Dear Mr. Jerk Sitting Behind Me on the Plane

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Dear Mr. Jerk Sitting Behind Me on the Plane

Dear Man Seated Behind Me on Ethiopian Flight 500 from Addis Ababa to Washington,

I first noticed you when you loaded your carry-on bags into the overhead compartment. You made those mumbled complaining noises and said something about, “What the hell is this?” because my carry-on was already up there. Your two bags fit just fine, with a little maneuvering but you huffed and puffed for a while and I ignored you. I was reading Anton Chekhov.

I am a woman of average height and lifted my carry-on without any trouble so it was a little surprising that such a tall, stern man as yourself needed to make so much noise about it, but to each his own.

After first dinner was served I reclined my seat in order to sleep. It was 2:00 a.m. in my body. I heard another grunt and groan and for the next hour you jammed your knees into my seat, bobbed your legs up and down, leaned over and signed heavily. I pretended the earthquake in my seat was merely airplane turbulence and ignored you. I had actually forgotten that you were the man who had so much trouble with his bags and I assumed that you were a toddler, or maybe a five-year old, compulsively kicking the seat of the person in front of you.

I didn’t say anything because I was so tired that I managed to doze off and on until a particularly hard jab jerked me awake. But such is trying to sleep on an airplane.

airplane jerk

I went to the bathroom.

While I was gone you adjusted me seat for me, thank you O kind sir, so that now it was in the upright position and your knees were jammed in hard against the back so that no matter how hard I pushed I could no longer recline even one inch.

You had an empty seat beside you. Why not sit there? Why not stretch your legs comfortably out to the side? Why act like a spoiled child? (And, question to self: why am I not more aggressive in demanding you stop or seeking flight attendant assistance?) If you are so tall that your space needs to invade mine on a seventeen-hour flight (and actually you are not that tall, I saw you stand up and shout at the airport employee after we landed), you need to stop being an ass and purchase a ticket in business class.

Now that you learned I want to recline and that you can stop such reclining with your knees, you have not budged. You have not gone to the bathroom, you have not retrieved anything from your bags, though you watched with beady suspicion while I pulled my laptop out of my carry-on. Don’t worry, I only briefly touched your bags as they had shifted during the flight. Just following the safety guidelines.

Everytime I turn around to ask if I could please recline, I mean we are talking 17 hours in these positions, you close your eyes and feign deep sleep. This is amazing, that you can sleep so long but jump to the alert if my chair starts to move as though I wish to recline.

I suppose I should thank you, normally I have the most awful time trying to work on airplanes. But now what else can I do? I have to write about you. So, thank you and no thank you.


Tired of Traveling

*image via Flickr

By |February 11th, 2014|Categories: Expat Thoughts|Tags: , |23 Comments


  1. Kelli February 11, 2014 at 9:04 am - Reply

    OH dear! So sorry! We had one of those behind us on our 14 hour flight from Amman to the US at Christmas. Amazingly my 2 and 7 year olds were behaving like angels while the 50 something year old idiot (sorry, don’t usually call people that, but he truly way)…behind us fussed and fidgeted the entire flight…

    • Rachel Pieh Jones
      Rachel Pieh Jones February 12, 2014 at 11:05 am - Reply

      Something about flying brings out the worst in a lot of people, myself included. I better start working on that.

  2. Amy February 11, 2014 at 12:57 pm - Reply

    Ah! I can picture this exact scenario! I think the only thing that makes this a little bit better is the fact that he probably had really sore legs from jamming them into your seat. Sometimes when I meet people who make huge deals out of no deals, I feel so sad for their families.

    Glad you are off that plane!

    PS. I know you have tons going on, but if you ever have a long layover in AA I would love to meet you. You have helped formed so many thoughts for me as I have gone through this first nine months on the field.

    • Rachel Pieh Jones
      Rachel Pieh Jones February 12, 2014 at 11:07 am - Reply

      I am actually reading this in AA, after a flight was canceled and then rescheduled and now I’m here and thought I’d have a long layover but it is less, so not today but that would be great sometime!

  3. Shelly February 11, 2014 at 1:16 pm - Reply

    I’m pretty sure he was behind me on a flight from Korea to Seattle. Had to have been him. Did he also persistently snort up large quantities of phlegm and on occasion place his bare foot between the seats onto your arm rest? He jabbed my back with his knees but I got his foot but good with a bic pen cap.

