Why Airport Horror Stories Go Viral

They tap into something bigger than us


“Spirit Airlines Cancellations at Fort Lauderdale Airport Cause Chaos,” reported NBC News this morning. Half a scroll down, there’s a grainy cell-phone video depicting mass pandemonium. I click to watch. “Security wrestled with unruly passengers as punches flew, leading to at least three arrests. Screams wailed through the under-construction terminal, as officers wrestled passengers to the ground.”

It’s like something out of a dystopian movie directed by Michael Bay. And it’s trending on Facebook, Twitter and every news site, just like other recent airplane and airport incidents. There was the man violently dragged off a United flight. The family kicked off a Delta flight. The Sikh American designer turned away from the airport for not removing his turban. And, of course, the horror stories connected with the travel ban and the massive, nationwide airport protests in response to it.

Each of these stories plays into a broad sense of societal unrest around air travel. A quick read of the situation might indicate that airlines and airports are getting worse. But there isn’t really data to support that.

“[A]re [flying incidents] really happening with greater frequency?” wrote CNN yesterday. “Actually, the little data there is suggests behavior on planes is improving. The number of unruly passengers has been on a steady decline since they peaked in 2004.”

It’s hard not to draw bigger, more sweeping conclusions — like that airports and airplanes have become a media focus because they resemble a contained battleground for so many of the issues America is struggling with. Race relations, class relations, trans rights, gender relations, immigration. The ease with which these moments can be captured and shared means unprecedented visibility, sure, but this feels like more than a social-media trend. It makes me wonder if airports are in the spotlight because they hold a mirror up to society.

They are intense environments, after all, jam-packed with tangible interpretations of everyday power struggles. There’s the profiling at TSA and the classist boarding system. There’s the messy intersection of government regulation and for-profit industry. It’s a complex system that can easily make you feel powerless.

Maybe I’m being dramatic, but airports seem to offer a startling reflection of the American climate right now. It’s no wonder then that these news stories spread like wildfire and that we watch them, equal parts fascinated and nervous. Because not only do they tap into our own latent travel fears and experiences, they tap into our everyday ones, too.

Collage by Maria Jia Ling Pitt; photos by Found Image Holdings/Corbis and Jim Gray/Keystone via Getty Images.

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