Which airline passengers drive you the craziest?

by Christopher Elliott on January 5, 2012

As any new parent knows, air travel with young kids isn’t always easy. But few experiences come close to the Suelings’ Thanksgiving flight from Westchester County to Atlanta on Delta Air Lines.

After the family boarded, their children, ages 3 and 1 1/2, began “crying, screaming and hitting,” according to Christopher Sueling. His wife, Melissa, tried to calm her baby by nursing her, but it didn’t work.

“The flight attendants were just standing there, looking pissed off,” he says.

The jet taxied out to the runway, but then stopped and returned to the gate. The Suelings were told to get off the plane and that they needed to write to Delta if they wanted their money back. They even took a snapshot (see image, above) to document their ejection.

I’m the father of three young children, so I sympathize with the Suelings. I think Delta probably overreacted to the unruly family, and it certainly didn’t move quickly enough when they asked for a refund. I helped things along by contacting Delta on their behalf after they wrote to me last year asking for help, and they were eventually reimbursed.

But there are other passengers — and I think it’s probably safe to say that some air travelers on the Suelings’ outbound flight felt this way — who were relieved that the flight attendants showed them the door.

Why? Because they combined two of the least desirable qualities in a seatmate, according to many travelers I hear from: yelling kids and nursing moms.

I started giving the subject of unwanted seatmates serious thought after a recent story on XL passengers went viral in November. My editor asked me if there were other types of air travelers people avoided, and if we could try to identify the biggest offenders, as a public service to our readers.

Absolutely.

The gadget guy. Passengers who can’t find the “off” switch on their iPhone (think Alec Baldwin) represent a special kind of annoyance to their fellow travelers. Not only do they often aggressively defend their right to use the electronics, even when federal law prohibits it, but they also have a tendency to be in your face about it. They’re less likely to follow the instructions of a crewmember and they show a complete disregard for the safety of others by operating their electronics when it could interfere with the aircraft’s critical systems.

The screaming infant. Noisy kids, and particularly very young children whose high-pitched voices reverberate throughout the cabin, rank high on every air traveler’s “most annoying” list. Here’s a little-known fact: When you’re a new parent, you develop the ability to block your baby’s incessant screams, so you basically can tune the child out whenever you want. The rest of your fellow passengers aren’t so lucky. The ear-piercing, glass-shattering screams have everyone else reaching for their earplugs. It’s highly irritating.

The barking lapdog. Pets on planes is a never-ending source of controversy, and with good reason. Pet owners, who insist they have a right to take Fluffy or Fido with them wherever they go, are clashing with travelers who claim they have allergies to pet dander, but are often just ticked off that they have to endure the sounds of a yapping, caged canine for the duration of a flight.

The oversize passenger. I could probably write about XL air travelers that take up more than one seat every week, because there are such strong opinions on both sides of the aisle. On one side, the passengers who are pushed out of their seat by big travelers who need to raise the armrests in order to sit down; on the other side, large passengers who believe their girth should be treated like a disability. In a way, both are victims — and both are annoyed by their critics.

The breastfeeding mom. I think most of us would be lying if we said we didn’t experience at least some level of discomfort at being seated next to a nursing mom. It’s not necessarily her baby, which we fear could projectile-burp the contents of its stomach on us, but the fact that she’ll probably expose herself at some point during the flight. There have been incidents involving breastfeeding moms, including one lawsuit against Delta by a mother who was kicked off a Delta flight a few years ago (sound familiar?).

The smelly or chatty adult. If you’ve ever been stuck next to the proselytizer pitching anything from a religion to insurance, you know how unbearable the flight can be. I’ve been there. But sometimes, a passenger doesn’t have to say anything in order to irritate you. She could have slathered half a bottle of retch-inducing gardenia perfume on her, pre-flight; or he could have simply refused to bathe the month before his trip, or downed a quart of vodka and inhaled a pack of unfiltered cigarettes to calm the nerves.

Bedbugs. Maybe the worst seatmates are the ones you can’t see. Here’s a woman on another Delta flight who says she was eaten by bedbugs on a recent flight. Delta again, huh? I would add to that list insects or rodents or — God forbid — snakes that come aboard and pester you during your trip. Highly annoying.

