Stress brings out the worst in people: my experience with a cancelled flight

Personally, I’ve never found airports as stressful places as other people. I’m just not someone who stresses very much in general. I had an aunt once describe me as “horizontal” and that I had “no pulse” because of how “chilled out” I am.

Certainly, I can see why many people become stressed and anxious in airports: the number of obstacles one has to traverse between arriving at the terminal and boarding one’s flight, the long, slow-moving queues at every one of those points, the ubiquity of officialdom, the feeling of being herded, the unbearable time pressure, the imposing scale and confusing layout of such complexes, the brusque announcements blaring out — often in a foreign language — at frequent intervals, the fact that everyone else also looks stressed, and the possibility that something could go wrong at any point along the way. It’s enough to induce anxiety in anyone.

But, while I don’t particularly like spending time in airports (apart from the duty-free shopping zones), I’ve never found them especially stressful. I’ve always taken the attitude that, while this is all very inconvenient and unpleasant, we’ve got to go through it and things are going to work out, as they always do. Nothing will go wrong. Nothing ever does. It’ll be fine. A very laid-back Australian way of approaching things, maybe. Or it might just be me.

Since a trip I took to Barcelona earlier this year, though, I’m not sure that’s an attitude I’ll be able to take again when flying. In short, my flight got cancelled. Everyone dreads their flight being cancelled, especially when returning from abroad, but it rarely happens to anyone travelling on a half-decent airline. Reputable airlines don’t tend to make a habit of cancelling their flights and leaving hundreds of people stranded. I certainly didn’t imagine it would happen to me.

It was an experience that made me understand a little bit more about the stress others go through when flying. I’ve also come to learn something rather unsavoury about human nature and what people can be like under stress.

Let me recount what happened.

It was the first of June this year. I’d just spent the day exploring Barcelona with my best friend and his new wife. It was their honeymoon. Yes, I crashed my best friend’s honeymoon. But it was because they invited me, as I wasn’t able to make it to their wedding as I was studying on exchange in England at the time. At the end of a very enjoyable day we parted ways, they back to their cruise ship to depart for another exotic destination in the Mediterranean, and I to the airport to fly back to London.

Apart from a lot of traffic on the way, getting to and through Barcelona-El Prat Airport was one of the most painless experiences I’ve ever had at an airport. Very short queues and efficient security and passport checks meant I sailed through the place and ended up at my gate with almost too much time to spare. I settled down at a nearby café with a cup of tea and a jamon iberico baguette and waited for boarding time. Eventually I moved back to the gate as people started to queue up. There was a gigantic gaggle of English teenagers in blue t-shirts who were evidently returning from a school football tour (a successful one, apparently, as I gathered from the upbeat speeches of their teachers which, with nothing better to do, everyone at our gate was listening to).

Both our designated boarding and departure times came and went and we were still queuing up, as we were informed that our flight would be delayed for unspecified reasons. I wasn’t concerned at that point — no one was. Delays are normal, practically to be expected, in high-traffic European airports. We were told that our new boarding time would be in forty minutes, which seemed to put people’s minds at ease. That boarding time came and went, too, and we were still standing around (sitting on the floor, actually, at this point). They didn’t bother to state a further revised boarding time. Something was wrong. People had started to stand around the desk asking the hapless gate officer for answers he didn’t have, and waiting to hear news. The school kids seemed to be the only ones who didn’t look worried.

It must have been two hours after we were supposed to have flown out that we got the news that the flight had been cancelled. A lot of people started to panic. Most of the passengers on that flight were English and flying home, for whom a cancelled flight wasn’t just an inconvenience but meant we were stranded in a foreign country with nowhere to go. We all huddled around the boarding desk waiting to be told what was going to happen. Some people took their stress out on the poor young gate officer, seemingly demanding that he, personally, put everything right.

Eventually we were marched back through passport control to the Vueling check-in desk, where we joined a long queue of people who were also waiting to be reallocated to new flights. Apparently there were a lot of flights cancelled that evening. There were no more flights to London that evening, we were told — they had all been cancelled. No one was telling us why flights were being cancelled, but the word going around was that striking air traffic controllers in France were behind it all.

So I stood there in that queue for what must have been an hour and a half as I waited for all the cranky passengers ahead of me to haggle over their new flights with the tired and harassed-looking check-in staff. No one seemed to be able to get a direct flight to wherever they were going. Everyone walked away from their negotiation with a check-in officer looking highly displeased. There were rumours making their way back through the winding queue that some people were put on a flight back to London via St Petersburg. I winced just thinking about it.

I really just felt for the school kids, who, all forty-odd of them, had to be put on a flight back together, and their teachers, who suddenly had to deal with much more than they bargained for. If anyone had reason to complain, they did.

Being English, a lot of people seemed to be dealing with the unpleasantness of it all by trying to laugh about the whole situation. It’s one of the things I admire about the English. Their attempts at light-hearted joking, tinged with a note of desperation, didn’t sound all that convincing in that moment, but joking they were nonetheless. It was at that point that I thought that only the English would be standing around politely in a queue and trying to laugh about it all in this situation. Imagine if it were Italians. Or Greeks.

When it was finally my turn to talk to a check-in person, I was offered a flight to London Gatwick via Rome the next day, with a 7 hour layover in between. I took it. I was too tired to argue.

We were bussed to a hotel the other side of Barcelona, in fact outside the city itself, and told there was a coach — just one — that would take us back to the airport leaving at 5:00 am the next morning. It was 2:00 am by the time I collapsed into bed dreading the next day.

