It’s fairly well-known that I’m weird, but this common knowledge doesn’t extend to the realization that I actually prefer flying coach. Despite my bad knee, despite my long legs, despite my penchant for horribly overpacked carry-ons that barely fit beneath the seat in front of me, I like being squeezed in like a sardine. Why? Well, it’s the company. You meet the most interesting people in coach.
Now, don’t get excited; I haven’t suddenly decided I enjoy talking to people and stuff. Fortunately, on a plane, most people don’t enjoy conversation period, so any great seatmate is usually about 20 minutes of real discussion, plus the occasional exchange of business card.
Fying here to Houston, I sat next to a guy who was on the third of four legs traveling from Antarctica to Fort Lauderdale. A marine biologist, this bearded, iron-jawed, soft-eyed man had just spent 3 continuous months with the same 6 people, studying seals. After a short time with his girlfriend in Florida, and a trip to go diving in Belize, he was headed home to Missoula and thence to a wolf study in Yellowstone, which he declared would be much colder than Antarctica this time of year. While I plan to avoid any place ever described as “colder than Antarctica”, I did pump my seatmate for information on his career and on his understanding of team dynamics. The man is a team leader for these wildlife studies in remote areas, and got there by leveraging his experience as a captain of a commercial fishing boat. His career change came when he started to notice that there were less fish, and decided he wanted to learn why. After 10 years in the workforce, he went to college and then grad school, then took any kind of posting with any kind of animal to gain the reputation and network to get more postings. And, man, is he a guy who I’d like to be on a team with. Some people are just like that — you know you can trust them — and he had the charisma of a natural leader. Plus, he had some good advice: “in every group there’s one that’s hard to get along with. If you can’t tell who it is, it might be you. Make sure it’s not you.”
There are other great seatmates too, and I’m not just counting the extremely drunk woman I sat next to on a flight to Paris. Hey, I have no problem learning all about someone’s sex life while traversing the Atlantic, and the stewardess kept the bourbon flowing so the stories kept coming too, despite the occasional embarassed objection of her husband sitting next to her.
On a flight to South America, for instance, I sat next to a farm worker from Peru. Now, I didn’t learn how one comes all the way from Peru to be a farm worker in the United States; and I know even less about how he managed to get a plane ticket while not speaking a lick of English; but what really fascinated me was that his Spanish was only marginally better than mine. I’d encountered that before, when I was in a Mayan village in the state of Chiapas, in the south of Mexico. I truly am baffled as to how he made it all the way north, but I do understand that his skill in breaking and training horses got him the work he’s had for decades.
I’ve also sat next to therapists, to Web designers, to management consultants. OK, one time I got stuck between two evangelical Christians who were friendly, cool, and tried their darndest to convert me. The lead guy was a reformed drug addict and bleach-blond surfer dude who showed me his tattoos, talked about beaches and hot tattooed punk-rock chicks, and suddenly slipped Jesus into there; then his square sidekick came into the conversation with the steady, reasonable, hey-look-I-had-the-same-experience-too role. I was cornered for a good 40 minutes until some dark recess of my brain figured out a way to escape: suddenly, I fell asleep. For 3 hours. The landing gear came down, I woke up, it was dark out, the lights below caught my eye, and we made uncomfortable small-talk for 20 minutes until we deplaned. How impolite is it to fall asleep in the middle of a conversation? How must it make one feel to have one’s conversation partner fall suddenly and deeply asleep?
One time, a flight back from Mexico City was overbooked and I was bumped up to first class. I tried to talk with my seatmate but apparently he was too important. Other people were being served champagne; they were also too busy to bother looking in my direction. I look forward to my twenty minutes of conversation with a completely randomly-matched individual. Nope, coach is the class for me.