One night when I was on a packed flight to Barcelona, the gentleman in front of me reclined his seat. Now, leaning back is a topic that’s gotten as much consideration as leaning in, so I need to just briefly tell you that ordinarily I keep my seat upright as a gesture of goodwill. This guy was so leaned back, though, I could have performed dental surgery on him. I did what I had to do and reclined in turn—just a little.

This is when my merry jaunt could have been renamed Snakes on a Plane. Without warning, an arm emerged through the seat crack behind me, making frantic pawing motions. It belonged to a 20-something woman in lounging pajamas, and it was trying to tell me I was impinging on her boyfriend’s personal space. Apparently the owner of the arm didn’t speak English, and I definitely do not speak Spanish, but we were fluent in charades and proceeded to have a spirited exchange of viewpoints until she finally climbed out of her seat, positioned her face about an inch from mine—and coughed on me. Vigorously.

Unless you are a bird, air travel foments bad behavior. Planes are as loaded with conflict as a David Mamet play, and for the same reason—they’re full of desperate characters whose goals are constantly being thwarted. Travelers who just want to get from here to there on time and with minimal discomfort are faced with delays, cramped legs, turbulence, and stale pretzels. Plus, because they are hurtling through space at 30,000 feet above the ground and may have opted to chase their Xanax with a Bloody Mary, they’re Duraflame logs waiting for a match.

Here’s the thing about plane rage: Unlike breaches of civility that occur on land, the airborne kind cannot be walked away from, which is why I chose not to sneeze back in retaliation. That and the fact that I’m a nonconfrontational coward. Instead, I furtively went off to tattletale to the flight attendant, who was much more concerned with the Dr Pepper shortage on her beverage cart than my hurt feelings.

At the risk of sounding mature, what I learned from this incident is that the key to happy traveling is to just accept the fact that the aircraft is an alternate universe in which you have no control over your fate. Indeed, this powerlessness can be a good thing, for when I’m on an airplane (or languishing at Gate B6), accountable to nobody, I get to indulge in my favorite activity: sitting.

I sat for the rest of that flight with Zen-like resolve. All right, yes, I did have fantasies about a certain passenger’s luggage being diverted to an undisclosed location, but I kept silent. When they go low, it’s always best to fly high.

Patricia Marx is a regular contributor to The New Yorker and author of, most recently, Let’s Be Less Stupid.

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