A couple of months ago, I was taking a flight from Hartford, Connecticut to Washington, D.C. After some initial pleasantries, my seatmate told me that his buddy had just been upgraded from the empty seat between us to First Class. He was texting him to say, he explained thumbing the letters into the slick of his phone and nodding to the front of the plane, that a beautiful woman had just walked on and was rubbing his shoulders. “So, if you want to play along…” he said, his voice lilting up and trailing off at the same moment. We sat in uncomfortable silence for the rest of the flight.
Once, returning from Liberia, I got negged passing through immigration. The Customs and Border Patrol officer processing my passport took the opportunity to tell me I was a lot more attractive now than when my ID photo had been taken. I thought, sardonically: “Aren’t you just supposed to say welcome home?” “Thanks,” I said instead.
Several high-profile news stories reported in the past year have caused U.S. audiences to rethink the specter of air travel’s potential violence. The police-escorted removal of the President of North Carolina’s NAACP Reverend William Barber, the recorded altercation between an American Airlines flight attendant and a woman holding a child and a stroller, and most virally, the forcible removal of David Dao from a United Airlines flight constellate a popular culture fascination that pits the diminishing profit margins of corporate airlines against the bodily safety of its passengers. In a post 9/11 imaginary where in-flight threat has long been figured as foreign infiltration, the cavalier capitalism of homegrown airlines suddenly shifted focus to a domestic enemy. Devoid of religious or political fervor, this attacker is just after cold, hard cash.
Positioning these incidents—these displays of power over passengers’s bodies—as new, novel, or isolated, however, belies what many of us have long known: Air travel is a relentless, vulnerable, and hypersexualized enterprise.
The rash of recently recorded physical conflict is just the most visible apogee of a much larger-scale problem. “The pain of transportation fiascos tends to be sharp but short-lived,” quipped a Slate article reporting on the proposed Customers Not Cargo Act and offering a run-down of similar calls for passengers’ rights legislation. But that assessment and the slate of politically opportunistic calls for Department of Transportation regulations elide the plodding, long-lived violences that are so regular in airports and airplanes that they’re nearly banal. These aggressions are largely undocumented, seldom escalate to the level of airport security or local law enforcement, and, like so many systematized violences, are perpetrated disproportionately against the intersectional vulnerabilities of women, children, people of color, and those who identify as LGBTQ .
“Baggage can be an inconvenience,” wrote sociologist Simone Browne in Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness. “Sometimes it’s material; sometimes it’s memory; sometimes at the airport its the weight that gets put upon certain bodies.” These weighted scenes shuttle between harassment and humiliation, annoyance and assault. There’s the well-documented anti-Muslim racial profiling meted out by the Transportation Security Administration. There’s the alarms and subsequent pat downs when full-body scanners detect “incongruent genitals” as trans passengers pass through screening checkpoints. There’s drive-by passenger groping dismissed by local police as “not the crime of the century.” There’s the pawing scrutiny of the afro—“the discrim-FRO-nation,” coined by Solange Knowles—even after Black men and women have already moved through detectors and scanners. There’s the sexual assault of a 16-year-old girl and the assailant airline officials allowed to leave the plane. There’s even Jessica Leeds telling us that she was fondled by first class seatmate Donald Trump in the early 80s. “He was like an octopus,” she said. “His hands were everywhere.”
“Experiences like this,” Sarah Ahmed writes in Living a Feminist Life, “they seem to accumulate over time, gathering like things in a bag, but the bag is your body, so that you feel like you are carrying more and more weight.” Ahmed’s own catalog of gender-based sensory intrusion is not exempt from air travel. She describes a time when she fell asleep on a long flight and woke to a man’s fingers “all over” her. Her point: In-flight discomfort isn’t incidental or isolated. It’s cumulative.
Anecdotes from friends and near acquaintances take on a similar, aggregate texture. A friend was entreated to “Smile!” by a TSA officer upon entrance to the full-body scanner. When a co-worker pointed out that a man was in her ticketed seat, he offered her a seat on his lap for the rest of the flight. A passenger refused to step out of his aisle seat for a colleague pregnant with twins and traveling with her toddler from North Carolina to California. Each time her son needed to use the bathroom, she had to lift him and then step over the seated man. A former student became distressed when she watched a TSA agent misgendering a passenger during the pre-flight screening. “Actually, I’m not a woman,” the person repeated several times as the agent continued to call for a female agent to conduct the imminent pat down. One colleague told me that she had once been on a red-eye flight where the man seated next to her began masturbating and touching her leg. She left her seat, explicitly detailed her experience to a flight attendant, and was reseated in business class. To her knowledge, no one ever addressed the man directly.
“She was lucky she was on a flight that wasn’t full,” a friend who has been working as a flight attendant for the last two years told me, sighing. It’s hard to schematize this scene in a rubric of more or less fortune, but as my friend explained, much of what she can offer in terms of on-board intervention as a crew member is mere suggestion and admonishment. Unless there’s a physical threat to life, flight attendants have little recourse to curb passenger behavior no matter how horrific.
And in an industry that has transformed from special occasion luxury to corner-cutting commute, airline employees are no better insulated from the fray. With fewer and fewer resources to assuage customer expectation, flight attendants’s bodies are literally put on the line. From an array of daily sexualized propositions to the underreported incident last year aboard an American Airlines flight from Lexington, Kentucky, to Charlotte, North Carolina, where a drunk man attacked a flight attendant, it’s clear that the airline uniform doesn’t bestow employees with any more protection than the rest of us moving through the contrived spaces of flight. To acknowledge that the dangers and discomforts of air travel extend to airline representatives, however, disrupts the fantasy of the every(wo)man against the fat-rat corporation. I spoke to a friend who had worked as a ticketing agent for over a decade. “The joke is,” he told me over the phone, “that people lose half of their minds at the moment they buy their ticket, the other half when they step into the airport.” To illustrate his point, he told me the following story. My friend was leaning against a structure by the entryway to the terminal at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, smoking a cigarette during his break, dressed in full airline uniform. A passenger walking past grabbed his testicles without breaking stride, looked over his shoulder in a way that my friend described as “Hey, sailor,” passed through the sliding doors and was gone.
To acknowledge the airport’s pervasive toxicity, the in-flight hostility, and the rote potential for imminent violence is to realize that the overlapping conspiracies of capital and patriarchy, white supremacy and nativist perpetuation are gnarled at the airport’s automatic doors. Air travel (if it ever was) is no longer a gateway to commerce and leisure. It’s a node of global capital where the most vulnerable travelers are disproportionately affected by the wake of empire’s transit. Failure to acknowledge the indignities and interdictions, to perform alarm instead of pretend safety, to understand these violences as mutual and related, is to realize that we’re all just playing along.