My Seatmate on This Flight Is (Very) Drunk. What Should I Do?

Our Unpacked advice columnist reflects on what happens when travel brings us in close quarters with someone we would prefer to avoid.

A flight attendant moves through the aisle of an airplane with a drinks trolley.

When sitting next to an unruly passenger, how great would it be to swipe left and order a new one?

Photo by Ivan Dudka/Shutterstock

Unpacked is AFAR’s new advice column. Every month, our columnist Dr. Anu Taranath answers an ethical quandary that a reader recently faced. Taranath is a speaker, facilitator, and educator based in Seattle, Washington, who specializes in racial equity and social change. She’s the author of the book Beyond Guilt Trips: Mindful Travel in an Unequal World (Between the Lines, 2019). If you have a question you’d like examined, please submit it to

Dear Unpacked,

I’d love for you to settle a debate I had with my friends last week. On a recent flight, the woman next to me had, by my count, eight little bottles of vodka. She then loudly made fun of nearby passengers, pretended to talk on the phone, tried to snuggle with me, and spilled half a bottle of water on my pants. She didn’t get belligerent, but it was obviously an unpleasant flight—I was so thankful to have an extra pair of pants in my carry-on. And though the flight attendants seemed to be sympathetic, the flight was completely full, so I couldn’t go anywhere.

I think the flight attendants should have cut her off after the first signs of her being tipsy. My friends say that I wasn’t in harm’s way, that drinking on an airplane is one of the few luxuries left in air travel, and that ultimately, I have a funny travel story. What do you think? —P.G.

Dear P.G.,

Being airborne for hours next to someone inconsiderate must have been uncomfortable—particularly the unwanted physical touch and the spilled water. For the past few years, air travel has been more fraught for both passengers and flight attendants alike due to bad behavior, delays, and cancellations. Passengers expect a hassle-free experience, and flight attendants aim to ensure passengers’ safety and comfort. In your case, neither of these expectations could be fulfilled because the hassle turned out be the person seated next to you.

Though flight crews have more authority than passengers when it comes to quelling bad behavior, they too are limited in what they can do. Let’s say they had cut off the passenger’s alcohol supply earlier. Though that might have encouraged her to sober up, flight attendants say it usually does not go well. “Almost everyone argues and insists they are fine,” wrote veteran flight attendant Kristie Koerbel in the New York Times. “If things escalate, we inform them that their disruptive behavior could be in violation of federal law and that we could arrange law enforcement to meet them when we land.”

A glass of orange juice next to an airplane window

Flight crews have more authority than passengers but they too are limited in what they can do.

Photo by Michelle Heimerman

In your case, the passenger might have expressed her displeasure in more acute ways than spilling water on your pants. Some of us get loud and animated with alcohol; others slip into deep slumber. It’s possible the flight crew was choosing among the best of a set of imperfect choices in continuing to quietly serve her.

Beyond plane journeys, your question makes me think of the expectation of seamless comfort. Much of our everyday lives can now be enhanced for maximum predictability. Whether we are ordering dinner or making a major purchase, we can interact with only those we want to in the process. We can remove inconveniences with a simple search and swipe. While I too appreciate predictability, I wonder what this increasingly curated reality means for our ability to navigate travel, when life may be messier.

When we travel, we enter situations that are new to us—and usually cannot be managed with the tap of a screen. The excitement can be wonderful and lead to amazing new connections! But sometimes the opposite happens. How might we traverse moments of inconvenience and exasperation?

The world is inhabited by people who are flawed and wondrous, wounded and delightful. Perhaps the tipsy passenger was navigating her own messiness that day, and what showed up in her behavior was all she could muster. Perhaps the flight was understaffed and the crew was dealing with even worse behavior elsewhere on the plane. Considering these factors doesn’t mean that you must like what showed up next to you. You are entitled to feel irritated at the passenger’s behavior, and with the flight attendants for not intervening more effectively. How great would it have been to swipe left and order a new seatmate?

I gently invite you to think of this incident, as your friends suggest, as “a funny travel story.” This reframe may give it less charge and cause less suffering to you now. You already had to endure the passenger’s behavior and change into dry pants on that flight. Why prolong the distress? There are far too many incidents that could never cross over into “funny story about an irritating flight” category. Be grateful that your neighbor’s behavior did not escalate in too terrible a way, and find ways to laugh at the ridiculous situation. They say travel is about embracing the unexpected; in your case, the unexpected tried to embrace you!

Dr. Anu Taranath is the author of Beyond Guilt Trips: Mindful Travel in an Unequal World and has been a professor at Seattle’s University of Washington for 20 years. She’s one of AFAR’s new Unpacked columnists.
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