The nightmare in the next seat

by James Wysong on September 27, 2005

If you fly often enough, sooner or later you will sit next to a passenger you can’t stand. There are the complainers, the opinionated, the loud and obnoxious, those with unusual quirks or phobias, and those with gas. You name it, I have probably sat next to it at one time or another.

I wrote this column while sitting next to the classic nightmare neighbor. After announcing his importance to the world by constantly using his cell phone, he managed to annoy everyone around him with his loud and incredibly embarrassing points of view. He drank too much, spoke too often, and pretty much complained his way across the Atlantic. I hoped that he would eventually glance over my shoulder and read what I was writing, but he was too wrapped up in himself to do so.

What is the decent, well-mannered traveler to do? Here are 10 tips to smooth the trip when you find you have a difficult neighbor.

1. Move it. With luck, you won’t have to suffer through the entire journey in your assigned seat. If the flight is not full, just get up and move. Either ask a flight attendant to find you a different seat or locate one yourself.

2. Bring earplugs. My favorite standard amenity comes up aces again. Nothing says happiness like a wall of silence.

3. Talk it out. Try to converse with the person. Annoying people can be interesting, too (see the story below).

4. Play dead. If your seatmate turns out not to be interesting, or if she’s just an overly chatty person, fake a yawn and then pretend to sleep. That’s what I do when my seatmate finds out I work for the airline and starts to complain about some flight fiasco that happened a year ago.

5. Smell no evil. If it is a smelly situation, put some mild, fragrant lotion under your nostrils and point your air vent toward the source of the problem.

6. Phone it in. If you have an in-flight phone at your seat, take it out of the cradle and pretend to make a phone call. In a loud conversational voice, explain to your imaginary friend that you are sitting next to a complete moron. He usually gets the message, and it gives the others around you a good chuckle.

7. Look on the bright side. Just think, if you don’t like this particular jerk, odds are you’ll never see him again in this lifetime.

8. Go a little crazy. You could pretend that you are mentally deranged and scare the offending neighbor into submission, but be careful not to overdo it, as you may be the one taken off the plane.

9. Fight another day. If you find the situation becoming explosive, avoid a direct confrontation. Instead, notify a flight attendant. I was pretty close to telling the guy next to me where he could stick his cell phone, but my rational side prevailed.

10. Sympathize with your fellow man. Realize that some people are not at their best while flying: mothers with infants, fearful flyers, folks who have just been laid off — you name it. Chances are you’ve been a less-than-perfect seatmate once or twice yourself, so cut your neighbor some slack.

The fact is, some of the most interesting people I have ever met are passengers that I at first dreaded having as seatmates. Take this case, for example.

A few years back, I was a passenger on a cross-country flight. After takeoff, I discovered that my seat partner was a multi-tasker of troubles. He later explained he was a claustrophobe with both Parkinson’s disease and Tourette’s syndrome. This man cleared his throat every 10 seconds, and let out some mild profanity every three to five minutes. His left hand trembled nonstop. I am a Virgo, so small noises — even the ticking of a clock — will soon have me climbing the walls (that is why I never leave home without earplugs).

I felt sorry for this unfortunate person, so I did my best to avoid letting the situation get to me. I closed my eyes, listened to my MP3 player and thought of some faraway places. I could feel the man’s shaking, so I incorporated that into the fantasy place I was constructing. It was a good exercise in patience and self-control.

Once in a while, I would open my eyes and see other passengers look over in frustration and shock at some of my neighbor’s outbursts. I smiled weakly. Clearly, I was going to need my drink reserve. I was positive I was sitting next to a mental case, and I am sure my seatmate thought he was sitting next to an alcoholic.

He smiled at me, clenched his fists, and yelled, “Asshole!”

After he regrouped, he continued, “I’m fine, actually. I’m sorry you got stuck sitting next to me.” Then he popped a pill from his bag, and proceeded to tell his story.

His name was Ray, and his ailments were not only a problem for him but for everyone around him, even friends and acquaintances. In fact, he was traveling with a group of 20 people, but they had specifically asked to sit far away from him.

The more I talked with Ray, the more I liked him. He used his illnesses as a focal point for observation and had learned a lot about people from their reactions. I, too, enjoy watching the human parade, but my view is from the sidelines; Ray’s condition puts him at the center of attention. He could probably write a book based solely on how he is treated by others.

At one point in the conversation, a male passenger in the row in front of us started yelling at the flight attendant about a meal that was not to his liking. He was a jerk.

“Watch this,” Ray said, and then shouted: “Asshole!”

The man stopped, turned, and ceased his temper tantrum. Every time the man would attempt to renew his tirade, he got an earful from Ray. The flight attendant, while appearing shocked, had a gleam in her eye as she glanced at Ray, as if to say, “Thank you.”

“So I have been dealt a couple of lemons,” Ray said, philosophically. “But you see, everything has its advantages.”

Ray looked on the bright side of his ailments. His claustrophobia got him the extra-roomy seats in the economy cabin, and the Parkinson’s rocked him to sleep at night. He really did have Tourette’s, but he could also fake an outburst at will (now wouldn’t that come in handy for a flight attendant). After a while, his condition didn’t seem all that noticeable.

I admired Ray’s outlook and felt lucky to have met him. He told me he was currently looking for a wife, but he realized it would be hard to find a woman willing to put up with all his quirks. I said I was sure she was out there somewhere, and suggested a Gemini or a Taurus. But I told him to stay clear of Virgos — we’re just too quirky.

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