Stratospheric emotions: Why we cry on the plane

August 23, 2011

It’s time to question the cause of our quivering lips and tear-coated cheeks when catching a flick at 35,000 feet

“I watched “Marley & Me”, during which my good-looking neighbour was subjected to both hysterical laughter and sobs of total despair. And I mean sobs. By the time I took my headphones off (and realised that in the quiet, gentle hum of the plane my tears may have been fairly audible for several rows) she was looking at me like I was an emotionally unhinged serial killer.”

This was Olly Lemanski, a Singapore-based logistics executive, who was describing to me an emotional incident between him, an in-flight movie and an attractive stranger.

We’ve all been there. I remember sitting next to the head of the Pacific Asia Travel Association in the early noughties. We were both on the way back from an industry conference. I made the mistake of watching “Casablanca”; halfway through I was in floods of tears. My travel companion turned to me with a look somewhere between incomprehension and disgust, probably deeply regretting the fact that I was editing his organisation’s magazine.

But why? Why are we so emotive up in the air? Why should a normally harmless motion picture send us over the edge? Is it due to our natural airborne vulnerability that occurs when we hurtle through the sky squished up in a metal tube? Or because of the ensuing existential taking stock of our lives that can be poignantly provoked whenever there’s no 3G connection?

Before seeking out expert advice (scroll down a bit), I asked a few frequent-travelling friends for their thoughts.

Fashion exec Emma puts the lack of any other stimulus and therefore total immersion in what’s on-screen, while former UK Foreign Office worker Debra points to our virtual anonymity on a plane allowing us to be subconsciously less guarded than usual.

Jewellery designer Ella thinks that it’s down to the constant flow of in-flight booze, perhaps also the stress release from last-minute craziness before boarding.

Travel magazine editor Luke, rather evocatively, likens flying to the exhausted giddiness of the post-exam state: “That flight is the thing you lose sleep for, part with family for, fight traffic for – the immovable date that can’t be removed until it’s faced. Then suddenly, you’re released into a literal no-man’s land above the land, the country above national borders. Whether it’s weepy or euphoric, that feeling is the release of being literally transported from everything familiar.”

Finally, on a darker note, helicopter pilot Oliver argues that air passengers know that if there is a problem, they could die a terrifying death which they would have no control over.

All these suppositions carry weight and airlines are aware of them. Virgin Atlantic for one is taking the problem seriously, adding “emotional health warnings” at the beginning of select in-flight movies. As The Guardian newspaper reported last week:

“According to respondents to a survey on [Virgin’s] Facebook page, 41% of men said they had buried themselves in blankets to disguise their tears from other passengers. Women were more likely to pretend they had something in their eye. Overall, a 55% said they had experienced heightened emotions while flying.”

I wondered if the people who select airlines’ in-flight movies also think along these lines. Raymond Girard, president of Spafax Interactive at Spafax, one of the handful of companies who curate and tailor airlines’ entertainment content, says they do.

Girard has observed a guilty pleasure mentality in-flight; people taking advantage and watching movies that they wouldn’t necessarily want to sit through with their spouse/family back home.

Film selection, he says, is often counter-intuitive: “It’s not as straightforward as ‘you’re a 55 year old businessman so you’re going to watch sports’, or ‘you’re a 35-year-old female international executive, you’re going to want romance’. People tend to be a little bit more open to exploration, to finding out new things.”

This is borne out by the feedback Spafax gets from airlines and passengers: they’re itching for the hidden gems. “They want those classics, things that they can’t just walk off the plane into a cineplex and watch right away. A lot of the most popular content that plays is that second-run content, between five and 10 years old,” says Girard.

Even frequent flyers feel vulnerable at 35,000 feet, thinks Girard. “You’re in a different headspace and you do tend to be prone to tears. We’ve noticed that a lot of customers tend to be a little bit more emotionally inclined when they’re on a plane.”

I asked him about the backgrounds of his content pickers; there are quite a few degrees in psychology, a couple of anthropologists, a couple of interior designers, a lot of English and Film Studies majors. Spafax looks for people who “like people, and like working across cultures.”

Depending on the particular airline’s tolerance for violence, sexual content, etc – and ever mindful that they’re programming for people of all cultures/nationalities – curators love Audio & Video on Demand (AVOD) systems because they can tailor different content experience to everyone on the plane, even those who need educating about female sexual pleasure: as we reported last week, Qantas is currently showing a frank French documentary named “The Female Orgasm Explained” on their long-haul routes.

Perhaps unconsciously aware of the emotional journey we’re set to take, are AVOD entertainment facilities becoming a primary reason for choosing an airline? Not quite, says Girard, but when all things are equal, it certainly is a deciding factor.

“Most people will choose an airline that’s going to keep them entertained for a 10-hour flight. Seat comfort is quite an important factor, but after that, what are you going to do when you’re on that seat for 10 hours?”

Apart from weep softly, that is.


No names have been changed.

Main caption: Hungarian aerobatic pilot Zoltan Veres flies above Lake Balaton during the Grand Aero Challenge in Balatonfured, 150 km (93 miles) west of Budapest July 2, 2009. REUTERS/Laszlo Balogh

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