Everyone has an Airplane Story

Just about everyone has a bad airplane experience. There is just something about being in a tube. Here is a story of mine.

I was a 21 year old. At that age I had a carefree attitude and, more importantly, hair. I just spent a long weekend in Myrtle Beach with my family. It was Easter time and I was returning to college tan and refreshed. So I sat in my aisle seat pretending to read a magazine, but in reality I was checking out who else was getting on the plane. And this was one of those times where you can’t believe your luck. About six blondish 18 year old cute girls started down the walkway toward the back of the plane, which is where my seat was. They are probably on a high school spring break. Being the “worldly” college guy I would certainly have things to talk to them about while we fly to NYC. As I sit there I have one girl directly in front of me, two diagonally in front of me, and three directly across from me. They all know each other and are pretty friendly. I know because I said hi.

And then it happened. A 35 year old woman appeared next to me. She has the two seats inside of my space. However, there were two daughters with her. Two seats for three people. The question rolled off her lips in slow motion. I knew what it was before she asked, but I required her to ask anyway, just in case it was a “you’re on candid camera” prank. “Do you mind switching seats with me so I can sit next to my daughters?” I wanted to think of some valid reason to stay, but I couldn’t and there really isn’t. I said sure in a beaten voice and she game me my new seat assignment. It was a window seat. It was toward the front of the plane. And the seats next to it had two very large males sitting in them – their chest’s rose and fell as they labored to breathe. I’m not kidding.

I went from a great situation, plenty of space, an aisle, and pretty girls to talk to, to one where the arm rest was off limits. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t regret my decision. It was the right thing to do and I will probably need kindness like that one day. But during that flight, I was angry, not at the woman, but because of the tease. Now that years have passed, I laugh about it. This hour and half travel arrangement had such a profound affect on how I think about flights.

Which gets me to Peter Bregman of HBR. He wrote a blog entry called What to Do When you Get Out of Control. He talks about what happens to people when control, or perceived control, on an airplane is gone. Here is an excerpt:

“Ladies and gentleman, this is your Captain speaking. We have asituation.” And with those words, the saga of my aborted flight fromNew York to Dallas began.

The captain told us we had an “equipment problem” that required wemake an emergency landing at Washington Dulles, the nearest airport.But, he continued, the plane was too heavy to land safely; we had toshed fuel. So we would fly around in a circle for 45 minutes and landas soon as we were light enough.

I was sitting at the front of the plane and made eye contact with the flight attendant.

“What’s the problem?” I mouthed.

“I don’t know,” she responded with the hint of a shrug, “they won’t tell us.”

“If we’re going to fly for 45 minutes, can’t he fly toward Dallas instead of in circles?” I asked. She smiled and looked down.

So we circled. If you had taken a picture of us before theannouncement and another one after, you would have had difficultytelling the difference. People were reading, listening to music,talking softly.

But in fact, everything had changed. Our level of anxiety hadskyrocketed. We were on a plane that was stuck in the air, unable toland but apparently unsafe to fly for a reason none of us but the pilotknew, and there was nothing we could do about it.

It occurred to me how psychologically similar this circumstance was toso many others we experience. We were stuck in a situation in which weare not in control and cannot immediately escape. Like the economy. Orat times, our company or our team.

This plane was a lab and we were the rats. How do we respond when weare stuck, vulnerable, nervous, and have no positional power?

Unfortunately there was nothing to observe. What I needed was astimulus. Something to bring people’s reactions to the surface.Something like … a screaming baby.

The baby in the seat behind me generously accommodated. He let out asharp cry, followed by waves of wailing. His mother tried to soothe him— shushing, gently tapping on his back — but the screeching only gotlouder.

Let the games begin.

However, it ends well. I recommend finishing it…

Working Thoughts 9/1/07

All Kinds of Advice


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