Why We Rush Off Airplanes

Explaining the stampede to baggage claim.

Posted Mar 11, 2014

Everyone has some place to go; otherwise, they wouldn't be on the plane. You're not that special, Mr. Business Man -- from flyertalk


My plane lands and taxis to the gate; and within microseconds 98 percent of the passengers are aggressively reaching toward the overhead compartments, lining up to leave–a mass exodus. It's pushy and uncomfortable.

I stayed in my seat watching.

Is there something that I don’t understand?

It’s my habit to be the last passenger out of an aircraft. The strategy usually pans out, and so it did again. When I finally got to baggage claim, lo and behold, everyone was standing around waiting anyway. I just missed out on a lot of pushing and anxiety. So, what’s going on? Why the rush?

Here’s my conjecture. What’s yours?

  • Practical Reasons. Some people have other planes or cabs to catch. But while I can understand the person who is worried about a connection, here we are at a major end destination. Most of the people on my flight were collecting bags to go home.
  • The Power of Crowds. Crowd mentality plays a huge role here. Someone stands, and someone else feels compelled to stand as well. Competition reigns; it’s instinctual.
  • Nobody Wants to Be the Sucker. Most people hate to wait on lines, so if you get out first, you hope that the line will be short. This works for about the first 30 people. After that, the lines will be there. Yet, people still rush. 
  • Flying Phobias. More people than you may imagine have a form of agoraphobia, which is triggered by flying. Hearing terrible events of airline disasters, like the recent one in Malaysia, makes it worse. They avoid flying, and when they do, they always take the aisle seat, because the window can trigger a panic reaction. It is understandable why they feel the need to exit as quickly as possible.
  • Other Emotional Reasons. Some passengers suffer from anxiety disorders or ADHD, and for them, sitting for hours with very little to do is the definition of torture. Others can’t tolerate the smells or the tight quarters. But does this explain why nearly everyone else also bolts to the exits -- a hurry up and wait situation if there ever was one? 
  • Existential Anxiety. Most people do not have a formal flying phobia, but may still have anxiety related to control. It would not surprise me if many people, after flying 35,000 feet above the ground in the hands of another human being, feel an urgency to take control again. People get up because they unconsciously want their lives back. 

Airports and Human Nature

So I left the plane and got to the carousel where I met my muse, a kindly customs agent named Mr. McGee. He also felt badly about all the rush and fuss. As we both looked at the huge crowd hovering around the baggage carousel, he wondered, “Why do people impose deadlines when they aren’t necessary? Doesn’t life give us too many deadlines as it is?”

I responded: “Maybe we like our anxiety. It gives us something to think about.”

Mr. McGee: “You see a lot of rushing and then waiting here; too much pressure. I just don’t see the point."

Flying in a tube at 35,000 feet is perilous. Taking control right afterwards may be instinctual. But we try to hard to control too many things. Sometimes letting go is what’s required. You'll get to the same place, but with a lot less pushing and shoving.

My story had a sweet twist. Despite waiting, my bags came out first.

And, if thay hadn't, I'd be happy to wait.