A few years ago, Virgin Atlantic Airlines started issuing in-flight warnings before sad movies advising flyers that if they felt a little weepy, they could call a flight attendant for a shoulder to cry on. Apparently, though, these warnings aren't as absurd as you may think, because they're the result of research showing that we tend to cry a lot on airplanes. According to responses to a survey administered by Virgin Atlantic, 41 percent of men said they had “buried themselves in blankets to hide tears in their eyes from other passengers" — which is adorable — whereas women said they were more likely to pretend they had something in their eyes. In fact, it's likely that one in two people who have flown have been part of the "mile high blub club," as The Guardian puts it.
The question, of course, is why — why do we cry more on airplanes? Evolutionary speaking, one reason researchers think we cry is to elicit a sympathetic response from those around us who are more capable when we can't fend for ourselves (which is why babies cry so much). Ad Vingerhoets, professor of social and behavioral sciences at Tilburg University in the Netherlands, said to The Atlantic in 2013 that the basis of crying is forming and maintaining relationships with those we love or rely on in some way. It's a little odd, then, that we might cry more on airplanes when we're usually alone and surrounded by strangers — that is, people we likely don't love or rely on in our day to day lives.
As adults, we can fend for ourselves for the most part, but Vingerhoets says that one reason we cry on planes may be that we are so overtaken by anxiety, loneliness, and fear that we may feel helpless. Since action is a little limited on an airplane (you can't text your friend to come hangout, or go see a movie with your family, for example) we tend to cry instead. “Crying seems to occur in situations where action makes no sense...When there’s no reason to fight or fly, you just have to deal with your emotions," he told The Atlantic.
Another interpretation of the theory posits that because we don't have the same amount of distractions to keep our brains occupied during a flight, and because our bodies are literally trapped in a small space where our lives depend on the decisions of a small crew, we cry both because of the unknown and because there's nothing else to focus our attention on. Boredom is never fun, but when it's paired with a situation that causes emotions to run high... well, let's just say that there's a reason we all head to the airport armed with books, computers, magazines, and SkyMall.
But hey, the good news is there's usually someone you love or something to distract you waiting to greet you on the other end of a flight. The tears are only temporary, so you may as well just let it all out!