Want to take flight without a fight this holiday season? Buckling in with emotional intelligence can help

By Sally Crocker

People wearing face masks boarding airplane

The 2021 holiday travel season is well underway. More than 2.3 million people were screened at airports around the country on the Sunday after Thanksgiving, the busiest air travel day since the start of the pandemic.

Millions more are planning to fly by the end of December – with airlines continuing to brace for disruptive passenger behavior and confrontations onboard.

The FAA has reported over 5,000 complaints of unruly passengers this year, including noncompliance related to flight regulations, verbal attacks and physical assault against flight crews and fellow travelers.  

These disturbing actions have disrupted flights, sent victims to the hospital and become an increasing source of anxiety for both passengers and air crews, leading the FAA and U.S. Attorney General’s Office to adopt a Zero Tolerance policy carrying the potential for steep fines and federal charges.

What’s behind this growing national concern, and what should travelers consider as they plan their holiday trips and getaways for the New Year?

“Travel in itself can be stressful, especially considering that people may be traveling for the first time since before COVID-19,” said Dr. Scott Walters, Regents Professor in the Department of Health Behavior and Health Systems at the HSC School of Public Health.

“Pandemic-related health concerns, masking, flight delays and feelings of unease from being packed tightly with strangers can all produce anxiety, especially for people who may not have been around others in that way for a long time,” Dr. Walters explained.

In stressful conditions, he noted, strong emotions like anxiety can blur, crossing over into slightly different feelings of anger or frustration. Brain research shows that strong emotions can crowd out logical thinking.

“When people later look back and say, ‘I don’t know why I did it,’ they are often unable to explain their behavior. It doesn’t make any sense to them,” Dr. Walters said. “Others who know them are also surprised by their actions, and chances are, if they had the opportunity to do it over, they wouldn’t react in the same way.”

“Most people never intend for things to escalate that way, but when emotions overtake reason, it’s harder to separate a bad idea from a good one.”

Young adults learn the concept of emotional intelligence early in school, and in business, this idea is reinforced through job training and leadership programs. The term refers to the ability to identify and manage one’s own emotions, as well as correctly interpret the emotions and intentions of others. Emotional intelligence leads to cooperation and coolheaded thinking.

“A lot of problems come from simply misreading messages from other people. It goes both ways, for passengers and flight crews, who may misinterpret panic or frustration from passengers as anger or aggression,” Dr. Walters said. “When we see examples in the media of people swinging wildly, it may be that they are not reading or responding to these two-way emotions appropriately.”

The FAA has reported close to 4,000 incidents of explosive flight behaviors related to wearing masks this year.

“Masks themselves can inhibit emotional intelligence, standing in the way of correctly reading others’ emotions,” Dr. Walters said. “A mask covers part of a person’s face, so you’re losing some of that visual information to judge what the other person in thinking. Based on what you see, you might assess them to be angry or unreasonable, when that may not be their intention at all.”

The first step in coming to a more common ground, Dr. Walters advises, is to step back and think how you are feeling at that moment.

“The key is to recognize and regulate your own emotions. Ask yourself, ‘what am I feeling right now’ and consider possible solutions,” he said. “Most times you don’t have to act right away. So take a moment. It’s a cliché, but sometimes simply taking a deep breath and counting to ten can reorient your brain.”

“It’s like parents advise their kids: it’s ok to be disappointed with a bad grade on a test or sad about a classmate who hurt your feelings, but you don’t have to panic or be angry about these things. We can experience emotions without acting on them.”

The one thing you do know and can control is how you yourself respond, Dr. Walters said.

“Navigating any bumpy winds this season can be less stressful when you’re the pilot of your own emotions and check any negative feelings at the gate.”

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