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Planes, Trains, and Imbeciles

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Clerk: May I see your rental agreement please?
Neal: [gritting his teeth] I threw it away!
Clerk: Oh boy...
Neal: Oh boy, what?
Clerk: [smirking] You're fucked.

Airports, train stations and bus stops can cause anyone to become frustrated, especially if you've been delayed or you're trying to change your booking. In this trope, protagonists are faced up against dutiful travel employees who seem to revel in their wickedness.

Examples of this trope typically involves our exhausted main character, travelling across the country to get home or to see their family. Often, there's a ticking clock element, where it's crucial they arrive somewhere at a certain time. In other instances of the trope, a character may be booking a trip via the phone or consulting with a travel agent. However, just as they thought they were on their way, they face the mean old transport company employee. They may dress nicely, they may be smiling so hard their cheeks might tear, but boy are they passive-aggressive. Perhaps years of facing embittered customers has made the employee more than a bit embittered themselves, or maybe, they picked the career purely so they could dictate other people's lives. Our protagonist usually makes a big scene, calling the worker out for their behaviour. But I mean, only one person is getting paid for being there, right? Why does the protagonist's goal matter more than any of the other impatient customers' goals? Scenes with this trope can sometimes end with the worker calling security, or may even lead to a "Stuck at the Airport" Plot.

Compare Unsatisfiable Customer, Obstructive Bureaucrat, Overreacting Airport Security and Plane Awful Flight.

No Real Life Examples, Please!


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  • This trope is the main joke in John Mulaney's "Delta Airlines" routine, in which Mulaney claims he will tolerate any treatment as a customer... from delayed flights, to being called a little fat girl, to being framed for murder!
    John Mulaney: And I go, "why are you doing this to me!?" And they go, "because we're Delta Airlines, and life is a fucking nightmare!"

