My Facebook status update read:

Hey drunk guy in first class: the plane hasn’t even left and we already know you’re on probation, lost your kids, worked in sales, and can hardly wait for your Bloody Mary. Gonna be a long flight.

That was an understatement. An hour after take off the woman in 2A was crying, the fellow in 2D had his head down between his knees, and there were at least 4 burly passengers standing in the aisle around me, ready to kick some ass if need be.

Mr. 3A was more than a drunk. He was an angry drunk. He was an angry, emotionally unstable, potentially violent drunk, caged on a plane en route to PDX. I was caged with him.

I had followed him through security in the airport, and he reeked of booze. He’d accosted the TSA agent and I had two thoughts. 1) I hope this guy’s not on my flight, and 2) I should speak up on behalf of said TSA agent and tell Mr. 3A he doesn’t have a right to be a jerk. I missed that chance, but it came later.

As I boarded the plane in San Diego I heard the passenger behind me muttering under his breath. The hairs on my neck bristled; something wasn’t right. That’s instinct. When he boarded the plane and ordered a Bloody Mary to 3A, that was confirmation. Yep, the jerk was not only on my flight, he was 2 rows behind me.

I motioned to the flight attendant with a universal gesture that implied he’d been drinking.

She gave me a knowing look and a thumbs up. I’d alerted her, but it gnawed at me that I hadn’t done enough. Sometimes you just get that feeling…

As passengers loaded, he was just Annoying Drunk Guy. He was loud. He wouldn’t shut up. He was over-sharing. At one point I heard him say, “My plan is to just get real drunk and pass out.” I was surprised to learn he was a planner. I was sad to learn the pass out part was not meant to be. Somehow, that plane took off with him still on it.

You can guess how it started: flight attendant cut him off. When Mr. 3A came unglued it sounded something like this:

What the f*ck kind of first class is this? How the hell can you deny a man a drink? This is total bull sh#t! F*ck you! F*ck you…you mother bleep bleep bleep bleep piece of bleep bleep.

You get the idea. Bear in mind, this is yelled, not spoken. At some point he is standing, while ranting. Have you seen rage lately? I had not. It looks like this:

(please add credit if you can)

The threat was palpable. My stomach seized and clenched, not only from my own fear response but in reply to the anxiety and fear that surged around me. It revolted as I absorbed the toxicity of Mr. 3A. Anybody with any empathy can feel that kind of anger viscerally.

We are primed to react to rage. Fight or flee. I watched the other 11 passengers in the cabin default to their hardwired preference. I watched the flight attendants move into their programmed mode (that was impressive). I watched as tall beefy guys gathered around me (Folks, there are times they don’t care if you congregate in the aisle at the front of the plane).

I’m introspective, so I’m actually sitting in 1C pondering my primal, physical, and emotional responses. What else was I supposed to do? I teach people how to identify their hot buttons, how to regulate their emotions and respond to perceived threat. Could I practice what I preach? Could I keep my wits about me and override my flee response?

Then it happened: Mr. 3A triggered a live wire in my brain. He moved from the generically mean and hateful to the specific – he started verbally assaulting and attacking the flight attendant.

You’re nothing but a stupid piece of sh*t faggot! (That hurt to type, but it’s an ugly word and it pushed me over the edge). You’re just a mother f-in faggot and bleep bleep bleep.

That was it – Social Justice activated. I stood up, turned around and faced Mr. 3A.

Excuse me, Sir. These people (gesturing to flight attendants) are paid to be professional and to say the right things and bite their tongues. I am not. I find your language highly offensive and I’d like you to stop it.

I watched his shock as my words registered. Brief pause.

I know you’re angry (name it to tame it) but you are upsetting the whole cabin (call out the behavior).

Maybe another moment of silence. And then you know what he did? He mocked me. He put his hands up in the air, plastered on a fake grin and snarled,

Oh, are you offended? You and your look of concern?”

Then he called me a cock-sucking mother f*cker (a personal first).

Hmm. I had no idea what my face looked like when I confronted him. I truly was concerned. I cared about the flight attendant he insulted. I had compassion for my fellow passengers. I was concerned for my own safety and well-being. And I was concerned for him in his obvious distress. He’d been talking to himself and was all worked up. Fear is so easy to read.

The next hour is a blur; it lasted forever. There was yelling, more strings of obscenities, panic that never turned to pandemonium. At one point, the flight attendant passed around restraints with instructions on how to use them if needed. Then he calmly announced over the intercom:

I’m sorry for the disruption in the front of the aircraft. Everything is under control. Your safety is our top priority.

Disruption? That’s funny. Under control. Really? Wishful thinking is a powerful tool.

In hindsight, I’m amazed how people react, myself included. I have spent lots of time with Alpha Males in corporate offices, but Alpha Males in fight response at 30k feet with a megalomaniac is a different picture. The woman beside me just kept repeating, “Leave him alone, let’s all just leave him alone.” Some people stared; others couldn’t look. The woman in 2A wept, and I found myself leaning through the seats to hold her hand, offer comfort, reassure her that she’d be ok. “It’s my first time in first class,” she kept repeating. There is humor there, and I laughed softly as I told her it’s usually better than this.

The flight landed and we were asked to remain in our seats as four Portland Police officers escorted 3A off the plane. There were no cheers; it was just silent. He stood up with his head hung low, his body limp and powerless. And guess what he said as he exited?

I don’t understand. I didn’t do anything.

Ownership. Accountability. Self-control. Compassion. Team work. Courage. I had just spent two days discussing these concepts with executives. Sometimes the best lessons are on the flight home.


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