In the stockyards of the sky
By Jim Poling
Published May 10, 2018
I am boot-horned into seat 37B at 31,000 feet, massaging numbness from my legs when I taste a wetness at the corners of my mouth. It is a salty wetness and I realize that I am crying. In fact, I am about to bawl.
This is embarrassing. My mind shifts to overdrive, thinking of how to conceal choking sobs from my fellow passengers.
Hide beneath a blanket? Airlines don’t provide them unless you pay for them. Bury my head in a pillow? They no longer hand out pillows either.
I am not wearing a hoodie so that’s no help. Eye drops? Good idea but they are in a carry-on buried in a hopelessly overloaded overhead bin.
I wipe away the tears furtively, then pull myself together and question why I am crying on an airplane.
Studies confirm that people are more likely to cry on airplanes than on the ground. A survey from Virgin Atlantic found that 55 per cent of people admitted to being more emotional than normal when hurtling through the stratosphere.
No one seems to know why. Some say it could be the general anxiety of flying.
It is storming below so the flight is rocky. Also there are recent stories about aircraft engines flying apart because of metal fatigue.
Then there’s the crowded skies. Aviation data companies that track all the aircraft in our skies report an average 9,728 planes, carrying 1,270,406 passengers, in the sky at any given time.
The lightest day for air traffic in recent times was Jan. 1, 2017, when there were a peak 3,354 planes in the sky at the same time. The heaviest air traffic day was Aug. 5, 2016, when 12,856 planes carrying 1,590,929 people made radar screens look like spider webs.
But I am a trained private pilot, and understand all this stuff so it doesn’t make me anxious. Certainly not enough to cry.
Flight crews have observed that their passengers tend to cry more while watching movies.
A survey by Gatwick Airport in London found that 15 per cent of men and six per cent of women said they are more likely to cry watching an inflight movie than at home.
However, I don’t watch movies on airplanes. The movie screens now are in the seatback in front of you and the seats are so close that anyone wearing progressive lens eyeglasses gets a stiff neck trying to focus.
I wouldn’t be watching today’s movie anyway because the guy sitting next me says it is called The Shape of Water and is about a woman who dates a fish.
There is speculation that being in a pressurized cabin at high altitude affects levels of mood-regulating hormones serotonin and dopamine. The different atmosphere sends the hormones a bit wonky and the tears begin to flow.
But it’s not flying anxiety or rattled hormones that are dissolving me into a puddle of tears. It’s nothing to do with the airplane. It’s all about getting to the airplane.
Today’s airports are playgrounds for digital screens and torture chambers for passengers. The screens surround you, grinning and chortling as they dare you to approach.
There is no avoiding them. You must approach. They control whether you get baggage tags, a boarding pass, even passport clearance.
Only a digital screen can permit you to move into the next line of airport captives snaking its way through other banks of digital screens, humming scanners and silent hidden cameras. Seen from above the captives are unbroken lines wandering wearily through a maze in search of the Pharaoh’s Tomb.
The reward at the maze exit is a corridor of food booths where the traveller can replenish the 10,000 calories burned during the airport passage. The $38 for a panini, small salad and a bottle of water is enough to make anyone cry.
The airlines say they are committed to reducing passenger stresses. Some are even considering sleeper berths for larger airplanes on longer haul routes. Just crawl in and sleep away the stresses and bad memories of the airport passage.
Sounds sweet but you can bet the prices will have you bawling.