    Comic Strips 
  • Foxtrot: One strip has Roger waiting to board a plane, the attendant letting families board first, then first class passengers, then specific rows, then specific seats in the remaining row, and finally letting Roger get on board.
    Roger: I knew I shouldn't have called him a stewardess.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • Anger Management: This is what sets up Dave's situation in the movie. Wanting to watch the in-flight movie, Dave asks a flight attendant for a pair of headphones. He watches as she begins chatting and giggling with another flight attendant, and reminds her to bring him his headphones. She eventually closes the curtain shut. He lightly taps her on the arm and continues asking, only for her to ask him to calm down (despite his controlled and considerate tone). He is clear and polite, but she seems to think he is instigating something. An air marshal is brought over, fearing he is a threat to security. The scene cuts to a courtroom, where the flight attendant he lightly tapped is accusing him of assault. He is found guilty. Subverted by the fact that the flight attendant's behavior is staged by Buddy (who is sitting next to him but has yet to introduce himself) in order to provoke Dave. Buddy is using the situation to analyze Dave, having already been hired by Linda to help Dave with his suppressed anger issues. Unfortunately, the air marshal's reaction was genuine; he was not having a good flight.
  • Get Shorty and Be Cool: In both films, Chili Palmer rents a car and explicitly asks for it to be a Cadillac sedan, only for it to be a car of a different brand and type (an Oldsmobile Silhouette minivan and an Honda Insight hybrid, respectively) and when he points it out to the car agency employee who is showing him the car, the employee passive-aggressively defends the car by saying that it's "the Cadillac of" (as in has a similar reputation as a Caddy) that type of car. Chili only accepts the vehicle because circumstances force him to (he's stuck in the rain in the first and he wishes to prevent a scene in the second), but considering that he's a leg-breaker for the Mafia, the employees definitely have no idea what kind of bullet they just dodged.
  • Halloweentown: When Gwen tries to get the kids back to the Mortal World after finding them in Halloweentown, she ends up having to deal with the two-headed ticket person at the bus depot, whose heads are too busy yelling at each other to be particularly helpful (on top of her daughter Marnie's complaints). The bus itself won't arrive for another several hours due to engine trouble, to Gwen's frustration and Marnie's delight.
  • Meet the Parents: The airline stewardess of the flight Greg takes to try to get back home after storming out of the Byrnes' house is a stickler to the rules in the most annoying way: it takes her almost an on-screen minute to search through her airline's database to find Greg a seat and almost nothing to add the nearly-thousand-dollar fee for Greg to use his return ticket ahead of schedule, she doesn't allow Greg on the plane when he's the only passenger in the waiting room until the legally alloted time for the better-class passengers to board has passed, and when Greg's bag turns out to be too big for the overhead compartment (the exact same issue that caused him quite a lot of the plot's pain, courtesy of the airline losing it), she immediately asks Greg for it so it can be placed with the cargo and does nothing to de-escalate when Greg refuses (Greg did not do any favors for himself by saying "it's not like I have a bomb in this bag!" when he raged at her, leading to airport security arresting him).
  • Mountains May Depart: Dollar takes his new love interest Mia to a travel agency so they can book a flight, but the agent refers to Mia (much older than Dollar) as his mother. This leaves them feeling embarrassed, but Dollar can't find the courage to get angry at the worker.
  • The obligatory Creator Cameo in North By Northwest takes place during the opening credits, with Alfred Hitchcock running up to a stopped bus, only for the doors to close right in front of him.
  • Not Another Teen Movie: Jake races to the airport to confess his love to Janey, only to recite lines from various teen romance films. He's called out by an airport employee, who is revealed to be Molly Ringwald. She watches them for afar and judges them, then offers passive-aggressive criticism of how cliched Jake is being.
  • Planes, Trains and Automobiles: After a mixup that results in Neal being dropped off for a rental car that isn't there, he confronts a clerk at the airport rental desk (who spends a significant amount of time talking to someone over the phone while Neal is standing right there):
    Clerk: How may I help you?
    Neal: You can start by wiping that fucking dumb-ass smile off your rosy, fucking, cheeks! Then you can give me a fucking automobile... a fucking Datsun, a fucking Toyota, a fucking Mustang, a fucking Buick! Four fucking wheels and a seat!
    Clerk: I really don't care for the way you're speaking to me.
    Neal: And I really don't care for the way your company left me in the middle of fucking nowhere with fucking keys to a fucking car that isn't fucking there. And I really didn't care to fucking walk down a fucking highway and across a fucking runway to get back here to have you smile at my fucking face. I want a fucking car RIGHT FUCKING NOW!
    Clerk: May I see your rental agreement, please?
    Neal: ([gritting his teeth) I threw it away!
    Clerk: Oh, boy...
    Neal: Oh, boy, what?
    Clerk: (smirking) You're fucked.
  • Quick Change: zigzagged. Grimm, Phyllis and Loomis's escape to the airport after the bank robbery is complicated by a by-the-book bus driver who forces Grimm to retrieve exact change from a bodega with cops standing around inside. However, once they pay their fare he WILL stay on schedule no matter what, and gets them close to the airport with time to spare.
  • One of the driving forces behind The Terminal: At John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, traveler Viktor Navorsky is stranded in the U.S. due to his Balkan-like country, Krakozhia, being taken over by a military coup, and his passport is rendered invalid, so he cannot leave the airport. Frank Dixon, the Field Commissioner at the airport, seems bent on setting him up to fail, so he can deport him for entering the country as an illegal immigrant. Viktor is adamant to stay and follow the law, and the trope is averted when the people working at the airport start to warm up to Viktor.
  • Tommy Boy: When Tommy and Richard need to get back to Chicago as soon as possible, all flights are full. The airport clerk continues searching and finds a flight back from Chicago and asks if that helps.
    Richard: Hi, I'm Earth, have we met?
    Clerk: (obliviously) I don't think so?
  • The Truman Show: Truman tries to take a trip to Fiji and visits a travel agency. Various posters about the perils of travel are displayed, creating a very uneasy atmosphere. The worker tells Truman there's no flights available, nor are there any other options for travelling there. Truman then attempts to travel out of town on a bus, only for the driver to purposefully stall and damage the engine so Truman can't travel anywhere. All of this is naturally justified by the fact that without Truman, there's no Truman Show, the director is doing his damndest that Truman never finds out the true nature of the town he's living in and all his supposed "trips" he's been on up until that point have been entirely staged.
  • View from the Top: Donna encounters various interesting characters on her journey to become a flight attendant. The rudest she meets however is someone she initially trusted, Christine. While handing in their exam papers, Christine (aware of her inferior skills) swaps her results with Donna. As a result, Christine is employed on international flights, while Donna is stuck travelling interstate.