  4. Marilyn February 11, 2014 at 1:24 pm - Reply

    On one of our trips to Egypt I was pregnant with my 5th.(like reallllyyyyyy pregnant at 8 months) We had 4 other kids and I ended up sick as can be that day. A woman from France was sitting behind me and let her kids kick my seat for 14 hours. At one point I turned to her with tears running down my cheeks asking me if she could please stop them. She responded by yelling at me in both English and French that I didn’t know what it was like to travel with little kids…..I’m still bitter. 🙂 So so sorry about this idiot person.

    • Rachel Pieh Jones
      Rachel Pieh Jones February 12, 2014 at 11:09 am - Reply

      Oh that is just awful Marilyn. I’m glad you said something, even if she didn’t respond, not even to your tears. Wow. I wish I had spoken up.

  5. Anna February 11, 2014 at 2:04 pm - Reply

    Ahh! I’ve had some strange travel experience in Africa, too. I always figure at least I have some interesting stories to tell. Some people just see our kids as obstacles to be shoved aside in the mad rush for the plane (no assigned seats, and sometimes number of tickets sold are more than the number of available seats.)

    For us, once the flight is in the air, things settle down. Except the time most of the people on the plane were with a group of Catholics going to celebrate the ordination of a bishop or something. They all brought wine and various types of liquor, and they were more than willing to share. I’ve never had such a cheerful group of fellow passengers. Everyone stayed kind and cheerful. Maybe we all just need to drink more on flights?

  6. Clara February 11, 2014 at 3:17 pm - Reply

    Luckily there are good people out there too. Coming home from Miami in 2012, massively late flight delayed by storms, two extremely tired children. One already asleep when we got on, the other drops off instantly on take-off. Both seated next to one of us adults, with unknown men on their other side. Both end up falling asleep (and quite possibly dribbling)on to said men, who didn’t shift or budge or complain once the whole trip, they were just lovely. I think they were Norwegians.

  7. Tina/@teenbug February 11, 2014 at 6:19 pm - Reply

    Oh that sounds brutal!!! So sorry that you had such a frustrating experience.

    I can’t believe he adjusted your chair when you went to the washroom. Unbelievable.

    Writing is therapy, right? (Then why do I want to punch a pillow? Lol.)

  8. Emma February 12, 2014 at 4:49 am - Reply

    hhhmmm… I don’t know – yes the guy does sound like a jerk and I think he could have handled it better – but I sympathise with him… it is really annoying when someone gets on the plane and instantly puts their seat back! If you try and put your seat back while I’m sitting behind you, you won’t find much success either. I am tall (I get it that he didn’t seem that tall) and I don’t like putting my legs to the side (is that a crime!). It is really uncomfortable, and you will feel my knees ‘digging into your back’. Moreover, it’s impossible to read, watch movies, eat and sit up straight and comfortably on most carriers when a seat is fully reclined (when you’re tall). The most annoying thing… you have the back of a chair in your face oh AND you can’t move your legs without disturbing the person in front of you. I once had a lady turn around and yell at me because of my knees – I just said “I’m sorry, I’m tall, get over it or stop reclining your seat”.

    And what is this about “If you are so tall that your space needs to invade mine on a seventeen-hour flight, you need to stop being an ass and purchase a ticket in business class.” Get a grip! I think YOU are invading HIS space, here! You are reclining into the area in front of him, remember. Just because the seat can recline, doesn’t mean it’s your right. I think his right to some space in front of him trumps your desire to recline your seat. Come on, it’s not impossible to sleep without reclining the seat. And a business class ticket? I’m not sure what planet you are from, but most people can’t afford one… do you think taller people get paid more or something? I can tell you now, he would probably buy a business class ticket if he could. You are also making a heck of a lot of other assumptions about him… You’re sure he just didn’t need to go to the bathroom?

    I have some suggestions:

    1, Ask the person behind you if they mind if you recline. If they say they don’t want you to, I honestly think you need to respect that. Who wants the back of a chair in their face?
    2. Recline just a little! Especially if they say yes but you can kind of tell they would rather you didn’t.

    You’re correct in thinking that he should have changed seats, but then again, would that have caused him to sit next to a woman who he didn’t know? (I’m in the potential woman’s shoes here, I equally wouldn’t want to have the spare seat next to me taken up because someone else wanted to recline theirs!)

    If he wasn’t ok with you reclining then I think you just have to accept it. One of you has to lose out here – why should he lose space so you can gain more?

    Just another perspective.

