Incidents of childish outbursts and maskless encounters at airports are commonly seen in today’s media. Similar to the uptick of people terrorizing restaurant servers, the formerly “friendly skies” have become anything but that.
Instead, they’re characterized by volatile tempers and demonstrations of impatience. The interesting thing is offenders are not confined to one type of person or segment of the population.
How I learned this up close and personal is coming, but as stated, it isn’t as though profiling is necessarily effective.
There’s the A-list business guy paying to travel across the country in first-class luxury. He’s outraged and I’m not sure if it’s because he has to wear a mask for six hours, or because COVID-19 restrictions mean he had to bring his own J&B Scotch nips aboard. (A-list airline perks aren’t what they used to be.)
Then, there’s the exhausted family of four who can’t keep tiny masks on the faces of 4-year old twins on the way home from Walt Disney World. The family dropped at least a grand for four seats, and I’m sure this was front-of-mind when they were being gently scolded by a flight attendant and mentally stoned to death by fellow passengers. To say nothing about the tots’ high-pitched screaming getting deeper under the skin of the A-listers up front.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the empty-holstered travelers who have long believed their Second Amendment rights are being infringed upon. Even if gun owners are holding a carry permit, it’s a federal misdemeanor if a TSA agent finds a gun in carry-on luggage. Those folks are looking at up to a year in jail and a $100,000 fine. People without gun carry permits would be charged with a felony. I’m sharing this tidbit of knowledge because I recently met someone who feels unsafe because he can’t keep his gun with him while flying.
“I’m on edge and maybe kind of an a-hole when I’m unarmed,” said Connor Michaels, 57, of Richmond, Virginia. He was wearing a mask that looked as if it belonged to one of the twins, the material barely covering his mouth or any of his ZZ Top-like beard. While both of us were waiting out a second flight delay, Michaels sat next to me at the Flying Dog Tap House in the Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport in Maryland.
A nice enough guy, Michaels launched into an unprompted, one-sided conversation sharing that the airlines lost his luggage the last time he flew, so he’d only do a carry-on bag. But that means he can’t take his gun. I resisted the urge to ask why that mattered or to ask him anything at all.
Then, remembering my recent recommitment to “tend to existing relationships and be kinder to all,” I nodded politely. What I didn’t tell him is he’s lucky there are no guns allowed; if there were I’d be afraid someone would shoot him for not wearing his mask properly.
My time at BWI was an unplanned sleepover after a series of flight delays. Maybe it was karma for flying during the pandemic, but I couldn’t put off visiting my dad in Florida any longer. The visit deserves its own column, but seeing and hearing about airport behavior beyond news reports and TikTok influencers was eye-opening.
Tearing myself away from Michaels, I struck up an easy conversation with an off-duty, in-uniform flight attendant, also camping out in the airport until the first flight to Portland. She couldn’t tell me anything on the record about the four times she called security to a plane because of irate maskless people who were, as she said, probably very nice in everyday life.
“You’d be surprised how few incidents really make the news,” she said. “It’s usually when people pull out their phones and start videoing that we have to make a formal statement to the press. We get memos daily reminding us not to share information about altercations. The truth is, some people have always been difficult when flying. They’re either scared, or emotional about something, or, I don’t know. But we don’t get enough training to deal with it, that’s for sure.”
It was nearing 2:30 a.m. when she told me about the A-lister and the family of four above. She told me about a teenager who took a swing at a desk agent and someone who tried to switch identical duffle bags with a stranger. For absolutely no reason.
“They even called in the FBI on that one,” she said.
Before dozing off in the most uncomfortable chair ever, I thought about the similarities between servers and flight attendants; all that we don’t know about COVID-19; fear, and what we don’t read about in the news.
I for one am doubling down on my own “being kinder to all” thing. That, and I’m happy to share my nips.
Natalie Ladd is a Portland restaurant veteran, freelance writer, and connoisseur of all things Bruce Springsteen. She loves Boston sports, chewy red wine, and has never sampled a cheese she didn’t like. She can be reached at [email protected].