My Best Worst Flying Experiences Ever
Leah Walker August 28, 2014

I liken flying today to walking through a park in Buenos Aires. I consider myself extremely lucky if I make it through without stepping in a big pile of dog poo. Navigating all of the airline policies and regulations is a chore, but manageable. What’s often not manageable is dealing with fellow passengers. When hundreds of people are crammed into a small space for hours on end there’s inevitably going to be a few bad apples that don’t know {or care} how to behave. You’ve probably heard about the brouhaha that recently occurred on United flight 1462 from Newark to Denver, but in case you’ve not turned on the TV or been online, I’ll give you a quick recap.

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The plane was diverted to Chicago’s O’Hare because of two pieces of plastic: the Knee Defender. This $22 gadget attaches to the hinges of a tray table and prevents a seat from reclining. A man slipped the Knee Defender into place in order to use his laptop, which prevented the lady in the seat in front from reclining. A complaint was then lodged to a flight attendant, who asked the man to remove the device. He refused, and the woman passenger threw a glass of water at the man. The pilot diverted the plane in Chicago, and the two passengers were kicked off the aircraft. No arrests were made, but the story created a firestorm.

I was discussing this story with a friend, who found it quite comical. Yes, it’s funny and ridiculous at the same time, but as a frequent flyer, I became, well, let’s say impassioned about the subject. No matter what side of the fence you stand of the to recline or not to recline debate, I think most reasonable people can agree that using artificial means to limit another passenger’s ability to recline is not cool and is begging for a confrontation.

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My stance on this story is that the man was actually stealing—that’s right, STEALING—from the woman passenger. She paid for a seat and all the space that encompasses. By using the Knee Defender, he was robbing her of some of that area and taking more for himself. Now, in my impassioned rambling, I rationed that rather than throwing a glass of water at the man, the woman should have charged him rent for the space he was taking from her.

I’m sure some math genius could figure out a formula that takes into account the square inches of seat space available, the square inches of the seat recline, the price paid for the flight, and come up with a dollar amount that the man should pay the woman in rent. I, however, am not that genius. But, in keeping with the spirit of today’s airlines, I would also suggest there be fees in addition to the rent. Here are a few off the top of my head:

  • Fee for downloading the app that invariably will be developed for calculating the cost
  • Fee for figuring the fee
  • Fee for accepting cash, credit card, check, money order, or PayPal
  • Fee for massage upon landing
  • Fee for gas to drive to the bank to deposit the cash
  • Fee for dealing with a self-important jackass

This story got me thinking about some of the bad behavior I’ve personally witnessed on my various flights. In hindsight they’re comical, but in those moments, I wasn’t laughing. Just when I think I’ve seen it all, someone ups the bar for most ridiculous airplane behavior. Here are some of the best worst flying experiences from the last five years.

The Drunken Russians

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On the 22-hour flight from Houston to Singapore aboard Singapore Air, there’s a stop in Moscow. Passengers deplane so the aircraft can be cleaned and apparently stocked with a whole bunch of vodka. With three seats to myself, I thought I’d struck gold, that is until the pre-takeoff vodka cart came rolling down the aisle. The two burly, Russian men behind me had obviously been hitting the sauce before boarding, but proceeded to take at least three vodka shots each from the flight attendant. That should have been my cue to move, because throughout that 11-hour flight, one of the men reached over the seat and hit me on the head on TWO separate occasions, while the other puffed on an electronic cigarette and played tug-o-war with me when my pillow slipped down to the floor. You can read about what I had to say to these guys in my article, “The Evils of Vodka.”

The Smelly Food Guy

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I don’t begrudge anyone for bringing food on a plane. Most American domestic carriers charge an arm and a leg for snacks that can be had at the grocery store for a fraction of the cost. And don’t get me started on the quality of hot food served on international flights. I get it. My issue is with people who have food with a strong aroma, like the man I sat next to from Boston to Houston. Once the drink cart passed, he had himself a little picnic on the tray table. Accompanying his Coke, were crackers, potato chips, and chicken salad. Now, I suppose I should be grateful that it wasn’t tuna salad, but as a rule, canned meat of any type is putrid and certainly not suitable for a closed environment like an airplane.

