Why we turn into different people when we fly
It wasn’t even noon, but there was Kirsten Blair, in a Hudson News at Logan Airport, trying to fight off the siren call of a 10.7-ounce “sharing” bag of Peanut M&M’s.
“It’s bad,” the usually disciplined eater, a young mother from Fayetteville, N.C., said on a recent day. “I turn into a different person when I fly.”
A growing body of scholarly research, studies commissioned by the flight industry, and observations from mental health professionals show that engine noise, cabin pressure, and, of course, stress can trigger physical and emotional changes that alter our behavior.
Fliers cry more at movies in the air. They confess secrets to strangers. They develop compulsive behaviors so intense they fear being seen by co-workers on a group business trip.
The change in behavior starts in the airport, a place of both freedom and captivity, said Merry White, an anthropology professor at Boston University.
She calls it a “third space” where people who are free from usual constraints — but also anxious — buy food and duty-free items in an attempt to calm themselves.
“The anonymity is liberating,” she said, “but it can also make you feel lonely.”
Onboard, things get even weirder, as demonstrated by the surprisingly common craving for tomato juice, a beverage not so popular on Earth. At cruising altitude, however, it’s so beloved that when United Airlines announced last year that it was pulling it from the menu, the backlash was so intense not only did the airline reverse its plans, but the episode made national news.
“@ABC confirms that United Airlines is bringing tomato juice back onboard after passenger uproar over its removal,” a network reporter tweeted.
Why tomato juice? A 2010 study commissioned by Lufthansa — after the airline noticed intense tomato juice consumption aloft — found that changes in air pressure can reduce the sweet and salty signals to the brain by up to 30 percent.
As a self-described member of the “Mile High Tomato Club” wrote in a 2016 Los Angeles Times piece, “That confirmed earlier research, dating to the early 1970s, which led airlines to serve honey-roasted peanuts. Their thinking went like this: Give the people extra-sweet and extra-salty snacks, and you can overload their unresponsive tongues. From there, it’s just a short step to tomato juice, a sweet and salty drink.”
In 2015, Cornell University researchers further investigated the question and found that extreme noise conditions — such as inside an airplane cabin — diminish perception of sweet flavors but enhance the taste for umami, a category in which tomato juice kills.
If you want to be on-trend on your next flight, order a Mr & Mrs T Bloody Mary mix, watch a movie, and weep.
Research commissioned by Gatwick Airport in 2017 on the likelihood of passengers bursting into tears found that 15 percent of men said that they were more likely to cry while watching a film on a plane than if they saw the same movie at home or in a cinema. The figure for women was 6 percent.
If you find yourself crying while watching “Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase” (now playing on Delta), one explanation may be hypoxia, a condition that can be triggered by low air pressure in the cabin.
As with tomato juice cravings, the search is on for a scientific answer. Popular Science recently took a crack at it. “As planes ascend to their cruising altitudes, air pressure drops — that’s why our ears pop — to levels equivalent to the outside air pressure you’d experience while hiking through the mountains in the Swiss Alps,” the magazine explained.
The low air pressure causes a reduction in the amount of oxygen carried in our blood, which can lead to fatigue, confusion, impaired decision-making — and the inability to handle emotion.
That’s a science lesson Jennifer Gear, president of Gear Communications, in Stoneham, learned the embarrassing way, when she sobbed her way through “Stepmom,” and drew so much attention the flight attendants kept asking if she was OK.
The incident, on a flight to Los Angeles that left her with a headache and red eyes, was some 20 years ago, but she’s so fearful of breaking down again that she only watches comedies now.
“I’m an emotional person but I would not typically lose it in public like that,” she said.
The so-called “Mile Cry Club” is such a thing that in May, when Chrissy Teigen asked the Twitterverse, “Is there something about being on an airplane that makes you cry more during movies?” she got more than 57,000 likes and 1,600 comments.
Among the responses was this observation from Ian Buchanon, a Scottish television actor and American soap opera regular.
“I call it the ‘confession tube,’ ” he tweeted. “Complete strangers feel compelled to tell you their entire life story as if it’s the last chance they’ll get to share it!”
That’s a familiar phenomenon for Alexandra Thomas, a content creator for YouTube from Shrewsbury, and a frequent flier.
“I’ve had a lot of people tell me about their life,” she said. “You are in a space where you are vulnerable. Your life is in someone else’s hands. Planes are like therapy.”
The therapy continues in the therapist’s office. In Cambridge, Kyle Carney regularly sees patients — rational, high-performing people — who become so different while flying that they are embarrassed to be observed by colleagues on a work trip and will make an excuse to change seats.
“They have this hidden side of themselves related to flight anxiety,” she said.
“They become hypervigiliant, very sensitive to sound, they like to sit in a certain section. They’ll check out the pilot to see if he seems to have a mental health issue, or seems drunk.”
Meanwhile at Logan on a recent day, about a half an hour after Blair, the North Carolina mother, pondered Peanut M&M’s, a reporter saw her sprinting with her double stroller back to the store, waving a bag of beef jerky and gesturing to her 3-year-old son.
“We stole this and we’re returning it,” she called out.
A preschooler shoplifting jerky? Weird airport behavior starts early.