Hard decision, isn’t it? Air travelers are so easily annoyed by one another, and don’t even get me started with the things flight attendants do. But that’s another story.

Time to vote, my friends.

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  • Marliny

    1. Gadget guy – I have never seen any proof that the typical electronic gadget will interfere with the plane, some airlines are even giving the pilots tablets to use in the cockpit instead of paper manuals. I have listened to experts in this area comment on this as well
    2. Breastfeeding mom – I don’t mind sitting beside this one a tall, especially if she is cute, I would rather enjoy it.  

  • Robb

    I think the reason the barking lapdog gets so few votes is that most dogs (like mine) go right to sleep and if you didn’t see the dog you wouldn’t know she is there.

  • Leonardvavra

    I am an oversize passenger. I am no more comfortable takeing up someone elses space than they are. I buy a second seat for myself. What has happened to me is 1 the person in the seat next to them that I paid for thinks it is an empty seat and proceeds to treat it like it is theres. 2 The 2 seats I bought are not next to each other when I check in and I am told ” tough” By the agent. So what are any other options for me?  I can not afford 1st class.

  • Tim O’brien

    Far and above all other negatives about flying are screaming infants. Penetrating sounds that go right through you (and your noise cancelling earphones, by the way).  Breastfeeding mothers don’t bother me at all.  Breastfeeding fathers do. 

  • mbj0213

    You forgot the drunks.

  • Frank

    Most are well behaved.  But, there are exceptions.  I had a dog BARK, and I mean BARKKKKKKK all the way to SEA from the East Coast.  I had one bark this week.  And, repeatedly asked the woman to ZIP IT UP, meaning she kept letting the dog’s head out of the cloth carrier.  NOT permitted. 

  • Frank

    Most are well behaved.  But, there are exceptions.  I had a dog BARK, and I mean BARKKKKKKK all the way to SEA from the East Coast.  I had one bark this week.  And, repeatedly asked the woman to ZIP IT UP, meaning she kept letting the dog’s head out of the cloth carrier.  NOT permitted. 

  • Frank

    I’ve had several pilot mention this during our briefings prior to starting our trips.  We go over some security issue, procedures, safety notices,etc.

    Pilot says, “Keep me informed of any CRAZIES onboard”.  We all smile.

  • Frank

    I’ve had several pilot mention this during our briefings prior to starting our trips.  We go over some security issue, procedures, safety notices,etc.

    Pilot says, “Keep me informed of any CRAZIES onboard”.  We all smile.

  • Frank
  • Stephen Tao

    How about the Pilgrimage who brings everything they need for a year on board with them?

  • Cocomo

    That’s nice of you to share the unused portion of the extra seat you bought.  I feel sympathy for the obese.  Your knees, your back, your furniture and your shoes wear out too fast.  Your clothes are more expensive.  It’s hard to get around, aisles and chairs are too narrow, more than a few stairs are impossible.  You stand a higher chance than the average guy of dropping over from a heart attack, stroking out, getting diabetes, depression, or cancer.  You get overlooked for jobs and promotions.  People don’t like you just on sight.  The most amazing part is that the one and only solution for all your pain is to stop eating so much and get some regular exercise.  

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_YJOFCUW4S62AICSGYG562VMHZY Marje

    Well, heck, the kids’ ears probably hurt. And they probably were not prepped with “pretend we’re on a plane traveling to visit (fill in the blank)” game. And no mention of chewing gum to help the ears adjust to the pressure change, nor appropriate toys in a carryon. 
    btw, didn’t you write about this recently? 

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_YJOFCUW4S62AICSGYG562VMHZY Marje

    Steve….some of us are insecure without our stuff….. 

  • Dirtyhotcarlsanchez

    I am glad there is such a simple solution to obesity. Too bad they don’t make a cure for asshole.

  • Anonymous

    Take a lesson from Thumper’s mother. If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all. There’s way more to obesity than food comsumption. 

