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The Road Warrior: Seatmates from Hell

5.25.2010

This past spring break, as the TSA queue lengthened with inexperienced travelers clogging the expert line with their strollers and diaper bags, I had time to contemplate a subject any seasoned traveler can relate to: Seatmates from Hell. Considering I travel over 100,000 miles annually, I have witnessed my share of people exhibiting inappropriate airplane behavior. These behaviors range on the continuum from the simply rude to the downright bizarre. Perhaps, you too, have met them along your journey.

 

The Squatter

Sometimes I am lucky enough to score an upgrade to a window seat in the first class cabin. My luck on this particular day is short-lived as I find myself seated next to the archetypal aisle seatmate whom I refer to as The Squatter. This is the person who has come to believe that his boarding pass and seat assignment also doubles as a grant deed to air and space property rights around his seat. Upon finding his seat he proceeds to unload the entire contents of his briefcase including spreadsheets, memos, newspapers and M&Ms into the seat back pocket in front of him. The Squatter then takes out his laptop and sets up shop on the tray table. Various other electronic devices (Blackberry, I-pod, Kindle) all become part what can now be called The People's Republic of Seat 2B.

It was simply a matter of nature taking its course when, mid-way through a cross-country flight, I needed to use the restroom. I politely ask The Squatter if I might possibly step through to the aisle in order to make my way to the facilities. You would think I had asked him to sacrifice his first born. The cocked brow and rolling of the eyes clearly communicated what he dared not say, "You must be kidding?" Unbeknownst to me, at some point crossing Kansas, the space between seat 2A and 2B became the DMV.
 

The Proud Mom

The Proud Mom seatmate is one many of you have met. I am a dad. So, I understand from time to time, one needs to travel with their children. The Proud Mom seatmate believes you should think her beloved offspring is as adorable as she does. While seated next to you, the Proud Mom is bouncing the child on her lap, as he gleefully grabs tufts of your hair. Moments later the child is using the area below your feet as a de facto playground. But the best part about having Proud Mom as your seatmate is you can rest assured that when junior has the need for a diaper change, it will be on final approach into your destination. It is then that the two of you are fully bonded in parental symbiosis as Proud Mom proceeds to change the diaper right then and there in the full upright and locked position.
 

Curious Charles

I'm a sociable guy. But after several days of non-stop breakfast meetings, back-to-back interviews and dinners with clients, I am ready to turn inward as I make my way home. It is usually then that I am fortunate enough to be seated next to Curious Charles. The conversation with Charles always starts innocuously. He'll ask, "You coming or going?" or "Houston your home?" I politely answer, but my body language and brief answers indicate to all but the most socially tone-deaf that I would rather keep to myself. Curious Charles can't take a hint. Another few minutes of mind-numbing small talk with Charles and I resort to a more direct brush-off: boot-up the laptop and don a pair of Bose noise-canceling headphones. At this juncture, an ordinary person, with a modicum of self-esteem to preserve, would resort to the in-flight magazine or simply stare into space. But Curious Charles' self-esteem was abandoned on a jetway long ago. He then proceeds to look over the armrest and peer into the screen of my laptop as if to secure some state secret.
 

Happy Hour Harry

Those books of free drink coupons were created with two distinct groups of people in mind. People who can't bear to fly without being inebriated, and the unfortunate souls who wind up sitting next to them. On a certain short-haul flight, I wind up with a long-haul seatmate, Happy Hour Harry. This is the guy who needed three vodka-tonics to simply board the plane. Once airborne, he nervously awaits reaching our cruising altitude. With the unlatching of the drink cart, he exhales an alcohol-laced sigh of relief as he gets ready to redeem his drink coupon. Fortunately, he offers his extra one to me. It is a good thing lighters have been banned from carry-ons, as Happy Hour Harry's breath would qualify as an incendiary device.
 

The Armrest Hoarder

As we all know, personal space is the region surrounding a person which they regard as psychologically theirs. Armrest space on the other hand, is a region between two airplane seats that is essentially up for grabs. It is only through tactics developed by the world's best military strategists that you can rightfully claim the armrest if you find yourself seated next to The Armrest Hoarder. The Armrest Hoarder is not subtle. They are in a relentless quest for their right to bear forearms. The armrest is like a strip of land in the Middle East, first the subject of negotiation, before an all out battle for the territory ensues. From the moment you are seated, the strategy must be to seize the territory quickly and have your forearm firmly in place. But be vigilant, and do not let your guard down. The Armrest Hoarder will wait for any opening, such as a brief nap, a simple turn of the newspaper page or restroom visit for unscrupulous seizure and subsequent takeover of the armrest.
 

Carl the Cougher

One of the most dreaded seatmates of all is Carl the Cougher. As you buckle your seat belt, your seatmate arrives bearing wads of clumped Kleenex and displaying a prominent rash under his nose. As he settles in, you detect that the sound of his breathing is faintly reminiscent of Darth Vader with a touch of bronchitis. I reach down into my briefcase desperate to locate the bottle of Airborne I remember I had from last winter. As Carl the Cougher hacks and sneezes his way though several time zones, he smiles apologetically assuring me whatever it is he has, it is not contagious. I think to myself as I swallow the Airborne, "yeah, right."
 

Wendy White Knuckle

Fear of flying is more common than most people realize. In fact,a recent statistic indicates that 1 in 10 people are terrified of planes. Given the prevalence of fearful flyers, I commonly find myself seated next to Wendy White Knuckle.

I know immediately if I have Wendy as my travel companion as her seat is damp with perspiration as she rises to let me into my window seat. In her high-pitched nervous voice, she introduces herself. Part of her co-dependence is befriending seatmates, so as to secure emotional support early in the trip. The takeoff may go smoothly, but the first pocket of turbulence is where her pain becomes mine as she grasps onto my forearm as if it were a clamp on a severed artery. "I'm not usually this nervous," says Wendy. I look at her with the disbelief of an atheist at a Sunday morning sermon. Her need for emotional support deepens with the next bump. "Are we going to die?" she shrieks. My initial thought is to reassure her that turbulence is an inherent part of flying. But I simply say, "Not today, Wendy."

The entire journey with Wendy is filled with reassurance, empathy and strong alcoholic beverages. As the plane comes to a gentle thud on the runway, she reaches over and embraces me for being her anchor. As we exit the jetway, Wendy and I go our separate ways. Fortunately for me, I have the constant throbbing in my arm as a reminder of the cross-country trip we shared.

In my years of traveling for The Alexander Group, I have had my share of seatmates from hell. With my trusty noise canceling headphones, I have learned to grimace and bear it. But considering all the strange folks I've been seated next to, I feel I'm deserving of someday winning the seatmate lottery. When that day comes, I will look up from 2B to see my next seatmate is Jennifer Anniston. "Hi there," she will say. "I think I'm next to you in 2A."

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