Planes and Passengers: In the Heavens But Not a Match Made

Airplanes stress out passengers in very fundamental ways.

Posted Nov 01, 2014

It’s getting to be that time of year again. The time when more of us than usual fly somewhere to see friends and family—or to relax and avoid friends and family. 

Putting more travelers in the wild blue yonder means more of us are experiencing an environment that’s tough for humans. Read on to learn why.

Think the most unpleasant part of traveling by air is getting to the airport? Think again. Although getting to the airplane in most cities is no picnic, being airborne is much more stressful. Airplanes are among the least hospitable places you can visit, from a psychological perspective—almost every element of the interior design sets human beings on edge.

As soon as you board the airplane, you give up control of your world—if tussling with the TSA and flight delays haven’t already forced you to acknowledge that there are forces more powerful than yourself. When you sink down into that uncomfortable passenger seat, you lose most of your ability to exercise your own free will. Sure, you can pick your movie (maybe), turn on and off your overhead light, and chose to read or not, but those sorts of decision are insignificant compared to the opportunities you lose—such as the ability to determine the speed and direction of the aircraft, to use the restroom whenever you want, or to step outside for some fresh air. Human beings are more relaxed and happier when they have control over their environment.

Part of that in-plane loss of control results in having to tolerate people being too close to you. When our personal space is compromised, so is our privacy—on a plane, your row-mates can even read along with you as you try to de-stress with the latest paperback thriller. Outside an airplane, when people have to be too close to others, they take what are called compensatory measures. An elevator trip is a fine example of a time when people are forced into uncomfortably tight quarters. To keep the tension levels down and everybody calm, people on an elevator avoid making eye contact or recognizing that others are even there—conversations in elevators are rudimentary at best. Conveniently, airplane seats prevent travelers from making easy eye contact with anyone except the flight attendants. On-board conversations are notoriously unsuccessful.

The noises made by airplane engines are particularly disconcerting to travelers. Their pitch and volume can often be annoying. In addition, the sounds that the airplane makes aren’t really rhythmic, and that unpredictability—even if it is readily explainable as an engine changing gears— induces stress. Stress makes it harder for us to control our emotions and get along with others.

The aircraft cabin is not pressurized to anything close to sea level, and the environment becomes dry in the course of a flight. Being on an airplane is generally equivalent to being at an altitude of over a mile, and in those conditions alertness decreases for most passengers.

Being dehydrated also hinders our cognitive performance. Pawson and his research team learned that people who took water to exams and presumably drank it, thereby staying hydrated, got higher scores than people who didn’t, despite having the same level of general ability. Being in places with low relative humidity has also been linked to headaches, which doesn’t help when we’re doing thoughtful work or trying to be amiable with strangers.

Ergonomic conditions are so bad for coach class airplane travelers that they result in psychological stress. The lack of legroom and the position of the tray table can make it difficult just to sit quietly, let alone work on a laptop.

So, what’s an airplane passenger to do? The suggestions that follow can ease the psychological discomfort of travelers in general, but those who are afraid to fly need clinical assistance.

  • Listen to calming music you enjoy. Make sure your selections have a rhythm slower than your resting heart rate (generally 50 to 70 beats per minute). (If you Google “beats per minute,” you’ll find websites that can tell you about this aspect of your favorite music.) Don’t try to create complete silence with earplugs. Your plan won’t work, which will only frustrate you—and silence is just as nerve-racking for humans as the random airplane noises.
  • Establish whatever control over your experience the FAA will allow. For example, if you bring an eye mask and cover your eyes while you nap, you decrease the odds that you’ll be disturbed by the flight attendants and other passengers.
  • Don’t try to do thoughtful work as you fly. Tthe air pressure and relative humidity inside the plane will ensure you won’t focus well, anyway—and knowing that you’re not performing at your best will frustrate you and amp up your stress level.
  • Look out the window at the clouds as you fly along. Clouds have a fractal pattern that people find calming.
  • Bring along your own comfort foods—their smells and tastes will make you feel much calmer, even if they can’t actually make you happy with your feet so far off the ground. Don’t pack anything, however, that other passengers are likely to find “stinky.” Why make their lives more miserable when you can easily choose something else?
  • Be patient with your fellow travelers, at least for as long as you can. You’re all being taxed by the same inflight conditions, and if others snap, reacting negatively will only worsen the situation.

Next time you find yourself on a flight, acknowledge the difficult situation you're in—that’s the first step to reducing your stress level and enhancing your well-being.