When my son Colin was four, we took an airplane trip to visit some friends. During take off, he stared intently out the window. Watching the plane accelerate and then lift off of the ground. Examining the steep angle of the ascent. Calculating the distance from land. As his logical little mind put everything together, he completely freaked out.
“MOM! We shouldn’t be in the air. I don’t want to be on this plane! I WANT TO GET OFF OF THIS PLANE!”
We had flown before when he was younger, so we hadn’t anticipated this reaction. He screamed and cried and was inconsolable for a good portion of the flight. I did my best to distract him, to reason with him, to calm him.
But he was TERRIFIED.
I made a deal with him. He only needed to get on the return flight, and then we wouldn’t fly again (for a long time, I hoped). That seemed to calm him down.
Four years later, we were surprised when he agreed to get on a (short) flight to visit those same friends.
I knew I needed to prepare him. I calmly spoke to him about what to expect. I described the entire process. I told him that I would sit with him the entire time. I answered a thousand anxious questions from him leading up to the flight.
We checked in the day before the flight, and we were in the first boarding group (it was one of those airlines with no assigned seats). The day of the flight my son was incredibly nervous so I reiterated our plan. My son would sit with me. We could cuddle. I would hold his hand. My husband and daughter would be nearby. It would be okay. His face visibly relaxed.
Somehow when we checked our bags, the “system” had moved us to the second boarding group. We didn’t think much of it and didn’t want to be one of “those” passengers that caused extra work. So the four of us were not going to be able to sit together, but that would be fine. As long as my son could sit with me. And my daughter with my husband.
The plane arrived about five minutes late to the gate, and it took some time to get on the actual aircraft. The entire time in line my son chatted nervously (i.e., a million fucking miles an hour), and we gave each other hand squeezes (our secret signal for “I love you”).
When we finally boarded, we discovered the plane was mostly full. We went directly to the back, but there were not two seats next to each other, so the flight attendant directed us back the other direction. There was some general confusion as the dozen or so of us passengers tried to find seats. The flight attendant barked at us to just sit in any open seat.
I responded to him that my son was terrified of flying, and that I needed to be with him.
He snipped, “This late in the boarding process, I don’t think that’s going to happen,” (like it was my fault). I understood that he was trying to get us seated fast, but he was being a dick.
He made my 11-year-old daughter take the last seat by herself in the back of the plane. He made my husband sit somewhere in the middle of the plane. I wasn’t too thrilled with that (and neither was my daughter), but it would have to do. They could handle themselves, and my daughter wasn’t afraid of flying.
My son and I were directed to the front of the plane. When we got up there, only two seats were available. But they were not next to each other. The seats were in two different rows—one middle seat behind another.
I reiterated to the flight attendant that my son was terrified of flying and that we needed to sit together. He waved me off and directed me to sit.
I replied loudly, “You’re the one who is going to have to deal with all of the screaming.”
That made him try a little harder (but not much). He hastily asked a few people if they wanted to move, but told them that they didn’t have to. None of them even pretended to look around to see if that was possible.
Even as the other (nice) flight attendant pleaded our case over the plane intercom, no one on the plane volunteered to switch seats.
I looked around begging people with my eyes, but nobody budged. Most people stared down or looked away. Yeah, I got it. They “earned” a higher boarding number than we did. They got there first. And they were comfortable. And apparently that was more important than helping a terrified child.
A terrified 8-year-old boy who was shaking uncontrollably and clinging to his mom. At this point I decided they were all dicks.
Because I was being shouted at by the flight attendant, I put my son in the front middle seat and went to take my seat behind him. At that point, the man in the aisle seat moved to the middle seat (next to his WIFE) rather than have me sitting between them. I thanked him profusely as that would make it a bit easier to attend to my son in the row ahead of me. But he didn’t even reply. I’m guessing that he wasn’t very happy about sitting in the middle seat for the next 90 minutes. Seriously? What a dick.
My son was trying to be so brave, but he was visibly shaking in his seat. I leaned around the seat in front of me and loudly said, “It’s okay, Colin. I’ll be right here.”
That finally got the attention of another passenger who then offered to take my son’s spot (a middle seat in the front row with plenty of leg room) so that my son and I could at least be across the aisle from each other.
I thanked her profusely as she took the open seat. Unfortunately she left her bag under my son’s seat so there was no place to put his backpack. The one with his stuffed dog. The one with all of the distractions and comfort items that we had carefully packed.
As the (dick) flight attendant quickly grabbed the backpack to take it away, I told him that I needed it. I was going to offer my bag instead. He snipped (as he walked away) that I could get it later. That they needed to get the plane in the air.
Again, it was not my fault the plane was late. All I wanted was 10 seconds to swap the bags, but he wouldn’t give it to me. He wouldn’t even listen to me. Dick.
So I took a deep breath and focused on my son. Who was sitting motionless in his chair. He was staring straight ahead. He was gripping the armrests. His knuckles were white. He was frozen in fear.
I could see the eye rolls and the exaggerated responses from the passenger behind my son. He was glaring at me (dick), but I didn’t react. I needed to focus on my son.
I talked to my son to help distract him. We held hands across the aisle as the plane was taxiing. His body jumped with each bump. As the engines revved up, his eyed shot open, and he started to cry quietly.
During the ascent, I just calmly told him what was going on. I answered his stream of anxious questions. I had to talk pretty loudly to be heard over the engine, but I didn’t care. Because anytime the plane jolted even a little, he’d grip the armrests and freeze in terror.
My son was terrified, and all of the passengers nearby just looked away (except the one who was glaring at me).
Once my son loosened his grip on the armrests, I gave him my phone (with Minecraft, natch) to distract him. That seemed to work for a while, but any time the plane bounced even a little bit, his little body would seize with fear.
It’s such a helpless feeling to watch your frightened child—your terrified child— and not be able to hold him. To comfort him the way he wants. He was trying to be strong, but he was so, so very scared.
I sat there fighting back my own tears.
And I couldn’t help but think this could have been avoided had any of the other hundreds of passengers had offered to switch their (unassigned) seats. I realize not everyone could have moved even if they had wanted to. But no one even offered. Or even tried. So a mother could sit next to her terrified son instead of behind and across the aisle from him.
Look, I’ve been there. I’ve been comfortable and settled in my seat only to be asked to move. I didn’t HAVE to, but I did it. Multiple times. It has sometimes sucked. But you know what? I did it. I did it because I felt that two newlyweds should sit together on a flight overseas. I did it because no one else on the plane would sit by the mom and her newborn. I did it because it’s the nice thing to do. And someone(s) on that flight with my son should have done it too. But they were being selfish dicks.
Was this the end of the world? No. Did my son survive? Of course he did. But he was completely terrified. That flight was only 90 minutes. That is not a long time to not sit in your favorite seat. To not sit next to your spouse or your friend.
But 90 minutes is an ETERNITY to a scared child.
Even if you don’t have kids or your kids are grown, surely you remember what it’s like to be terrified of something. Surely you’re capable of putting aside your own comfort temporarily to ease the suffering of another human being. This story goes beyond what happened to a terrified little boy on an airplane; it’s about a breakdown of human kindness. What happened to our ability to empathize? What happened to our ability to put the needs of others before our own desires? I can assure you, if we all did a bit more of those things, the world would be a much better place.
So, the next time you’re on an airplane (or anywhere, really), don’t be a dick.
P.S. Our plane arrived early at its destination (fuck you, dick flight attendant).