How to deal with an unruly neighbor?

When your seatmate acts, should you try to intercede as a peacemaker or stand aside and leave it to the flight attendants?

The context of my story is my recent United Airlines flight from Denver to Los Angeles. A man refused to wear his mask and insulted the flight attendant. I chose not to speak, even though I was sitting behind him.

Some reviewers have asked why I couldn’t have been more aggressive in facing my seatmate directly. To that, my answer is: have you watched the videos? This guy was drunk, cursed a storm, refused to follow the rules, and dressed like a disheveled fighter.

Which begs the question of what can we realistically do when a passenger is making their own? What is the fine line between courage and stupidity? How to exercise discernment in a cloistered metal tube in which air rage has proliferated in recent months?

Nicholas Goldberg of the Los Angeles Times wrote a column this week titled, The moron next to me on the plane wouldn’t wear a mask. This is why I didn’t do anything. He was flying on Lufthansa from Frankfurt to Los Angeles and his seatmate refused to wear his mask. Goldberg decided to talk. As he describes:

Everyone – every person I saw – was following the rules. This guy, however, was a middle-aged American returning to LA from Frankfurt, Germany. His mask had fallen around his neck.

I ignored him for about half an hour, but eventually, nervous about sitting for a full 12 hours next to an unmasked man during a pandemic, I asked if he would put it on. I swear I was very polite. Even apologize.

He ignored me. I asked again, and he finally looked at me and angrily told me that if I wanted him to wear a mask, I should ask the flight attendant to tell him. He was not going to take orders from me, he said.

So I got up and spoke to the flight attendant, who told him he was required to keep it on – covering both his mouth and nose – throughout the flight. But as soon as she walked away, he lowered her again, laughed at me, and for the rest of the flight, he carried her under her nose.

I didn’t say anything more to him for the remaining 11 hours. I was actually afraid he would turn violent if I persisted.

Goldberg captures the dilemma that many faces face, in fact the precise dilemma I faced.

Part of me really wanted to be the “hero” who stood up for the five year old sitting behind me. Pat the guy on the shoulder, tell him to calm down, and apply the kind of peer pressure that often makes people comply.

But if you have read Live and fly Over the past few years, you have noted the upsurge in stories of violence on airplanes. Was it really smart to even risk potential physical danger by getting in between a drunken man and his political rants?

What if he says no? Were we going to engage in a “yes – no” battle? I had no authority to force her to do anything: she was the flight attendant.

Flight attendants should be consistent in enforcing mask rules as long as the federal mask mandate remains in place, but it’s not as if flight attendants can keep a problem passenger. The flight was full and it wasn’t a dereliction of duty or laziness that made them forget the guy was drunk before take off.

Each situation depends to some extent on the context, but extreme caution must be exercised in defusing a time bomb.


I would appreciate your thoughts below on how you would have handled my situation or Goldberg’s situation. What would have made you take action and what would you have said? Generally speaking, when do you speak and will you hold your tongue?

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