Unforgettable People You've Met on a Plane

Flying from JFK to Berlin with just me and my then-4 yr old son. Got stuck in the middle two of four seats. When stewardess came by to ask about dinner orders, I had to order on one aisle and my son on the other. As the attendant came, she looked at the man on the aisle, my young son, and me and obviously assumed we were a family. “What would your son like to eat?” He asked my son what he wanted, gave a brief “is that ok?” look to me, and then simply ordered for my son and himself.
He apologized to me afterwards, saying he didn’t know how to respond in such a surprise. I assured him it was perfectly fine. It was so sweet that he did not want my son to feel rejected.
He didn’t chat with me or my son for the rest of the flight, just helped out with the dinner and went to sleep. It was kind and thoughtful to my son.

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On my way home from a summer school session abroad in Italy. The guy next to me was older but in handsome sorta way, and he asked me where I was traveling from. I was a little afraid it was flirting, but actually his wife and two kids were a few rows down, it was a family vacation because he wanted to show his family the world, and our conversation ended up being exchanging life advice. We were exact opposites, he was rich/ I was dirt poor (summer abroad was scholarship, and I could barely afford to eat while I was there haha) big family/ no family, older/younger. It was just nice getting to ask a stranger about whatever you wanted, knowing you’ll never speak again. I’m pretty sure he felt the same way. It was just a weirdly honest, frank conversation that wouldn’t have happened in any other situation. I hope he’s doing okay, I think about him a lot.

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I was returning home for the final time from studying abroad for a year at a college in Japan. The flight was almost full, but miraculously the seat next to me sat unoccupied. Right before the doors of the plane were to be closed, a young lady, ostensibly of high school age rushed into the plane, flustered and tense. She piled herself into the seat next to me, and for the next hour of the flight mimicked my every move. “Would you care for something to drink sir?” “may I have a coffee and a water please?” “and for you miss?” “coffee and water.” She seemingly gulped in air and spat out her words as though the faster she rid herself of them, the sooner her nervous energy would diminish, even if just slightly.

After the first meal service, I decided that maybe I should try to talk to her to see if that may help her calm down. Moments before I was going to turn and speak, she inhales sharply, turns to me suddenly, and as fast as she can says “where are you going?” I explained I was returning to Indianapolis, my home, after studying abroad. It turns out she was from South Korea, leaving home for the first time. She too was traveling for the purpose of studying abroad, though her journey was just beginning. She was to study at a small high school in rural Illinois, and to live with a host family whom she had never met.

We spent the remainder of the flight chatting, talking about the midwestern United States, and what she may expect from her time abroad. We shared headphones and listened to music, and became fast friends over our 13 hours together. It felt so good, at the conclusion of my formative experience to able to simply be there for someone apprehensive at the outset of their own adventure.

After hustling through customs I had to scramble off to catch my connection. It wasn’t until 15 years later that through the miracle of the internet we caught back up, her looking me up on a whim, sure I had forgotten who she was. We keep in touch, occasionally checking in and chatting about big-picture life concerns, enjoying the solace of sharing with someone who is completely removed from the banal concerns of our every day lives. We’ve shared art and music, one piece of which is her rendering of our formative experience together.

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Last June, on a six-hour flight from New York, I had the honor of sitting next to Deborah Greenberg, the widow of civil rights legend, Jack Greenberg, one of the attorneys who argued the landmark Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court case, and who would later represent Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. after his arrest in Alabama. We talked for a long time about the ailing state of our nation, and I asked her what Jack would have thought of our current president (Jack died right before 45 was sworn in), and how he’d feel about the fragile state of our democracy. She said, “Jack would’ve thought we’d bounce back”, and she flashed me a hopeful smile. Deborah, now in her eighties, and herself an accomplished civil rights attorney, was charming, perky and quick-witted. She downplayed her own accomplishments (even though she’s met a few presidents and argued before the Supreme Court), and lovingly reminisced about her husband’s decades-long work with the NAACP and revealed that he was only 27 years old when he had the honor of working with Thurgood Marshall on our nation’s most monumental civil rights case, which she simply referred to as “Brown”. So tonight, when you go to bed, just remember: we’re gonna bounce back. Because we’re a resilient nation, and there are still heroes out there ready to fight for equality and justice.

