Sobbing at 30,000 Feet

I’m sure every magazine has staff-favorite story ideas that never quite make it to print, and one we discuss at least once a year at Executive Travel is why many people seem to experience heightened emotions while up in the air. This week I came across the story I wish we’d run, over at The Atlantic, called “Why We Cry on Planes.”

Have you had this experience? You get engrossed in the inflight movie and all of a sudden you find yourself all choked up, maybe even sobbing into your blanket. Meanwhile your conscious self goes, “This is weird…why am I crying at this?” I cried my way cross-country once while watching Rudy. A friend said he cried unexpectedly watching Legally Blond 2: Red, White and Blond on a flight. (What’s up with that? except that my friend is a very political guy.)

While there are theories about the airplane sob, none are conclusive. Some hypotheses:

Air pressure/altitude. This is my personal favorite, even if I base it on my dubious made-up science. (There is some research that indicates people experience more intense emotions at high altitude, but truthfully, I’m not sure it translates to the cabin environment.) I’d be curious to know whether adult crying is lessened on the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, since the plane is pressurized to the equivalent of 6,000 feet (due to its structure built from composite materials), vs. 6,900 feet on the B-767 for example. If your ability to taste is altered by altitude, why not your emotional makeup?

Stress or relief from it. I’ve talked to some flight attendants and airline execs who espouse this theory. The whole travel experience is so stressful these days that getting into the seat and relaxing with a movie may produce a let-down that loosens up the emotions.

What’s left behind. I suspect most flights have a handful of passengers onboard who have just begun separations from loved ones. I cried for five hours straight on a flight, having just said good-bye to my father, who I had a suspicion I would not see again. (And as it turned out, he died while I was on the flight.)

The act of sitting alone. The Atlantic story makes a good case for why grieving often happens in cars: There’s time for contemplation. The same theory could hold true for planes. Interesting, though, that on a plane we’re alone, but not. We may have no one to talk to, so get lost in thoughts. However, we’re practically intimate with our seatmates and within earshot of hundreds of other passengers. Does the very fact that we’re surrounded by strangers make us more emotional, or cause us to stifle and hide the tears (thus, the very useful blanket)?

Babies seem quite open to crying on planes, and perhaps we should look no further than classic reasons for baby’s tears: tired, hungry and/or uncomfortable. These days, just about every passenger can relate.

Have you ever cried unabashedly while watching an inflight movie?