In September, a 10-second TikTok kicked off weeks of debate. A wobbly camera stared down the center aisle of an airplane. A short story appeared, overlaid in white text: “I was seated next to a mom who had a baby in her lap and a toddler beside her. It was a lot. I offered to switch seats with the dad, who was a few rows up, so he could be with his family. He says ‘Great, thanks’ AND SENDS OVER ANOTHER SMALL KID TO SIT WITH THE MOM. He enjoyed a kid-free flight.”
The video was accompanied by a note — “A little sunday rage for ya” — and a soundtrack of women screaming. It has been viewed 6.6 million times.
The dispatch, posted by Kristine Sostar McLellan, the co-founder of the postpartum care company One Tough Mother, felt like an episode in a long-running internet-wide reality show — a show about people who are bad on airplanes, at least according to the social media users who surveil them. TikTok videos and Reddit threads are always beckoning me into a cramped seat, asking me to scrutinize random travelers and litigate their disputes. I don’t fly much anymore, but I think about flying all the time.
The plane, in 2023, has become a stage for viral comedies of manners. In recent months, I’ve watched a woman extend both of her arms to block the seat in front of her from reclining. I read about a guy who grounded a plane because he didn’t get his first-choice meal. I saw an adult man lose it over a screaming baby — and scream back.
There’s something about the airplane that makes even a minor dispute feel like a big deal. Tabloids regularly repackage anonymous Reddit threads about the quirks of seat switching, seat reclining, seat back grabbing, service animals or the choreography of deplaning. The New York Post will scrape a dispute directly from Reddit and give it a headline in the style of a personal essay, like: “I left my wife behind at the airport and I’m not sorry — she needs to learn time management.” (And I’ll read it!) McLellan’s video has been squeezed through dozens of online news sites, fueling stories on the “deadbeat dad” who ducked his duties midair, the “TikTok mom” who exposed him and the debate it raised over the division of labor between mothers and fathers.
Dramatic footage of in-fight meltdowns can create tabloid fixtures, but the offending fliers are often unidentifiable. They appear as cursed images: a curtain of hair grazing the tray table behind it; a wandering hand snaking through a seat crack to lift someone else’s window shade; a naked foot propped on an armrest. An in-flight incident once required the involvement of Alec Baldwin to make a splash. Now the plane itself is the star.
No matter how often you fly, the social geography of the airplane feels anxiously familiar. In a plane, distinctions of class and status are made explicit. And in economy, every row presents another hierarchy, with more fortunate passengers filling the window and aisle seats and suckers squeezed in the middle. Airlines are squeezing us, too, pinching legroom and inventing new cabin strata even as delays rise.
Many viral plane scenarios involve litigating the circumstances under which passengers ought to relinquish their seats to accommodate separated families, a debate that has been supercharged by new seat selection fees. Once airlines have emptied our pockets, it is easy to assure ourselves that we don’t owe each other anything.
Some say that since 2020, people have forgotten how to act in public, but I think these stories point to deeper issues. A few years ago, viral plane videos often featured masks and the people who refused to wear them. They ranted and flailed as police officers and crew members peeled them from their seats. These videos dramatized a broader tension between personal entitlement and the common good.
The mask mandate has lifted, but the question lingers: Do we live in a society, or a marketplace? Many in-flight squabbles are proxy battles over white privilege, male entitlement and the accommodation of mothers and children. They are about our literal place in society.
As travel becomes increasingly uncomfortable, it makes sense that more and more passengers will be pushed to their breaking points. Some scream. Others post. When people are at the mercy of the airlines, they cling to the little things they feel they can control: the seat assignment, the armrest and their phones, where they can conjure a virtual lounge offering comfort and affirmation. TikTok surveillance is a passive-aggressive strategy for one-upping a seatmate. But it can be a way to reclaim some self-respect, by reaching outside the artificial hierarchy of the plane and appealing to a higher moral authority.
On a flight, everyone is competing for ever-scarcer resources, and yet their fates are connected. When a baby cries, everyone hears it. When one passenger acts out, they are all grounded. In March, the former football player and ESPN personality Desmond Howard posted a video to Twitter about his white seatmate, who accused Howard of being “sick” and asked a flight attendant to remove him from the plane. The white man, Howard said, had tried to appeal to his superior American Airlines status in order to get his way. Mid-flight, Howard pulled out his phone and recounted the story in a video he posted to Twitter. Then he turned the camera onto the man who tried to boot him. There he was, the elite traveler, stuck in his seat like everyone else.