Do the Right Thing

Spirit, science, and health

Ethics in the Air: Flying the Unfriendly Skies

Fortify yourself for travel battle while flying

It's that time of year again as we head into the holiday travel season. If you were flying around last season you may still have post traumatic stress disorder from the experience. Remember people being stuck for days at airports last year? With the many changes in the travel industry, more severe weather patterns, and increases in frustration for all, ethical behavior can get easily bumped off the plane.

This week I just returned to the San Francisco Bay Area from Baltimore (attending meetings at the US Council of Catholic Bishops) and what a traveling fiasco it was even without problematic weather in the area or the prime time holiday travel crunch kicking in quite yet. Long story but let's just say I spent an extra day in Phoenix and probably more hours in the airport than on the ground at my travel destination. Whoa! Air travel in 2011 is not for the faint of heart. Additionally, it doesn't take much to create travel nightmares (e.g., overbooked flights, a missed connection, an unruly passenger, a little rain and wind).

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With the holidays upon us, you'll need to fortify yourself for travel battle if you are taking to the not so friendly skies.

Research demonstrates that with increased frustration comes increased aggression and both are associated with ethics getting lost with your luggage while traveling. For example, after missing a connection in Phoenix (long story) a dozen of us trying to get to San Francisco stood in a long, slow line at customer service (service? what service?) which of course is stressful and frustrating. A man in his late 20's or early 30's was very frustrated, began swearing and exploding at the customer service representative, and before you know it ... three big burly Phoenix police officers surround the fellow to manage him. Other, yet less dramatic, examples of frustration leading to aggression were evident throughout the trip too. Yet, remarkable examples of kindness, graciousness, and compassion were evident as well.


Yes, air travel has become awful in recent years and seems to be getting worse by the month. It is easy to let frustration get the best of us. While there are no easy answers (except perhaps just staying home) to cope with these challenges, perhaps we can at least be mindful that frustration can lead to aggression and that taking a deep breath, keeping things in perspective, and trying our best to maintain our dignity, ethics, and treat everyone (including fellow passengers, flight attendants, and TSA workers) with compassion as we would want to be treated if we were in their shoes.

The friendly skies aren't so friendly anymore but we can still be ethical (and friendly) while in them.

By the way, I think my new rule for air travel is just say no! Don't get on an airplane unless you absolutely have to and it better be going someplace worthwhile (like Hawaii for example)!

So, what do you think?  What ethical challenges do you see traveling in the unfriendly skies? 

Thomas Plante, PhD, ABPP, is the Augustin Cardinal Bea, SJ University Professor at Santa Clara University and Adjunct Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University.

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