The Groomer

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Seeing passengers grooming themselves on a plane is a common site. Within reason, I think it’s perfectly fine. Go ahead and touch up your make-up or give you’re a hair a little brush, though the bathroom would be a better place for such things. However, anything that has to do with fingernails and toenails is completely out of the question. Seriously, I once saw a hippie-type character cleaning her toenails on a flight. I kid you not.

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As gross as that is, the incident that stands out most in my mind occurred on a flight from Los Angeles to Beijing. The configuration was 3-4-3, and I was on the window. A woman in the middle section on the aisle closest to me was clipping her fingernails. I was like Vince Vaughn in the movie Dodgeball. The nails were flying everywhere! To add insult to injury, she broke out her fingernail polish. Can you imagine the fumes wafting throughout the cabin? She then had the nerve to get ticked off when the flight attendant told her to put it away. After all, she hadn’t completed the second coat.

The Personal Space Invader

I could write an entire post about passengers who have encroached on my personal space. I’m certainly not perfect, but I try to be extra diligent when it comes to respecting my fellow passengers. Sadly, not everyone else subscribes to this way of thinking. Two instances come to mind immediately.

The first was on a flight from Detroit to Los Angels. I was in route from Amman, Jordan to Maui, and not in the best of spirits. Flying cattle class on Delta, I walked back to my seat to see two very large honeymooners in my row. After taking my aisle seat, the woman asked if I wouldn’t mind raising the armrest. Delirious from little sleep, I agreed. Big mistake. At that point, I had 2/3 of my seat. To compensate for the lack of space, my head and shoulder protruded into the aisle, which made it a target for the drink cart.

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The second happened on a flight from Houston to Rio de Janeiro. I was comfortable in my window seat, when a couple from Brazil sat down next to me. The woman in the middle seat immediately took off her black Nikes. The smell was horrendous, but was slightly quelled after she put on some socks. The woman then proceeded to curl up into a ball and weep for a good two hours. Even worse than the smelly feet and uncontrollable crying, this woman reached across me and raised the window shade several times. I almost lost control when she did it at sunrise. The rays from the sun were like acid on my eyeballs. She nearly got an elbow to the nose. Listen, if you want control of the shade then book a window seat.

Alright, I’ve complained enough. Tell me your tales of flying woe.

Leah Walker

Leah's a luxury travel and food writer who has as many stories as she does shoes. She documents her experiences whether that's in the lap of luxury or riding through a swamp in an airboat. Leah freelances and has contributor/editor roles with The Daily Meal, The Daily Basics, Bonjour Paris, Luxe Beat Magazine, Four Seasons Magazine, Forbes Travel Guide, and is a travel ambassador for Atout France USA. Leah's thrilled to call Paris home after being awarded the coveted three-year Compétences & Talents visa from France, though her talents don't extend to speaking French. Yet.


  1. Oh dear… I fly A LOT too and I have to consider myself very lucky for not having these experiences… I did read an article about a woman traveling with her husband and toddler who let her child defecate on his seat though… apparently she laid down some newspaper and just let him go for it. It was a Chinese based aircraft, can’t remember which. Don’t think it gets much worse than that…

    1. OK, all you had to say was China. I’m not surprised at all. I spent a month in China and the first time I saw a kid do that on a street my jaw dropped. I couldn’t believe my eyes.

  2. If you log enough miles, and you do, it’s bound to happen.

    I made the mistake of exchanging my nice window seat with a couple who wanted to sit together. One of them has a seat several rows forward, also a window seat. As it turned out I sat next to a rather badly behaved child whose mother lamely tried to control her. I put the window shade down dot do a bit if photo editing on my laptop and the kid came unglued. That was the entire flight.

