It’s a little known fact that you can choose who you love as much as you can choose who you sit next to on a plane. Although there’s always the unmistakable outliers – people finding their soulmates in the window seat, winning an all-expenses paid trip to the Maldives, meeting a new best friend in the air, the most glorious buttermilk pancakes this side of the equator…but if we’re being honest that’s the stuff of business class, or dreams, or more accurately a Jennifer Aniston Emirates commercial. For every time in between, the depths of economy are where most of us find ourselves. Don’t get me wrong there’s nothing inherently Dantean (at first) with economy. Just that little extra proximity which makes sleeping a whole lot harder and ‘mystery’ meat a little tougher to digest. Whilst some of these fearsome tales and the people that partake in them, make great yarns at dinner parties, in the moment they’re the tears behind your eyes, sweaty arm-pit, short of breath moments that make the man.
You may be thinking, what the heck does a four-eyed advertising student from Sydney know about international flight? After spending the last year jet setting on exchange in all of Europe’s best and brightest (and budget) airlines, I was ready to head to my faithful island home with all my newly acquired airport knowhow and semi-comprehensive Italian. After attempting to wing-it in Milan whilst knowingly being 40kg over the bag allowance, I sadly bid adieu to four pairs of shoes, six jumpers and my best friend; who was randomly selected to be upgraded to business class. Leaving me -no, abandoning me, to wallow next to ancient aunty Catherine and Edward from London and talkative Tracy coming home from a booze cruise in Amsterdam. It’s the kind of trauma brutal and first-world enough to change you.
Vanessa if you’re reading this, I forgive you…kinda.
So here it is, after countless flights both good and bad, I gift you your very own guide to every person you’ve ever sat next to on a plane. I urge you to use this definitive list next time you’re navigating the unpredictable waters that are economy-seating.
The old couple
First seemingly nice, gentle and soft-spoken, these long time livers, short time flyers have a lot to say when it comes to other passengers. A conversation about your university degree with these two quickly turns into discussing societies most pressing of issues – ‘the youths’; their argument often backed up by a few anecdotal examples about the millennial a few seats infront taking selfies, or the five-year-old with his face shoved into an iPad. Attempting to compete with the loud drone of the plane engine, air conditioning, general muffle of other passengers and your own internal screams, you will quickly come to find their comments reach not only the ears of every passenger within a 5km radius, but even the ends of the earth. Abort mission when the phrase ‘When I was your age…’ is mentioned. For those more tech-savvy pensioners, use the time it takes them to reach into the seat in-front of them to whip out a 2005 Samsung rife with pictures of their grandchildren, to run off the plane.
Please be aware that the closest exit may be behind you.
The kid who you make friends with and then immediately regret meeting 20 minutes into the flight
Often taking form in a baby or small child, this wide-eyed, bright faced, MnM-clad individual pops up above the chair infront of you out of the blue like that one random guy at a party in your Facebook friend requests. You want to play it nice. The possibility of running into them in the next 8-10 hours is high so you say hello, give them a reassuring smile, shake hands with their Elsa doll or even compliment them on their light-up sneakers (it’s okay to be jealous of those, its normal). Don’t. It’s a trap. You are now the nanny.
Thankfully you took the advice of that new health insurance ad you saw on TV and out of sheer coincidence your ‘masseuse’ has joined you on your journey to kick your seat and back into shape behind you.
The guy who encounters an unexpected ‘twist’ in his film
Much like watching an MA (or worse, R) movie with your parents, you can never quite shake the unsettling feeling that whilst you’re on a plane, you’re never truly alone when watching a sex scene. Let’s be honest, we’ve all been this guy. Somewhere deep in the Hollywood hills some cashed up director is laughing manically as you awkwardly look at anywhere other than your screen. whilst he offsets the smashing and clambering of car-chases and gun scenes with some primal Vin Diesel love-making. A little bit more furious than fast for one’s inflight taste, a scene of two minutes feels like a lifetime. All of a sudden you feel the eyes of every passenger on you. You get the feeling someone behind is definitely watching through the crack in the chairs. The guy on the left is judging. You don’t know where to turn. You’re questioning every life decision that led you to this fateful and ultimately horrendously awkward moment of your existence. As you click your screen to fast forward, the pilot goes to speak on the overhead. Your screen is paused. You’re forced to stare at a semi-naked Vin Diesel for another two, dreaded, long minutes. At least if the weather holds up, ‘you’ll be making your swift descent into London’.
