been in an airplane. Even into high school I frequently met other kids who’d never flown. Flying today is far cheaper than it used to be. As a result, almost everybody does it.

And as the demographics have changed, so have the levels of behavior. This we’d expect. With nearly four million people flying every day of the week, across every strata of culture and class the world over, standards of decorum are going to fall. That’s fine, and I don’t want to sound snobbish about it. Maintaining simple dignity doesn’t require anything too formal. I have no problem, for example, with people wearing shorts and sandals onto a plane.

But there comes a point, and what I do have a problem with, is the idea that otherwise reasonable protocols of civility, manners and courtesy cease to apply when you’re at an airport or on an airplane.

I’ve never been privy to a full-blown “air rage” incident, but I’ve witnessed countless instances of shameful behavior: passengers cursing at airline staff; stealing from the liquor carts; leaving soiled diapers in seat pockets; etc., etc. Why, for example, do so many airline passengers find it acceptable to throw their garbage and food all over the cabin floor, then mash it into the carpeting with their feet? You don’t do this in a restaurant. Why is it okay on an airplane? It tends to be small-scale stuff — rudeness and a lack of elementary courtesy — rather than anything violent or overtly hostile, but that doesn’t excuse it.

Here is just some of what I’ve witnessed over the past several months…

I am at the airport in Dubai one early morning, waiting to catch an Emirates flight to Boston. I’m sitting in the boarding lounge when I hear a strange noise coming from behind me. Snip, snip snip, click, click, click. What is that?

I turn around, and what do I see? The guy directly behind me — a young guy in his twenties — is sitting cross-legged in his chair. Both of this feet are naked, and he is clipping his toenails. With every snip and click he splits away another crescent of toenail, which he drops into a growing pile next to his left knee.

Would you take off your socks and start clipping your toenails in a movie theater? In the waiting room at your dentist? Most people would feel uneasy doing it in the woods, never mind at an airport boarding lounge in front of three-hundred people. And while I don’t want to watch, I feel that I have to. Because I need to know what he’s going to do with that big, disgusting pile of trimmings once our flight begins to board. Is he going to collect them up and carry them to the trash? Or will he brush them onto the floor?

What do you think he does?

On another occasion I am at Kennedy Airport, in terminal four, down near the Virgin America gates. A woman and her young daughter are sitting on a bench-seat right along the edge of the corridor. The daughter is four, maybe five years old, and she’s holding a tall plastic cup brimming with round, colored candies. They’re marble-shaped candies, possibly peanut M&Ms. All at once, with no warning, the girl takes the cup and flings the entire thing onto the floor. It’s an impressive spectacle, I have to say, as hundreds of tiny orbs go clattering across the carpet, coming to rest in a great fan-shaped display of color. People turn and stare. And what does the woman do?

She stands up, takes the girl by the hand, and the two of them walk silently away, leaving the entire mess — even the plastic cup — sitting there for some unfortunate janitorial worker to sweep up.

Meanwhile, people are kicked off planes all the time for acting, and even dressing, obnoxiously. In Boston recently, jetBlue denied boarding to a young woman because they felt her shorts were too revealing. Apparently, though, a t-shirt emblazoned with the words FUCK LOVE in giant block letters is within the boundaries of decency?


I’m not a prude. Nonetheless I’m dying to understand when and how this sort of thing become acceptable. And I’m imagining this same attire in a different context. In the bleachers at a baseball game, for instance. Would that be okay? Would the guy be asked to leave? Wouldn’t he be harassed by parents who’d brought their kids along? There are plenty of little kids at airports, so why is it different here? And which is more troubling, the fact that he’s being accommodated, or the fact that somebody rude enough to put on a shirt like that exists in the first place?

I’m reminded of a shirt that was all the rage a few years ago in Asia. It was a sleeveless tee bearing the grainy image of the model Hedi Klum. She was topless, biting her lip and sticking her middle finger at the viewer. After six days in Thailand I must have seen five hundred tourists — all of them women, whatever that means — wearing these distasteful and hostile things. This one, though, is worse. Mr. FUCK LOVE takes it to the next level. I’m not a proponent of public shaming, so I’ve blurred out the faces, but if anybody deserves to be embarrassed, it’s this guy. His is a sort of brutalist vulgarity.

Next we have Ms. Stinkytoes, luxuriating in her Emirates first class suite. She shows us that boorishness these days isn’t merely for the louts in steerage. Are these the same people who buy elephant ivory and rhinoceros horns? And the privacy of her suite is no excuse (couldn’t she at least have closed the doors?). Maybe I’m overreacting to this one, but how is this any more appropriate that resting one’s bare and splayed toes on a restaurant table? This is still, for all intents and purposes, a public place, and somebody else is going to be occupying that cubicle a few hours from now. And for crying out loud, they give you socks and slippers!


What is it? Is it the stress? Is it the contempt people harbor for the airlines? Whatever the causes, flying has a way of bringing out the worst in people.


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