  3. OH MY GOD. That lady clipping and painting her fingernails would have turned me homicidal! This past spring, on our flight from Newark to Berlin, a woman boarded the plane with a cat. A cat in a crate, across the aisle from me. Lucia & I are allergic to cats; the thought of being trapped in the closed space for eight hours with a cat caused me extreme anxiety. I tweeted United and was told I could move to Economy Plus – for a fee. I was livid. Thankfully we made it to Berlin without our throats closing.

    1. Oh yes! I remember the cat story. Honestly, I never even thought about that, but there are people with severe allergies. And the response by United was so not good. I think you should write a post about this cat deal.

  4. When I see people taking care of their personal grooming on the train in Chicago, I nearly faint. I can’t even imagine what I’d do during a flight… AAARRRGGGHHH. Really people, where are your manners?!

    As for my worst flying experience, it was SwissAir, which I have not flown ever since (and likely will not). After an emergency landing in Vienna on the way from Zurich to Krakow (a connecting flight on the way from Chicago), the airline made us wait several hours at the airport and instead of rebooking us on other flights, they finally gave us, wait for this, a BUS to Krakow. That’s another 10hrs or so on the road!! Their apology? $75 (it was 2000) or vouchers towards the next flight. YEAH, RIGHT.

    P.S. Otherwise I love flying, you know me…

  5. Eugh – cleaning nails in public on a plane?! That’s just wrong! The other thing I find really inconsiderate are the passengers sitting behind me, who constantly keep heavily tapping their touch screens without thinking about the fact that it feels like the back of my scalp is being repeatedly prodded! I guess maybe the touch screens are sometimes poor quality but annoying nevertheless!

  6. So many good ones, and I am imagine this will be a growing trend as airlines continue to cut amenities, and space…plus I haven’t experienced too many happy flight attendants lately either…

    I still smile every time I fly , but the experience is hardly what it was even just 10 years ago…

    Ok a story: a recent flight had me between. (Middle seat ) two bigger men who were father and son… Traveling from Newark to Seattle they talked all flight passing items over me,… Seriously. I was stuck in the middle…

    I ordered two drinks to start and put on a movie then another on my laptop and prayed my battery would last.

    Stay making the best of it, Craig

  7. I want to vomit at the sound of people clipping their nails. I want to throw objects when my wife paints her nails anywhere near me. I can’t imagine both being combined on a plane. And the above comment makes me want to never travel to China, or at least on a China-based airline.

  8. I’m a, shall we say, tense flyer. I was a bit apprehensive to read your worst flight experiences, fearing that I may never attempt to travel again. Ha. Some of these are hilarious. I’m still trying to imagine what I would with those drunk dudes. I’m a bartender, so I have to deal with those types often, but not on a plane. Yikes. I’m the lady that stresses everyone out as I board the plane loaded with toddlers. Don’t worry though I have tools to keep them in check! Hehe.

  9. Leah,

    Great post! I haven’t experience the same extent of annoyance, but I’ve had close calls: the woman next to me on a Denver-MCO who brought her puppy on board. Cute, but potentially disastrous. Makes me wonder why airlines allow pets considering how sensitive people are to allergens these days.

    I think what strikes me the most here, though, is that ever example you mentioned is one in which two things have gone wrong: passengers disregard basic manners and flight attendants do not take action.

    More than that, though, is the fact that few of us ever speak up and address the issue. It’s an awkward proposition, but is it not equally awkward proposition that a woman would do her nails, curl up into a ball or that two drunk Russians perform a self-centered ballet of drinking and annoyance?

    I don’t think it’s outside of allowable behavior to say, “Excuse me, but I’m putting my armrest down because you’re taking up some of my space.”

    We have more control over our circumstances than we think because most passengers are on our side in matters like this: they’d hate to be stuck next to the crazy person, space-stealing person, stinky-footed person or overly imbibed person. So, if we speak up for ourselves, chances are we’ll have the backing of our seatmates. Hopefully, we’d have the backing of the flight crew as well.

    I think what stops us is that we’re afraid of what will happen if we do speak up. We shouldn’t have that fear, though, because in an ideal world we’d all respect each other’s personal space, and if violations of space occurred, the flight crew would do the right thing and reprimand the offender.

    Just a few thoughts, that’s all!

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