  • AKFlyer

    You forgot the fidgeter.  As someone who takes a red-eye virtually every time I leave home, I really resent the over-caffeinated or just plain undisciplined seatmate who continually jostles me with their elbows, shoulders, reading material, and garments, etc., or who can’t sit still without jiggling their legs or constantly sighing out loud.  Even when I’m not trying to sleep it’s annoying to get an elbow in the ribs every five minutes.  I’m a tiny adult who keeps her shoulders and arms well inside the armrests and gets on the plane ready to sit quietly for however long it takes.  This ability was drilled into me at an early age by my parents and school.  I know ADD is a disability some have, but the number of fidgety adults far outweighs the ADD population. By the way, guys, it’s particularly intrusive to press your legs against my thighs or elbow me in the side of my breasts.  It is possible for all but the largest man to keep your arms away from my torso and to sit with your legs closer together, but to do this you have to realize that the sprawling posture appropriate when lounging in your living room recliner is not going to hack it on a plane.  Wear a jockstrap if your boys get in the way.

  • Munchnib

    I wear a head set so noise is not an issue.  it alos tends to quiet seatmates who are overly talkative.  Having to share my space with a vastly oversize person is a problem.  Peolple who are big have the right to travel, just like the rest of us,  However that right does mean they have to take responsibility for paying for their physical situation.  i would bet they rent a larger, more expensive car, becasue of their size, and don’t think twice about it.

  • Ton

    i can live with a crying baby, they can’t do anything about it, it’s the older kids that scream etc and the parents who won’t or can’t control them i dislike

    as for breastfeeding, the noise made about that is foolish, what is the problem with the fact that a woman is feeding her baby? she is not doing anything sexual,( and people who think that it is need a shrink)

    gadget guy can be switched off (1 of the reasons i do not want wifi/phone on planes) but you can’t make somebody thin and (oke soap etc would) smell better

    lets not forget the ladies with bad perfume of the young adult with headphones so loud that the noise can be heared everywhere

  • DCTA

    Nothing, seriously NOTHING bugs me more on a plane than some woman or man who has liberally splashed on the cologne before going to the airport!!!  I think it is simply one of the most obnoxious, rude, self-centered (as in “thoughtless”) things anyone can do. 

  • Pingback: Which airline passengers drive you the craziest? | TravelSquare

  • Beth

    All these comments are quite good, with a few exceptions.
    My gripe

    1)I am a tiny lady, and some how my seat always seems to end up right next to a very oberse person on a totally full aircraft..  And I mean over 250 pounds male mostly. I have had men fall asleas

  • Mtaabq

    As a “customer of size” I fly Southwest most often and in purchasing two seats I get to pre-board so finding 2 seats together isn’t a problem. You are right, however, about the person in the seat next to yours who feels that they can use the extra seat for their coat, book, newspaper, etc, or, worse yet, who stows their carry-on under your 2nd seat. Most of the people who sit next to me are rather happy to know there is 
    (ostensibly) an empty seat next to them — and most are very nice. 

  • Suzie

    Most fellow travelers are probably unaware that the seat has been purchased, rather than just being vacant. 

  • Suzie

    Obesity is the predictable outcome of a food addiction.  Caloric intake – activity level = weight.  If one can’t control their behavior and that behavior results in a significant negative impact in one’s life, get some help.  It isn’t isn’t anyone else’s problem to solve or accommodate. 

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_ZLE3FLYV7T3CSULU4AN2HSRUGU Vargas

    I must be lucky or something, because none of the above have occurred to me.

    I wear earplugs to block the white noise of the engines and 500 mph breeze, and that blocks out screaming infants’ cries as well. Also, I know the baby can’t help being in pain and there’s nothing the parent can do at the time to stop it, so I sympathize rather than complain.

    I ‘ve never believed that using cell phones or other gadgets intefere with flight control and haven’t encountered credible evidence to prove this,, so if I see someone ignoring the caution, I ignore then and let the FA handle it. If I’m using mine and the FA reminds me, I obey.

    Never flew with any animal in the cabin, except for service animals which are famously well-behaved. That said, I have known of and seen pet owners with a heightened sense of enlightenment removed from the aircraft for ignoring the FA’s instructions.

    Never sat next to an oversized or overly-smelly passenger; that one is just a matter of time and odds.

