Christmas at 40,000 Feet

There’s no holiday spirit in airports.

It’s Christmas, and I am flying from Pittsburgh to southern Virginia to visit my family. Everybody boarding the plane has an air of pleasantry as fake as the trees: that strained smile, the out-of-breath plastic laugh, the burn of short fuses. Candy canes, sweat and upholstery are intermingling scents on everyone. Meanwhile, pilots and flight attendants are toeing that precarious line between polite forcefulness and downright brutality just trying to get bags overhead and butts in seats.

We are somewhere between Pittsburgh and Charlotte when it becomes clear there is a Grinch on this flight.

An altercation breaks out between two passengers toward the back of the plane. Impolite words are said, loud and then louder. That’s when the first changes start happening. Hardy Harry in 4D loosens his seatbelt just slightly. The Brothers Grim-Looking put their tray tables up and point their knees out at the aisle. Even Business Casual Betsy switches seats with her four-year-old and gives the child a Frosty storybook to read while the adults are preparing for war on the Airbus.

Me? I straighten up a little more (all five-foot-four of me), set my jaw out a little. Not that I’d be able to do much in my window seat but I have made my statement. Us versus That Guy. We have made our stance that he will not be ruining our Christmas.

The stewards on the flight subdue him with steady words loud enough to carry across the cabin. I grin smugly while imagining them practicing that, veritable Santa’s elves with bright little wings on their collars. “Now, remember, it’s going to be you on one end, trouble-makers on the other, and a lot of road noise. Really enunciate now! ‘SIR! Please take your seat, sir! SIR!’ And again…”

That Guy suddenly stands up again, just as the seatbelt sign comes on. Now he’s done it. It’s not just the flight attendants yelling at him. There is a cacophony of irritated, now nervous neighbors. Fueled by yuletide stress, too little sleep, too much wrapping paper and ribbons and Charlie Brown, the air is heady with the smell of Don’t Mess with Us, Man.

That’s when it happens. The voice of God and Santa Claus and that principal from high school. It fills the cabin.

Everyone is to remain in their seats with their seat belts fastened. Or else.”

The pilot doesn’t actually say that last part but he might as well have. Because after he comes on for his brief soliloquy, all is calm, all is bright. All still through the final descent of the plane.

And as we land, there’s this little breeze of happy that passes through the aisles and the seats, a contented spring in the holiday chill because we have made it so we’ll be landing safely. In the midst of gifts that will surely be varied, everybody is grateful for the presence of those willing to take a stand. We don’t know each other’s names, but we’re on the winning side. We may not want to be doing this, but we’re in good company.

And it certainly doesn’t dampen our spirits when That Guy is taken off by TSA, and we are certain he has worse to worry about than coal in his stocking.

Katie Pugh is a local writer in Pittsburgh. Even though her flights are generally short ones between Pennsylvania and her home state of Virginia, they are never dull and certainly better than driving.

Categories: Airplanes, Pilots

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