Overhead lights—private space invaders?

On a recent overnight flight, a passenger became enraged that the woman in front of him wouldn’t turn off her overhead light. He went to the flight attendants and complained, and when they said she had a right to have her light on he proceeded to shout expletives. Then he threatened to kick her seat to annoy her for the rest of the flight. Wow. Read the whole story from USA Today.

Obviously this guy is not the norm. But it brings up an interesting point. Part of the deal with being in a relatively small, confined space with hundreds of other people is, well, you have to share your space. In coach, you get a rather small space to yourself, and are super close to your neighbor. So where does your space begin and someone else’s space end?

The easy answer is that you try to stay in your own physical space as much as possible, minimizing physical contact. But what about visual space? If you are in the aisle and trying to sleep, what if the person sitting in the window wants the shade open? Then there’s auditory space—a person near you is listening to their headphones at full blast, allowing you to hear every guitar riff. Or my personal fear—when someone around me has a migraine-inducing perfume on. <<shudder>>

In my opinion, part of being a grown up is just dealing with other people not always being polite. Part of being a good traveler is preparing for scenarios such as the ones I mentioned above. For example, I always have my headphones so I can listen to my own music (or white noise), and an eye mask so I can block out light when I want to sleep and others want lights on. The scent thing is a little trickier, but I’ve started making sure I always have tea bags or lip balm that I can smell whenever there is a truly offensive scent around. I’m not the type of person to make a scene, kicking someone’s seat or demanding that they turn off their light. And there’s nothing I can do to change others’ behavior, only my own reaction to it. Of course, I also do my best to be a considerate traveler and not do anything super annoying. In this instance, however, I don’t think the woman passenger, sitting on a plane reading her book, was doing anything wrong. Her light is part of her space, and it is up to the rest of us to make our own (tiny) space a place we can comfortably fly in.

Readers, what do you think? Where does your neighbor’s space end and yours begin? Have you ever seen someone overreact to what another passenger was doing?

Follow Road Warriorette on Twitter!


  1. Wow, really? I think that guy should have been moved to the galley and taped up. It is relatively easy to pack an eyemask, and anyone has the right to have a light on and work or read or knit or whatever. Sheesh!

  2. ON a flight once, my wife (sitting next to me) had the girl behind her physically push her seat back into an upright position when my wife tried to recline, and then complained loudly about the seats reclining. An old argument, I know, but jeeze…

    Same scenario, different people – I was traveling with a co-worker, and when he reclined his seat, the guy behind him threatened to “punch {him} in the head” if he put his seat back again.

  3. got a question. I was recently on a Lufthansa first class flight and had my reading light on. The FA came by to instruct me to turn it off saying the other passengers in the cabin were sleeping. Is this allowed coming from an FA?

    Not sure since they tell us we have to obey all the FA instructions.

  4. Im reclining, turning my lights on, turning air on, etc all I want. If someone wants to threaten me, be ready.

  5. Unfortunately this is becoming far more common in my experience as a frequent traveler. Space is tight, travel is a hassle, selfishness is on the rise, and as a result tempers flare in places and ways that would have been socially unacceptable just a few years ago. Many of the top tier FFs I see act like children, not like adults. I partially blame this on changes in our culture, but also on the airlines making space tighter to squeeze just one more row of seats on the plane. I really hope that at some point we realize as a society that there is a cost to this kind of minimization of individual space, especially when you have to spend a long time before take off on the plane because of other policies. For example, it takes 45 minutes to load a plane because of the baggage fees that cause people who would have never carried on before to carry on to save a few bucks. The FAs are frustrated, the passengers are miserable, and nobody wins.

    Rant over!

    Anyway, I think the passenger with the reading light had a right to turn it on. Just as it is painful for someone to recline their seat into my knees (I have long legs), they have a right to do so, and I have to deal with it like a grown-up.

  6. If someone wants their light on, it’s their choice – but I have sometimes asked people if they wouldn’t mind closing their window a bit because the light was beaming into my eyes. Ask politely, and don’t expect that they will, but most of the time, politeness works.

  7. Perfume can cause problems more serious than migraines. I have asthma and excess perfume has triggered asthma attacks. Usually I can step outside before anything happens, but in a plane that could be rather difficult.

    Please use restraint in perfume when traveling on airplanes.

  8. The flight attendants should have given him an eyemask…certainly there are some on board. That still is no excuse though…clearly this guy had issues.

  9. The woman behind me on my 6:30AM flight would not stop talking to the poor guy next to her. Everyone around me looked like they wanted to sleep but it was impossible with her loud chatter. It would be out of place for me to say anything to her but I did sneak some looks at her to try to get her to stop =). Listening to empty chatter “weather, random stories, etc” is just painful when you’re trying to sleep but making a big scene out of it is worse. If I was in first class though I would probably say something.

  10. Seriously…bring an eye mask on an overnight flight…the movie / IFE systems put out tons of light.

  11. My first thought, aircraft had these lights on them since before the guy was born, so it shouldn’t have been a surprise to him.

    My second thought to this, and all of stories relating to conflicts due to personal comfort (such as seating, excessive carry-on bags, etc), bring me back to the title of the “Me Generation” coined by a New York magazine writer in the late 70s (1976?) about the Baby Boomers, and this is likely the root cause of the “turn” in behavior for the worst throughout our society. Everything we see regarding the Do You Know Who I Am attitudes and “my personal comfort trumps yours” ideology stem from the personal introspection and desire for personal recognition generated by this generation, and this guy was a classic example.

    The “Entitlement Generation”, as the millennials are being tagged, were raised (taught everything they know) by their Baby Boomer parents with the idea that they matter most and they are special, despite this not being true at all (especially in a communal space like an airplane).

    Unfortunately, late Gen X and Gen Y did not have that connection to the “Greatest Generation” of their grandparents, who survived the great depression and World War II. Instead, they learned everything they know from a generation that brought the “me” attitude, which was once reserved for the affluent and powerful, to the masses.

    In the end, my observations are that we can trace all of this back to a single group that has had, and will continue to have, the greatest influence on American society. From television programing and commercial focus, from Vietnam protests and the hippie movements, from the free love and high divorce rate to the raising of the “Entitlement Generation”, we can see the influence of the baby boomers in this incident and many others like it.

    In the end, get used to it, as this self-focused attitude is only going to accelerate in our society.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.