  • Inverted in American Gods where a fellow convict relates a supposed example of this trope to Shadow. It's obvious however that the woman concerned was actually trying to help, but—as Shadow tries to point out—he reacted in a way that's appropriate in prison, but not in the outside world.
  • Inverted in Big Trouble, where the airport worker (a single mother working a tiring job for a dubious company possibly about to be shut down by the FBI, with a sick baby and a broken-down car) is portrayed sympathetically. When Snake (accompanied to two other creeps and a young woman clearly not in her right mind) just throws money at her to speed things up, she takes the money and then some for her garage and babysitter bills, but lets them through, even after Snake just tells her all four of them are named John Smith.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Arrested Development: When Michael is featured in an airline magazine, he attempts to buy a copy from the luggage check-in desk. The three workers (played by the cast of Workaholics) are extremely unhelpful, and don't allow him to obtain the magazine without boarding a flight.
  • Black Mirror:
    • In "Nosedive", Lacey's flight gets cancelled and she tries to find an alternative. Due to being 0.1 of a point off the "elite" rating, the employee, Hannah, can't book it (or she says she can't). When Lacey swears and the queue turns on her, Hannah makes the situation much worse by calling security. And then, as Lacey desperately tries to make it up to her with a five-star rating, Hannah beams at her...and gives her a one-star rating.
    • In the same episode, the worker at the car charging station is watching porn and doesn't even bother to pause it when Lacey asks for his help. When she manages to get his attention and is told that he doesn't have any charging adapters available for The Alleged Car she was forced to rent due to her lowered rating, she nevertheless thanks him and gives her a five-star ranking, only to receive a two-star rating back from him because "it wasn't a meaningful conversation".
  • Corner Gas: In the episode "Merry Gasmas", Lacey bounces from airport to airport trying to get to Toronto in time for Christmas with a huge snowstorm blocking the way. While genuinely trying to be helpful, the employee in Calgary refers to airports only by their IATA code, so Lacey fully admits to having no idea what she's agreeing to when he provides her with a new flight. Lacey starts talking the same way in the Edmonton airport, only for the employee there to give her a withering, "This isn't Calgary. We don't talk like that."
  • Key & Peele:
    • In a sketch set in an airport, Key is called to the gate to board his flight. Just as he thought he could board however, the worker (a recurring character played by Peele) begins listing groups who have to board first. He begins with obvious groups such as people in first class, those with children and those in wheelchairs, only for the people boarding to become increasingly specific. He calls for "elderly people in wheel-chairs with babies", "religious elderly people with military babies" and finally "people with blue suitcases". Key walks forward, only to be denied, because he is carrying a blue computer case. Peele takes a loud sip from his coffee with an unbothered expression. Once Key is the only one left waiting to board, Peele receives a phone call and he chats briefly, much to Key's annoyance. The sketch ends with Key being in a plane crash, but still happy for finally boarding.
    • The same rude worker appears in another sketch, where Key is trying to go to the bathroom while the fasten seatbelt sign is on. Peele stops him in the aisle and tells him he can't, even though "it's the law." They have a stand off, before Peele retreats to his seat and Key travels to the bathroom. Turbulence hurls him towards passengers, and once he's in the bathroom he's saturated in water. When he leaves, turbulence thrusts him up to the roof and to the floor. He hits his head multiple times, only for the emotionless flight attendant to stare at him without compassion.
  • Little Britain: A recurring sketch involves a rude travel agent discussing customers' holiday options, only to process them in a program and answer "computer says no."
  • Monk: In "Mr. Monk and the Airplane", Adrian Monk's investigation in the possibility a fellow passenger killed his wife (and later poisoned another passenger) is stymied repeatedly by one of the flight's stewardesses, who dismisses Monk as just a nutter and does her damnedest to force him to stay in his seat.
  • New Girl: After weather delays flights across the network, Jess and the gang have to scramble for new tickets so they can get home in time for Christmas. Jess talks to a desk worker played by Billy Eichner about finding an alternative flight, only for him to be incredibly rude and change her seating each time she grows annoyed.
  • Orange Is the New Black: Prior to her incarceration, Black Cindy was a TSA worker who used her job to feel up attractive men and to steal valuables, such as an iPad, from customers' luggage.
  • Saturday Night Live: In the sketch "Total Bastard Airlines", two flight attendants (played by David Spade and Helen Hunt) farewell passengers off the flight. With each person, they say "buh-bye" with a passive-aggressive tone. The workers become increasingly rude to the passengers, referring to Chris Farley as "heavy" and Rob Schneider in crutches as "peg-leg". The sketch ends with them calling for a security escort through the terminal, fearing that the passengers they've been rude to will enact revenge.
  • Seinfeld:
    • In "The Alternate Side", Jerry and Elaine are trying to pick up a rental car that he reserved, but discovers that they don't have a car for him.
      Jerry: I don't understand. I made a reservation. Do you have my reservation?
      Rental Car Agent: Yes, we do. Unfortunately, we ran out of cars.
      Jerry: [dumbfounded] ...But the reservation keeps the car here. That's why you have the reservation.
      Rental Car Agent: [curtly] I know why we have reservations.
      Jerry: I don't think you do. If you did, I'd have a car. You see, you know how to take the reservation, you just don't know how to hold the reservation. And that's really the most important part of the reservation: the holding. Anybody can just take 'em.
    • In "The Airport", Elaine doesn't give the bag porter a large enough tip, so he ships her baggage to Honolulu instead of New York out of spite.

