You learn some quick lessons when your “office” is an airplane cabin. In the first few months I worked in the air I found out that when people are unusually loud, there’s a reason. Of the hundreds of noisy passengers I’ve encountered in my career, 95 percent of them had had too much to drink before boarding.
If we make this discovery before taking off, we’ll often ask the person to get off the plane. The problem comes in when we don’t discover that the loud person is inebriated until we’re well into the flight. You can’t exactly stop an aircraft in midair and push someone out. Nor is it customary to make an emergency landing just for a loud person who’s had a few too many drinks.
So we do our best to calm the person down, refuse to give them any more alcohol and hopefully put them into a row that is otherwise unoccupied. When that doesn’t work, we have to get creative. Anyway, on a recent trip we had been in the air for about an hour, crossing the Atlantic from JFK airport in New York to Heathrow airport in London. That means we had about six hours of the trip ahead of us when we heard a loud scream from the back of the plane. It was a woman’s voice.
My coworker and I hurried back to see what was wrong. Most of the other passengers, fortunately, were still sleeping (it was a late-night flight). Her loud, but short, yelling session had not been enough to wake anyone else.
We found the woman seated upright in her chair, eyes opened and appearing perfectly normal. I said, “Ma’am is there anything I can do for you?” She said, “No, thank you. I’m fine.” My partner and I assumed she was inebriated and had simply calmed down and was ready to go to sleep. We headed back to the front of the cabin.
About 10 minutes later we heard the yelling again. This time, a few of the passengers near the yelling lady woke up and gestured to us to come back and attend to the situation. When we arrived for the second time to the woman’s row, where she was the only person on either side of the aisle, she was again sitting up and looking perfectly normal.
I said, “Is there anything wrong?” She again said that she was fine and relaxed back into her seat and closed her eyes. After doing a bit of research, we gathered that the woman had purchased no alcohol during the flight, was traveling alone and had declined when the food cart attendant asked if she wanted a snack or soft drink.
My guess was that she had been “imbibing” at the airport lounge or was carrying a flask of liquor in her jacket. The situation, and the volume of the yelling, sounded exactly like a drunk person.
Well, after the third yell, I ran back quickly enough to catch her “in the act.” It was indeed the woman we suspected, and she was indeed yelling at the top of her lungs. However, unlike drunken screaming, which usually lasts for several seconds, this was a single, quick burst that only lasted about two seconds.
What I witnessed was a real shocker. The woman was not drunk at all. In fact, she was completely asleep. Her own yelling woke her up, and she was just sitting there staring at me. I said, “Did you have a bad dream?”
Politely, and somewhat embarrassed, she replied, “Yes, I have been having an awful nightmare that kept waking me up. Was I calling out? Did I disturb any of the other passengers? Oh, I’m terribly sorry.”
One of the crew fetched a small snack and a soft drink for her. She said she sometimes had nightmares at home and woke her husband up when she cried out, and that an antacid tablet in cold water was the solution. Problem solved. Lesson learned.