Two hours of sleep and a very early coach ride back to the airport later, I once again found myself milling around a boarding gate waiting to board a flight to Rome. It was with a very anxiety-inducing sense of déjà vu that I took the news that the flight was delayed. Fifteen, thirty minutes after the designated departure time and we were still standing in a queue. “Here we go again,” I couldn’t help thinking. If, indeed, striking French air traffic controllers were to blame for my and God-knows how many other cancelled flights around Europe, who was to say the same thing wouldn’t happen to me again? Some of the passengers on my cancelled flight the previous night said that was the second time in a row their flight had been cancelled. I was tormented by the thought that successive tickets back to London would be repeatedly cancelled, and that I might spend an indefinite number of days airport-hopping around Europe trying to find a clear route back to England through a turbulent French air space.

Forty-five minutes after we were supposed to have flown out we were finally let onto the plane. I breathed a great sigh of relief. But I wasn’t back in England yet. I wouldn’t breathe easy until my flight from Rome had left the ground. At least the airport in which I spent the next seven hours — Rome Fiumicino — was rather nice. One of the nicest airports I’ve been in, actually. I ate delicious pizza for lunch, tried my first authentic Italian gelato and listened to other airport-loiterers taking turns on a grand piano placed strategically in the middle of the airport lounge.

I felt the return of a familiar sense of panic when it was announced that, once again, the flight was delayed. “Please don’t tell me it’s happening again,” I thought to myself desperately. Fortunately it wasn’t. Half an hour later we were happily, mercifully boarding. Two hours after that I was back on God-blessed English soil. I could have kissed the ground I stood on as I walked off that plane, except that it was an airport and the floor was probably dirtier than a toilet bowl. It had all been a thoroughly stressful and unpleasant experience. And I was exhausted.

If there’s one thing I’ll take away from the whole saga, it’s the unpleasant realisation that a lot of people, at heart, aren’t quite as reasonable and nice and level-headed as they appear. It takes putting them under stress, like cancelling their flight home, that brings out the worst in some people. On the night the flight was cancelled, I saw quite a few of my fellow passengers who otherwise might have been perfectly pleasant people to be around, who, under the stress and panic of a late-night cancelled flight, had become disagreeable, unreasonable, selfish and, in some cases, outright obnoxious and abusive.

When the flight was cancelled people shouted abuse at the young gate officer who clearly wasn’t responsible for anything. People were just looking for someone to shout at.

When we were led back to the check-in desk to be reallocated to new flights, people jostled past each other to get to the desk first. While we were queuing, one woman somehow ended up about a dozen places ahead of where she started. This is literally kindergartner stuff.

People spoke to Vueling staff, no matter how low-ranking, with utter rudeness and entitlement.

Many people seemed to be under the impression that their inconvenience mattered more than everybody else’s. “We have to be at a wedding,” “I’ve got a meeting tomorrow,” “I have to get home!” and so on.

One extraordinarily obnoxious person spent the entire time being rude to Vueling staff and angrily telling anyone who’d listen (and few would) how this was all bullshit. When he got his turn to speak to a check-in officer, he subjected the poor, tired man to a furious twenty minute tirade which ended with his declaring “this is the worst fucking company I’ve ever seen” and stalking off without having arranged a new flight.

I wasn’t particularly cheery about having to waste a full day of my life getting home, but, by God, at no point did I feel the need to be unacceptably rude to people who were not personally at fault in any way, or lose control and make an embarrassing spectacle of myself as others did, or treat my fellow passengers with discourtesy just because we were in a stressful situation. I was one of a number of the passengers, perhaps half, maybe more if I’m being generous, who — while peeved about the situation like everyone else — remained outwardly perfectly calm, pleasant and courteous throughout the whole experience. We were the normal ones — or, at least, we were normal according to what I thought was supposed to be normal. I thought normal people didn’t drop civility and courtesy and turn selfish and rude when they found themselves in an inconvenient situation. Maybe I’m wrong.

Ironically, the most conspicuously mature people in the whole situation were the teenage school kids, not one of whom I saw uttered a word of complaint, nor were they panicking or making a fuss like the “grown-ups” were. Remarkably for a group of forty minors who were going have a very difficult time getting back home, they were taking the whole thing coolly in their stride.

Is it just that some people are worse at dealing with stress than others? As someone who doesn’t stress very much, who wasn’t even particularly stressed in that situation (at least until I realised it might happen again, if the French continued to be difficult), is it unfair of me to call out others who do get stressed more easily and don’t deal with it well? Should I check my #ChillPrivilege?

I don’t think so. I think there’s no excuse for abusing people who don’t deserve it, or treating people badly just because they’re wearing a uniform. No excuse for forgetting basic civility and consideration, even if you’re stuck in Barcelona — especially when everyone else is in precisely the same situation you are.

Maybe I’m still being too generous. Maybe it’s not just that some people don’t deal well with stress, but that some people just aren’t nice people at heart. I can say without hesitation that the dude who embarrassed himself in his twenty-minute tirade in an unfortunate check-in officer’s face was truly a twat of the highest order. Some people are just twats. Maybe more people are twats than I realised.

I really hope, for the sake of my faith in humanity, that it’s the former. I can understand, if not forgive, that a lot of people lash out and turn into disagreeable twats under stress. But if the proportion of the population who really aren’t nice people at heart is equal to the number of people on that cancelled flight who were acting like twats, I’m tempted to think that humanity actually doesn’t deserve to be saved.

One thing I’m sure of, though, is that cancelling a flight really does bring out the worst in people. If only for that reason, I don’t want to go through that experience again. I don’t think what positive opinion of people I have left could survive it.