    Web Videos 
  • Foil, Arms and Hog: In "The Ryanair Song", the employees of budget airline Ryanair apparently enjoy making things as difficult as possible for travelers, knowing that they can't afford to choose another airline. This behavior is epitomized by the "baggage bitch", who apparently can smell an oversized carry-on bag.
  • The Onion: "Prague's Kafka International Named Most Alienating Airport" depicts a Kafkaesque airport that's completely unserviceable. Features of the airport include rude workers, a confusing gate system and frequently delayed flights.
    Worker: If there is a problem, fill out complaint form and place it in [an] envelope addressed to the name of the hospital in which you were born.

    Western Animation 
  • Thomas & Friends: Invoked by Bulgy the two-decker bus, who hates the railways. He has a big "Railway Bus" placard placed on his side and then refuses to accept passengers' return tickets in order to make the railway look bad. It comes back to bite him when he gets stuck under a railway bridge; the trains take his passengers off his hands, and he ends up in a field, turned into a henhouse. Even after Bulgy is repaired, he still tends to cause this, with his first return run ruined by the passengers being harassed by chickens still inside his compartment, and another where he overfills and breaks down as a result of taking all the railway's and Bertie's passengers (who had also overfilled and broke down).
  • SpongeBob SquarePants:
    • In "Rock Bottom", SpongeBob tries to catch a bus home, but the driver keeps leaving every time he tries to board it.
    • Squidward ends up with a Plane Awful Flight of a lifetime in "Plane to Sea". The flight attendant ties his seatbelt very tight and slams his head into the seat in front of him, also threatening to beat him up if he sits in a different seat in the same row.
    • In "BassWard", Squidward's train ride goes badly when every seat is taken and he's forced to sit next to Bubble Bass. The latter orders fondue, and the attendant serves it right over Squidward's head, which spills when the train goes forward.
  • Archer: Archer is stranded in Canada without a passport and unable to take a plane or train home due to being on the "No Fly" and "No Train" list. He has to wait for Malory's boyfriend Ron Cadillac to pick him up and take him back home.