Destination Humiliation: How to Avoid Embarrassing In-Flight Moments

12/14/2010 04:52 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

I pleasantly recall my first flights as a young child, when friendly flight attendants served warm bagels and Philadelphia cream cheese alongside fresh orange juice. For years I tallied my trips, until the industry changed, bringing us to our current state: miniature seats; inadequate sundries; and painful security processes. You pay for more and get less, unless you're collecting excruciating travel anecdotes, the type that test your sanity but develop into important travel lessons and fodder for dinner parties.


Choose Airlines Wisely (Avoid Absurd Rules of the Sky) I sleep like a champion on airplanes, creating a restful haven even within coach's cramped quarters. Good timing and various accoutrements are essential: a window seat and sleeping pills before take-off; Tempur-Pedic Eye Mask; neck pillow; sound-canceling headphones; and a cotton scarf that serves as a blanket extension. It isn't pretty, but my on-flight fort works like a charm.


I was rudely awakened during my first and only trip on Virgin Atlantic, not long after take-off. The flight attendant repeatedly touched my shoulder until I emerged from my burrow. "Miss, you need to raise your seat to the upright position." Bleary-eyed and confused, I blinked a few times before asking why. "The people behind you are having their dinner," she brusquely offered, forcefully jerking my seat forward. I complied, too delirious to argue with this flight attendant and her bizarre rule.

An uncomfortable hour passed before I reentered REM-state bliss, and then: stinging sensations all over my scalp. Was this a nightmare or had hornets nested within the recycled air of this 747? I realized that whatever it was occurred in real time, not within the depths of my imagination. I emerged to discover the flight attendant a mere feet from my seat. She was serving tea, the scorching contents of which had befallen my sleeping head. A directed attack or unintentional spill? I suppose I'll never know.

The third act of my beleaguered journey occurred an hour before landing, when the flight attendant insisted on waking me once more. She asked that I remove and safely store my blanket and sleep mask. I begged for an explanation, to which she responded, "Safety concerns."

"What?" I queried, "How could the presence of a blanket on my lap and a sleep mask on my face possibly compromise anyone's safety?"

The now-very agitated attendant would not back down, particularly since my rebellion drew attention from surrounding passengers. She snatched my blanket and began a theatrical performance, designed to replicate the extreme danger caused by a lone blanket, landed in the middle of the aisle.

Her enacted scenario would result in the following newspaper headline: Airline blanket thought to cause passenger to trip during emergency landing.

Silence Your Smartphone (Conceal the Autonomous Blackberry)
I do not--excepting the above anecdote--defy airline rules and regulations, but my blackberry occasionally operates semi-automatically like some robot out of Dwight Schrute's imagination. For some time, I noted but couldn't control the Blackberry's inconvenient decision to turn itself on during flights. Control was only exercised at the most superficial level by putting the phone on silence.

On one long-haul flight, I forgot to silence my phone when I powered it down. Midway over the Atlantic, I heard the feared text message beep. Just as I worked steadily to shut it down once more, a flight attendant caught a glimpse of me and my clandestine act.

"Excuse me," he growled from across the aisle. He aimed to embarrass me in front of my entire section. "Don't you know that you're not allowed to use cell phones during the flight?"

"Of course I know that," I retorted, without adequate respect or submission in my voice. "Which is why I'm turning it off. I did the same before take-off but for some reason it turned itself on during the flight."

His voice raised an octave, adopting an angry, mocking tone. "Is that so? Is there a ghost living in your phone?" He quipped and laughed, as did the cast of nearby strangers.

Damned technology and its many complexities! I have learned my lesson, but unfortunately the blackberry continues to revolt against my instruction. The only recourse, therefore, is to disable it completely before turning it off...and never again forego silent mode.

Never Travel Too Close to Christmas (Or with a Devilish Cat)
I arrived to Dulles Airport in the midst of Washington's first severe blizzard of the winter. I was traveling with my maniacal cat who was forced by fearless security guards to exit her kennel and accompany me through security. If she were to escape, the airport security system would implode at her first jab. Trust me when I tell you: this creature is part-Bobcat.

She and I passed through without incident, and I felt relaxed for the first time in 24 hours. I reached my gate, put down my things, and attempted my own cat nap, but my brief respite was commandeered by a nasty stomach bug that caused near-constant vomiting.

Thus began my Christmas conundrum: risk my health and the health of other passengers by spending four painful hours ill on a plane or attend to my medical condition but risk missing Christmas with my family. I opted for the treacherous flight, carefully concealing my illness (which took much willpower and several plastic bags) until we were off the ground, at which point I literally took over the lone airplane bathroom. I have never been so sick, and never so reviled, even when I exited the plane... in a wheelchair.

Ironically, my cat reaped some benefit from our ill-fated journey. In contrast to my behavior, she appeared saintly. Never before nor since has anyone described her as "docile, cute, lovely, well-behaved" or anything apart from "evil, devilish, crazy."


I'll think of these moments when I board my flight home tomorrow, staving off travel humiliation with crossed fingers.