I travel a lot for my day job, which means I spend a lot of time on airplanes and in airports. I got my pilot's license when I was 18 and my instrument rating ten years later, so I don't think of myself as a fearful flyer.
Overall, I've had decent luck while flying. I have had my fair share of hiccups, but I don't remember most of them - it's just something that goes with the territory.
Yesterday's flight to Salt Lake City was an exception.
Like many of you, I've read some articles lately about the rise of air rage as of late. And while I've seen an increase in tempers recently, it's never really impacted me until yesterday morning. Sitting in my assigned seat, a man in his mid twenties stowed his bags in the overhead bin and violently slammed it shut above my head. Without saying a word, he tapped me on the shoulder and pointed to his seat.
Red flag number one.
I stood up (I always pick the aisle seat) to give him easier access into his seat, and I noticed he wreaked of alcohol.
Red flag number two.
At this point, I was not worried. I am quite used to tuning people out sitting next to me, thanks in part to the Bose headphones I take whenever I fly. (Bose headphones are one of the greatest investments a business traveler can make.)
Despite the fact there are three seats on this row and it's clear that there are only two of us sitting on this row, he elects to sit next to me in the middle seat, leaving the window seat empty.
Red flag number three.
A flight attendant came by to ask him a question about his ticket. He slurred his words in response in a completely incoherent fashion. Trying to be nice, I made some comment about how I hoped the airline got their seating arrangement squared away soon.
His response? "I hope your <expletive> shirt doesn't piss me off."
Red flag number four.
I'm mentally turning on all of the switches now: Full situational awareness on. Conflict resolution optimizer on. Verbal judo mode engaged. Aisle arm rest now in the up position in case he starts punching me and I need to get up quickly.
Gear check: my Fenix flashlight (with strobe capability) in my pocket. The heavy carabiner I keep clipped to my briefcase is now off and in my pocket as well.
Seat belt check: belt buckle opens to the right, in case I need to quickly stand up.
He continued to talk incoherently, encouraging me to engage in sexual relations with myself. Occasionally he asked me a question. I couldn't understand him, of course, because he was hammered. I told him I'm hard of hearing (which isn't true) in an effort to use verbal judo to throw him out of his OODA loop; I asked him if he could repeat the question. In reality, I'm baiting him: I was hoping he raised his voice to overcome my alleged hearing deficiencies so that other passengers can be made aware of the situation. He didn't take the bait, however.
We took off, and five minutes later I decided to get more people in the boat with me. I ignored the "fasten your seatbelt" sign and walked back to the rear galley to advise a flight attendant, "The gentleman in 23 B is drunk and wants to fight me."
The flight attendant reports they are aware of his intoxication - "we've already had one issue with him, and he shouldn't have been allowed on the plane. We won't be serving him alcohol. Would you like to move to another seat?"
I declined, because I was somewhat concerned that me moving my things may make the situation worse. I'd already made a mental note that there was a young boy sitting directly in front of him. Had things deteriorated, that kid would be in the danger zone. I told the flight attendant let's see how the next few minutes go before we take any further action.
At some point, The Gentleman In 23 B realized I was not going to be belligerent with him. As we teach in the Texas License to Carry class, Ego State Theory suggests people remain in the adult ego state in this scenario - try to de-escalate the situation - and not respond in kind to his verbal aggression. It seemed to be working, and he attempted to apologize for his behavior in a sloppy drunken fashion.
A few moments later, the flight attendants began taking drink orders, and of course, he ordered more alcohol. The flight attendant was professional but firm - they refused to serve him. And while he was drunk, he was not stupid - he lobbied me to buy a drink to give to him. I just kept smiling and saying "No, I am good, man - thanks anyway" - which is a nonsensical answer to his request, but he was having a hard time processing it. (Knocking drunks out of their OODA loop is pretty easy to do.)
He even reached forward to tap the boy sitting in front of him on the shoulder - presumably to ask him to buy him a drink - until he realized the kid was way too underage to be of help.
The remainder of the flight was fine, although he was annoying. Despite the fact I was wearing Bose headphones, he kept tapping me on the arm to ask me what I am reading, whether I was a Mormon, and how he learned to fly a plane before he could drive a car. He continued to talk even though I had the headphones on.
The flight attendants appreciated my patience, asking me for my ticket so they could give me some frequent flyer miles for my trouble.
Throughout the ordeal, I made the following notes:
Many of you will find this final point odd. But last night during my evening prayer, I thought of that young man and prayed for him. I will continue to do so. Anyone that drunk at 8 AM who thinks it's a good idea to threaten and berate someone he's sitting next to has a lot of problems. I don't know what's going on in his life. I prayed for peace and healing. I prayed he would find his way and become a responsible citizen.
At the end of flight, this was a "no harm, no foul" event. But it could have turned out differently.
Here's where I tell you what I think about things I think about.