Should’ve picked Cars 3.
Rooted in either a general distain for flying or an unfortunate case of tiny bladder syndrome, this is the guy who jumps up from his seat at any possibility. Also known by his other pseudonym ‘the guy who always gets up whilst the food is being served’, is often on first name basis with the air-hosts and is most commonly known for its stealth like bounds as he or she vigorously pushes past the food cart and speeds for the toilet like a rabid lion in pursuit of a gazelle. The plot thickens as they take an exceedingly long time to do anything, leaving you either waiting in the corridor for their faithful return or in prime position to get a carry-on to the face as they exit the plane. Consider a friendship with this person if attempting to audition for ‘The Amazing Race’. Only opportunity when being first, every time, will get you the gold.
The guy who tries to make small talk
It’s the question as old as time itself. Meat or Chicken?
Although the answer is often neither, this is the person who will take literally any opportunity to talk. Whether it’s the weather, or the food, or last year’s tax return, to them no conversation is off limits or too outlandish. At the moment he’s leaning towards the chicken; but maybe playing the ‘vegan’ card will maximise his chances of eating something more nutritious and less rubbery. You’ve got to admit, it’s a mastermind plan. You’re quietly as impressed as you are perplexed by his oversharing. He always eats the bread. Never has the dessert. The extra dairy makes him gassy. Did you know he suffers from IBS? Thankfully his kid is a podiatrist so at least his feet are cushy on the way to the bathroom.
After hearing his life story, you begin to realise the oversharing comes from a genuine hatred for flying and one too many episodes of ‘Air Crash Investigations’; as he clutches the armrest like Tom Cruise dangling from a building in Mission Impossible. He spends an exceedingly large amount of money on the inflight wifi to google breathing techniques. He’s got it down to a science. This guy is a triple whammy. The talkative one is always the one who hates flying; and the one who hates flying is always the one who hogs the armrest. Cut this one some slack though, everyone’s got something they’re scared of.
Just be prepared to accidentally touch hands when the turbulence begins.
Oh, they’re clammy. That’s nice.
The seasoned pro
This is person who’s flown probably a little too much. From Dubai to Prague to Tokyo and back again, they’ve read every article in the inflight magazine, know the film selection back to front, have probably posted an instagram in front of a private plane once in their lifetime and only order Bloody Mary’s whilst in the air. Something about how the altitude elevates the flavours in the tomato juice.
Okay, Top gun. Whatever you say.
Often travelling for work, they part enjoy, part dislike flying and will tell you all about it even if you didn’t ask. With a wealth of knowledge covering anything from what airport sandwich is best to how to navigate airport security and baggage claim with the upmost time efficiency, push past the small talk and take notes. Steal their insider knowledge. It’s golden.
The empty seat
Finally, the greatest neighbour of them all, no one.
Sure it seems a lonely existence for fourteen hours but not only does two seats mean countless room for activities, it also means a makeshift bed, ottoman, bag holder and extra table for your food. With no one to impress and no one to answer to, you’re free to roam around as you wish, turning the plane into your own personal chateau! Similar to winning the lottery, the stakes are high and the odds stacked against you but if you manage, count yourself as the luckiest guy ever if you score this arrangement. A fully-fledged God if you get the three-seater.
The moral of the story here is clear. Always fasten your seatbelt when the seatbelt light is switched on, be nice to your air-hosts and the people around you, watch Border Security from the comfort of your own home, not in a holding cell and most of all, catch flights not feelings.
Fly safe and fly smart people. It’s a great big world out there.