IT HAPPENED TO ME: I Was Verbally Assaulted by an Airline Passenger while Responding to a Medical Emergency

Some people should never fly. How a little tolerance, patience, kindness and understanding will go far to making everyone’s flying experience better.
Publish date:
June 12, 2015
airplanes, airlines, nursing, International Flights

On a red eye flight from Rome to New York, there was an onboard medical emergency. A female passenger in her late sixties was having chest pains.

Awakening from a dead sleep at 2 am, I responded to the flight attendant’s request as I am a registered nurse. She escorted me to the passenger seated about 12 rows forward of my seat.

When I arrived, she was sweating profusely, short of breath and crying. I went through my questioning and nursing assessment. I was quickly able to determine that what she was experiencing was not a heart attack, but, rather a panic attack! The plane had hit some bad turbulence and by her admittance, never a good traveler, her body’s response was to push the “panic button.”

While assisting this distraught lady, a male passenger in his 50s in the aisle seat directly behind the lady began complaining that we were disturbing his sleep.

“Can you just shut her up?” he whined in exasperation.

He continued to make derogatory comments about moving her somewhere else as all the commotion was interrupting his rest. While in his complaint mode, he also gave the lady sitting next to him a hard time when she asked if she could get out to use the bathroom.

The flight attendant politely asked him to quiet down, explaining that I was a nurse attempting to help the lady. When the flight attendant walked away to get some water, the guy lost it. He loudly bellyached again about the disruptive commotion, and then proceeded to hit the back of the woman’s seat twice and cursing at me, telling me to “Get her the hell out of here already.” I gave him a piercing look as I calmly asked him to stop in a level but business-like voice.

The flight attendant returned and once the lady had calmed down, I explained what had happened with the male passenger.

A few minutes later, an air marshal approached the highly irritated man and asked him what the problem was. Of course, he denied everything.

“Did you hit the back of this woman’s seat and swear at her?”

"No sir, I didn’t."

The passenger sitting directly across from him told the air marshal: “Yeah, he did”.

The air marshal asked the gentleman to take a walk with him, and he was gone for at least an hour. I have no idea what transpired, but when the passenger walked back to his seat with the air marshal, he came by to apologize for his behavior. I’m quite sure he had no choice. Or was threatened with lockdown on the flight should he be unable to hold it together.

The head flight attendant after the incident said to me “You know some people really should not fly” and she wasn’t talking about my patient.

One could endlessly speculate about the factors which provoke people to become awful human beings when in planes – full flights resulting in less personal space, claustrophobia, anxiety, reduced oxygen levels, dry, circulated air, uncomfortable temperatures, and so on but, I have come to the conclusion that it’s no excuse to behave badly!

I also have come to the conclusion that most misbehaved passengers probably act the exact same way when they’re not 30,000 feet in the air. The stress of flying may merely be a trigger and it doesn’t take much to turn these people into rude, insensitive, intolerant human beings! They probably practice road rage as well.

Being a frequent airline traveler, I’ve seen my share of “bad” airline behaviors, and I’m sure we all have stories that attest to this. The worst for me was obviously the above-mentioned scenario.

So, what can we do about these passengers who seem to have no social graces or understanding that their inconsiderate behaviors and poor boundaries do indeed have a negative emotional impact on other passengers?

One of my airline attendant friends with 30 plus years of experience suggests having a polite conversation with the passenger who is offending you. If not comfortable with this type of mild confrontation, or if you feel the situation is out of your comfort zone or dangerous, it’s OK to get out of your seat, find a flight attendant and let them handle it.

In my case with the medical situation, the flight attendant, much to her credit, deemed it necessary to get the air marshal involved when this guy continued to ramp up.

For passengers that have absolutely had it, there’s another way they’re fighting back! Shaming, on social media is the latest way airline travelers are venting their anger and frustration at their fellow ignoramus passengers.

Rants of a Sissy Stew, a blog written by a former airline flight attendant details incidents with photo examples of inappropriate and just downright rude passenger antics. Facebook has a page called Passenger Shaming showing pictures of some unbelievably “bad” behaviors! Fed up passengers are also sharing their stories and photos on Twitter and Instagram.

For passengers who would prefer not to have embarrassing photographs of their inappropriate aerial episodes smattered over the pages of worldwide social media, I encourage you to adopt the following measures. This list is certainly not all inclusive and readers are welcome to add to this list.

Common Decency Rules

Contrary to the beliefs of the offensively impolite, it’s not “all about you.” You are sharing close personal space with other travelers and despite the fact that you may not be aware that your actions are offensive to others; your fellow passengers have some common sense requests and expectations.

Please do not change your infant’s diaper on the seat or a tray table. Keep your feet off the tray table as well. Don’t hang your feet over the armrest of the passenger’s seat in front of you. That’s not your space. Keep your hands, arms, and legs to yourself. And, please do not allow your child to repeatedly kick the back of the seat in front of them (not picking on the kids, adults are seat kickers too)!

The seat pocket is not for gum disposal or toenail clippings. If you are seated in an aisle seat on a long flight, it’s likely you will have to get up a few times to let the other passengers out to use the restroom. If it’s not your comfort zone to be accommodating, please choose the window or middle seat.

If being seated near children is not your thing, please ask the flight attendant for a seat change, or make sure you bring your own Bose headset. The rest of us don’t want to hear you berate a Mom doing her best to keep a fussy baby content. We also don’t want to hear you complain about the airlines. We’re flying too, remember?

And of utmost importance for your sake and the sake of others, who would like to arrive at their destination safely and on time, if you know you have anger issues, skip the alcohol.

You're in a tight space at 30,000 feet with hundreds of fellow travelers, so even the small things can make a big difference. A little tolerance, patience, kindness and understanding will go far. We’ll all get to our destination a little less stressed and a lot happier for sure.