The Seatmate Lottery

One of the more interesting aspects of travel is what I like to call the “seatmate lottery”. If you are traveling alone and are forced to travel economy class (which so far, has been every time I’ve traveled), it is likely that you will have at least two strangers sitting in your row with you. Whether or not you end up liking them, you’re pretty much stuck with them for the “duration of the flight”.

Much like the circles of Dante’s Inferno, there are a number of different ‘lottery’ outcomes. If you’re lucky, you hit the seatmate jackpot. There are two types of jackpot. The “open spaces” jackpot is the first type. Every once in a while, you will arrive at your row and there will be no one else sitting there. When this happens you stop and quickly look around to see if the rest of the plane is full. If it’s not, you think you’ve got a chance to have the seats to yourself. That means you’re going to be able to spread out and sleep well and you won’t have to wake anyone or stumble over them on your way to the bathroom. The sidekick to the empty row is the “no filling in this passenger sandwich”. Though not as good as getting the whole row to yourself, it is still enjoyable.

The second type of jackpot is the mythical “in your dreams” jackpot. This is when you get stuck next to a beautiful, intelligent, outgoing woman (or man, for those who like them) who is going to the same final destination as you are and seems genuinely interested in getting to know you. While this shares many of the same qualities as the tooth fairy and superman (i.e., it doesn’t exist), rumor has it that it does happen occasionally, at least in the movies.

On the opposite end of the spectrum are the “lottery kicked my a$$” scenarios. There are three main examples of this. First is the “fat guy in a little seat” award. You remember that 400 pound behemoth you saw waiting around at the gate? Yep, he’s just tapped you on the shoulder and said he’s got the aisle seat in your row. Reluctantly, you move to the middle seat indicated on your boarding pass and he tries to cram his fat ass into a seat designed for someone half his size. As he can’t seem to fit he raises the arm rest, the last barrier between you and him, and flops down into his seat. His girth seems to ooze outward from him and mostly over onto you, since he can’t lean out into the aisle very well. You sit there mad as hell, but what can you really do on this full flight? If you are feeling devious, you drink lots of coffee and make him strain and struggle to get up several times during the flight (“Serves you right, -------. Next time buy two seats. You know you need them.”). A corollary to this level of seatmate misery is the “inverted double stuff”, where, you guessed it, you get stuck between two obese passengers. Come to think of it, this might be the innermost circle of seatmate hell, unless of course, one of them is a chronic wind breaker.

Nearly as bad is the “Somebody drug that kid!” problem. If the kid is between one and three, this can be a living nightmare, especially on overnight flights. There is no way the kid is going to sleep  much, and a tired kid will at some point have a screaming meltdown. plead guilty myself to perpetuating this crime against decency. My wife and I took our 14 month-old on a 12-hour flight to China. She had multiple meltdowns along the way. I apologize to those around us.

There is also a level of hell that is reserved specifically for women, generally between the ages of 18-35. This is the “creepmate” level. Female readers might understand what I mean as I describe him. He’s a guy somewhere between his forties and sixties, kind of chubby, maybe bald or headed that way and he looks like he has traveled a lot. He might be divorced, or if he’s married, you cannot tell by the way he keeps staring at your breasts when he thinks you are not looking. He might try to start up a conversation even if you’ve got your “stay the hell away from me, dirty old man!” look clearly going on. Even turning up your music and intensely reading a book don’t work to keep him to himself. You are nervous to fall asleep because you think he will spend all that time staring at you.

I could probably come up with a few more seatmate personalities, but I think you get the picture. Didn’t Forrest Gump’s momma say that “life is like a box of chocolates, ya never know whatcha gonna get?” Economy class air travel is the same way.

As for my trip, so far I have done well for myself with the lottery. On the first leg of the trip, PDX-SFO, I had a middle seat between two people about my own age. To my right was a young Indian guy wearing an NBA jersey. He seemed friendly, though we didn’t talk much. To my left was a young woman, pretty, and quiet for the most part. She spent most of the trip dozed off or playing games on her Motorola Droid. We chatted a little at the end of the flight about not liking when planes land. One of the first things she said to me was that on her honeymoon to Italy, the plane had bounced when it hit the ground. I’m still not sure whether she told me that because it was relevant to the conversation or because she wanted to let me know she was married. Probably both. Ha ha.

On the second leg of the trip, SFO-PEK, I hit the lottery. I got an aisle seat near the front of the plane and there was no one in the middle seat. I was about the last person to board the flight, and when I got to my row there was no one in it. I thought I had hit the super jackpot, but a quiet gentleman from Hong Kong, wearing a worn US Army t-shirt, arrived even later than I had. He took the window seat and spent much of the trip asleep. I certainly can’t complain about how this journey started.