    Never encountered bedbugs or any other vermin on an aircraft.

    If someone wants to chat me up and I’m not busy working, I enjoy the conversation; the flight time gets eaten up quickly by a good conversation and I’ve made some pleasant contacts this way. If I’m busy working, I just tell them, “Excuse me, I don’t mean to be rude, but I have to focus on this thing I’m working on.” Polite firmness always works.

    No, by far my biggest complaint is the behavior of and treatment by FAs. It’s rare to encounter one who even notices let lone responds to my saying please, may I, and thank you. They treat everyone in coach with the same level of impatient disdain and make the flying experience unpleasant. They act like they hate all their coach customers equally, regardless of how they themselves are treated. Usually in business class they show respect, but some are bigots and their rude and dismissive treatment of me, a person of color in business class, is noticeable when I see them smiling and pleasant with the other (Caucasian) passengers around me. And it isn’t just Caucasian FAs who behave this way.

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  • Anonymous

    To address your biggest complaint of FA’s behavior: I am a FA and I love my job and after 13 hours and 4 hours of sleep I am still smiling. My last trip I served over 200 drinks and got 10 thank you’s 10 in 3 days 10. 20% responded to my hi how are you upon boarding the rest looked at me like I had 4 heads or just ignored me. I had 3 grown men throw, yes throw, bags at me then one called me a lazy b&^%* because I wouldn’t lift a bag that was bigger than me. It is company policy by all means do not touch a customers things as a FA because you will be held accountable if something breaks and they complain oh and if you get hurt too bad so sad it is all on you as we don’t pay you for workman’s comp during or for boarding either. I actually have been reprimanded for healping someone lift something before by my company, a major airline, gasp! If they have wings on they are not supposed to even touch your things people, that might help you understand…. i hope. If you can’t lift it or stow it yourself check it. Sorry that is the rules and the answer to why FA’s stand and stare as you stow your items. Moving along I had someone throw trash at me because I wouldn’t take it during service, a health violation, do you want me to serve you after I took your seatmates trash? Didn’t think so. I had two men on the same flight have a mom traveling alone with a week old infant to a funeral to tears saying to just “sling it in the overhead” because it was crying and yes she was trying. It is public transportation if you don’t want to hear infants cry you need to drive and yes some parents don’t even attempt to do anything about it and that is annoying but otherwise what do you want? really what do you want? My point about my rant here is I would like to point out that fellow travler’s in general make air travel a terrible task to have to endure. I am sorry you have encountered so many rude stewards but I must say I am one of the few left willing to go out of my way for our customer’s but after my last trip I was rethinking it as I sat crying under my covers pushing back vomit thinking about working the flight back after I had trash threw at me. I am also an RN and I do not get treated any better at that job, that I still hold, either. Oh yea the point here …. I think that the public in general is just rude and only thinking about themselves. If everyone could loose the me me me gimme gimme gimme mentality and realize that you have 1 attendant to every 50 people and there is actually more than themselves on the plane things would get better in the skies. Holidays are the worst people are so beat down by the time they get to the plane they have noone else left to use as a punching bag but the FA and you may have encountered a FA on the end of a shift and that is no excuse to be rude to a customer. Sometimes you wonder though why is this attendant being rude or is it over a FAR voilaiton. Most complaints of stews being rude are simply them having to enforce a regulation that they can be personally fined for if they don’t. It is true my friend is paying a $1000 fine because someone was hiding a cell phone during taxi and she along with the passenger got fined… Let me preapologize if you are thinking of traveling over the holiday because noone is treating anyone with common courtesy from fellow passengers to employees treating their own co-workers bad. Until the public bring back manners and the likes people will only get worse. Good luck out there people it is a mess.

  • Anonymous

    that is because gate agents purposely put small patrons next to large ones. not fair right?

  • Anonymous

    ok so maybe the electronic device rule is outdate and dumb but please follow it. my friend is paying a 1000$ fine for someone who is “above the rules” and was hiding it during taxi guess what? FAA was onboard and boom 1000$ for each FA that “didn’t enforce the FAR” and $2000 to the special person hiding his cell phone usage. right before christmas too….ouch

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