Other People – Other Passengers


‘Hell is other people,’ Jean-Paul Sartre is frequently, but mistakenly, said to have quipped, probably on a particularly nauseous day in a moment of trademark existential anxiety. He would have said it in French, of course, if he’d said it at all – ‘L’enfer, c’est les autres.’ Naturally, it sounds more profound in French and, if delivered with a good accent and sufficient conviction, doesn’t invite explanation – the sound or the look is sufficient to convey a sophisticated dissatisfaction with life and all others who live it. But if you’re curious, look it up on the internet and you’ll find the usual unilluminating squabble about what Jean-Paul really meant. Such is continental philosophy.

In actual fact, as the web tells us, it’s a character in one of Sartre’s plays (No Exit) who delivers the line, and it’s longer and more qualified –  ‘Hell is other people at breakfast.’

Well, one knows what he means. We’re always at our most existentially vulnerable at breakfast, too sensitive to cope with the mundane or to deal with idle chatter. Better silence, a harp, a serious newspaper, a railway timetable, or a large utility bill. Best of all, Sartre’s Being and Nothingness.

But if Sartre had travelled as much as I do and spent as much time in airports and planes, he would have written it differently. ‘Hell is other passengers.


If you’re a frequent traveller you’ll recognise these unlovable traits, perhaps in others, perhaps in yourself.

Check In

I can’t bear those other people…

  • Who argue about baggage or check-in charges. They can’t win. They should have read the terms and conditions.
  • Whose bags are too heavy and they’re repacking their intimate items in front of you
  • Who hang around for pleasantries or details of their connecting flights when they should simply take their boarding cards and leave


I can’t bear those other people…

  • Who take off their shoes when they haven’t been asked to
  • Who ignore all the signs and start taking out their laptops or taking off their jackets only when they actually get to the machine
  • Who walk through the x-ray arch with a watch or a necklace on
  • Who push their way to the front of the queue on the mad pretext that their flight is about to leave. You usually find they’re leaving on a later flight than yours
  • Who are just slow in their movements

On the Way to the Gate

I can’t bear those other people…

  • Who amble at an elderly pace along the middle of the moving walkway, or, worse still, stand entirely still and block you with their luggage

At the Gate

I can’t bear those other people…

  • Who’ve put their passport or boarding card in an inner pocket or a bag and can’t find them when they’re needed
  • Who are queuing for the wrong flight
  • Who queue. What’s the point?

In the Plane

I can’t bear those other people…

  • Who obstruct the aisle whilst they stow their bags and coats. Stand in a row. We want to leave on time.
  • Who won’t sit down until the seatbelt signs go on – they’re usually Italian. It’s not a party.
  • Who get up for the toilet the moment the seatbelt sign goes off. Why didn’t they go before they boarded?
  • Who take complete possession of an armrest that’s partially yours
  • Who tip their seat back when you’re eating your lunch
  • Who let their children kick the back of your seat
  • Who talk
  • Who clap when you’ve landed safely. Don’t they know how easy it is to fly a plane? Nowadays you just type in the coordinates.
  • Who push their way up the aisle when it’s time to get off, instead of letting everyone exit row by row

Passport Control

I can’t bear those other people…

  • Who stand in the electronic passport queue when they haven’t got an electronic passport
  • Who put their passport into the passport reader in unintelligent ways
  • Who don’t know they’re not citizens of the European Union, and, worse still, those immigration officers who don’t direct them to the longer queue
  • Who stand on the STOP line until they’re beckoned to approach the booth.

At the Carousel

I can’t bear those other people…

  • Who wait at a point that’s a minute or two from where the bags come out. Stupid.


Sorry about this peevish and existentially anxious rant. Yes, I had a tiring day, and no, I can’t yet afford my own plane.


Just Another Form of Sitting

People often suggest I should be exhausted by travel. I travel a lot, I suppose, but mostly over short distances in Europe, and I always carry my own bag (as, I note, the Pope does nowadays). There are many people my age, older, and younger, who travel much more than I do. David Cameron, for example, and he looks well enough on it, and Angela.

I’ve taken 44 flights so far this year, flown around 90,000 km (just more than twice around the world) visited about twenty countries and still have the appetite for more. I’m off to Sofia today, and thence by bus to Plovdiv. But don’t think for a moment that I travel in great luxury or style. Only 10 of these flights were not economy – most of them were on low-cost airlines, on planes where the seats don’t recline and conditions are cramped. Wizzair, easyJet, and the like (though I avoid Ryanair if I can  because I can’t bear their pizzazz).

No, I don’t have patience with the view that travel is tiring. Of course, jet lag is unpleasant, and getting up early, or arriving somewhere late at night, but that’s not the point. That’s not the travelling part. To my mind, travelling is just another way of sitting. Sitting on trains, sitting in taxis, sitting on buses, sitting in other people’s cars, sitting on a plane, in a departure lounge, in a hotel room. It’s all just sitting. Sitting, and generally working. Sitting is not tiring at all. After all, what else do we do at home, or in the office? Sitting, doing emails, that’s actually the whole of life, with a little lying down thrown in at night.


Standing, of course, is tiring, a lot more tiring than walking (think of how exhausting it is to stand in front of paintings and glass cabinets in museums), and I will never buy a standing ticket for an aeroplane if they ever become an option. Ryanair once mooted the idea of ‘standing seats’ and came up with a design, but surely for no other reason than publicity. Perhaps they were inspired by those discreet ledges that medieval monks perched on to relieve their legs after hours and hours of standing and praying.

Ryanair’s proposed ‘standing seats’…

standing seats

Salisbury Cathedral economy class

monks standing

No, I don’t find travel tiring. I still find it stimulating.

What’s important, is to follow some basic rules:

  • Don’t fly early in the morning. Get up at the usual time.
  • Don’t arrive late at night. Arrive in time for dinner.
  • Don’t drink alcohol at all whilst on the road, or in the air, but eat everything they put in front of you.
  • Don’t be anxious about departure times. Arrive at the airport an hour before a flight is due to leave. It’s always plenty of time, whatever they tell you. After all, there’s always another flight, or an airport hotel, and in all my years of travel I’ve only ever missed one flight. (Note that if your flight is about to close, there’s always an official who will shout out your destination and call you to the front of the queue.)
  • Treat the queues at security and passport control with a Buddhist nonchalance.
  • Treat delays with a Buddhist nonchalance.
  • Always have some work to do. I do my best work at 10,000 metres, blissfully uninterrupted.
  • Don’t talk to the person sitting next to you until the plane starts to descend.
  • Don’t join queues until you have to. I’ve never understood why passengers queue just in front of the gate as soon as the flight starts boarding. You have an allocated seat, so what’s the point? They won’t go without you. Just sit and watch and wait, with a Buddhist nonchalance, if possible.
  • Sit near the luggage carousel and wait for your luggage to appear before rushing forward to pick it up.
  • Take your own tea bags.
  • Don’t be anxious about turbulence. The wings never fall off.