    • Rachel Pieh Jones
      Rachel Pieh Jones February 12, 2014 at 11:03 am - Reply

      Point taken, appreciate your thorough comment. I do feel bad for taller people on planes, but I’m not a short person myself and the seat in front of me was reclined…I don’t know. He could just as easily spoken to me about it as I could have spoken to him, seeing as neither of us decided to address it and just be angry at each other, I would say we both lost out and had bad attitudes. I should have been more assertive, he should have been gentler.

  9. Susannah February 12, 2014 at 7:47 am - Reply

    I love traveling …except sometimes, the plane part is difficult. The airlines have measured to the millimetre how much space is needed based on the “average” individual. (I think they fudge this on the small side).

    There’s all sorts of stuff out there about travel etiquette (and this guy was a jerk), but the key line is “…why am I not more aggressive in demanding you stop or seeking flight attendant assistance?”

    Indeed. Why weren’t you?


    • Rachel Pieh Jones
      Rachel Pieh Jones February 12, 2014 at 11:04 am - Reply

      I know, I should have been more assertive, I wish I had been and just spoken to him about it. Or asked a flight attendant if there was another available seat or something. I mostly just zone out of normal human behavior while traveling and need to work on that.

  10. jamal February 12, 2014 at 11:31 am - Reply

    I WOULD HAVE suggested you switch seats . . . u recline to the empty seat behind and he sits straight for 17hrs.

  11. Jody February 14, 2014 at 4:16 am - Reply

    I’m with ya! I don’t think anything tests my patience more than the jerk-who-forces-my-airplane-seat straight up in the air.

  12. Carmel February 15, 2014 at 2:57 am - Reply

    Yeah, I’m with Emma. As the tall woman behind you, am I just made of cash to bump up because I’m tall? Paychecks aren’t per cm of height. And having you jam into my knees all flight is actually quite painful. Even if there is a seat next to me, I chose and paid for a window seat on purpose (so I could look out the window).
    And yes, you both could have been adults and politely discussed the situation. It goes like this: “Excuse me person behind me, will it bother you if I recline my seat into your space so I can sleep?”
    “Actually ma’am, that would hurt my knees quite a bit since even though I’m not that incredibly tall, planes are not made with adequate leg room. Could you possibly sleep upright?”
    “Ah, I understand. Would you be able to move to the empty seat so I don’t crush your knees with my seat?”
    “I really enjoy looking out the window, but once it’s dark I hope to snooze a bit and I’d be happy to move over then.”

    I’ve had someone yell at me for jamming my knees into their seat and kicking them, when in reality that’s just how far my knees are from my torso and they were hurting me by reclining. I don’t know why others think they own the space behind their seat as well as in front of it. If not being able to recline is such a problem for you, maybe you need to pay for the upgrade.

  13. […] When you are the international traveler in the domestic terminal, you look and smell really bad. Do everyone a favor and just keep your shoes on, don’t raise your arms too high. Lotion or perfume might help mask it, but remember, it is a thin veneer. Everyone else has just come from home or one other connection. You left home twenty-nine hours ago and have already endured three, four, or five airports. […]

  14. […] February I wrote a blog post about the man who sat behind me on a seventeen-hour international flight (Addis Ababa, Ethiopia to Toronto, Canada) and refused to […]

  15. Patrick March 13, 2015 at 8:12 pm - Reply

    HAHA I laugh when i read this, i travel often in Japan,and i had some of this passenger’s close to me…what we can do? Open the door….good idea, but not safe:) Education dont come with age:) Good luck to you next time.

  16. MM October 17, 2015 at 8:59 pm - Reply

    I’ve been the only person in a column of seats on a trans Atlantic flight to not recline, based on principle. And I have back problems that require physical therapy and a home TENS unit.

    One solution is to set a time limit the time a seat can be reclined. Maybe 2 hours on a 6 hour flight. That balances the person wishing to recline with the person’s right to not have their knees crushed, not be prevented from working on the tray, and not having to perform gymnastics to get out and use the bathroom.

    Another option is a chair that reclines into itself so that when you “recline”, your seat slides forward into your own legroom.

    Barring that, reclining should require a permit signed by a doctor.

    Wishful thinking I know.

    The “pay for business class if you don’t want someone reclining into you” argument is so out of touch as to be offensive. Did it ever occur to you that the person is traveling for work and didn’t pick that ticket? When I worked for the state government, they wouldn’t even reimburse for a checked bag despite the fact that things I needed for the job took up all the space in the carryon.

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