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Thank you for the great story and the hope!

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Five or six years ago, as I sat at an airport gate in New Hampshire, I noticed the woman sitting next to me was with a little boy who was getting ready to fly alone. She was his aunt, as it turned out, and she was accompanying him to board his flight at the gate- but he was returning home alone to Louisville after a summer in New England (our plane was making two stops- Baltimore, then Louisville). I began chatting with them at the gate, and offered to help him while on the plane if he needed it, since he would be flying by himself. She was very appreciative of that. As it turned out, he was the sweetest, most delightful, clever little boy. His name was Victor. He boarded first, but saved me a seat. (On Southwest there are no assigned seats.) So I sat next to Victor when I got on board and he told me it was his first time flying alone. He was so excited but also a little nervous and I explained to him the things that would happen when we took off and landed. Victor told me his mom died while traveling, which really struck me. So I didn’t want him to be scared about traveling. 30 minutes in to the flight, Victor was leaning on my shoulder and we were looking at pictures in the magazine together. He was so sweet and cute and I was sad to leave him when I got off the plane in Baltimore! Victor hugged me and made me write down his dad’s phone number so I could call and talk to the two of them sometime. I knew I probably wouldn’t actually call, but I wrote his dad a brief note just saying it was a pleasure to fly with his son, and signed my name. Who knows, maybe one day when I’m an 85 year old woman on a plane alone Victor will be randomly seated next to me and talk to me throughout the flight…

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Back in 1999, I flew to Ireland to do some studying and touring. I was a middle aged farm girl from the Sandhills of Nebraska., and this was my first time on ANY airplane. So traveling by jet over the Antlantic to a foreign country was almost overwhelmingly.
The young British man sitting next to me was friendly and struck up a conversation with me. I knew he was flying from the States, so I asked what he did while in the U.S. He said he and some mates went to Texas and worked on wheat harvesting crews that harvested fields of wheat for farmers, from Texas to North Dakota, then back down to Texas. I was very familiar with the harvest crews, traveling in long caravans of tractors, combines, trucks, and travel trailers going from wheat farm to wheat farm.
I asked him if his crew went through Nebraska. --Yes. What towns did he go through?–he could only remember a couple, Alliance, Hemingford and Chadron. I told him I was born in Chadron, and my dsughter lived in Alliance! We got to talking about it, and it tirned out he’d had drinks at a bar in Alliance(he knew the name)with her and some of her friends, and he told me some of their names
What are the odds ofsitting next to a Brit, in a jet, halfway across the Atlantic, who just happened to have shared drinks with your daughter in a small town in the middle of nowhere in Nebraska?

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I had to come in to Chicago for a conference that I was speaking in a panel for… because we got 10 inches of snow in my hometown there were a bunch of delayed flights and whatnot.

I end up jumping around to like three different flights in the Delta app as they are getting delayed and cancelled right and left. Finally get on a plane headed for Chicago, and this lady from Africa is sitting next to me. I know she’s from Africa, not because she’s like dressed all crazy or anything, but just the accent.

I figure this is the perfect time to try and put some of the skills I learned from a webinar I had attended recently to use, and just listen to her story and empathize and not try and talk so much. One of the things they said in the webinar that hit home to me was that you don’t have to witness to everybody, but it’s a victory just to talk to someone and get to know them and actually enjoy it, something I really need to work on as that doesn’t come naturally to me.

I end up chatting with her and she tells me she’s a musician coming from a show, so I’m talking with her about that for a while and just a nice lady in general.

So I asked her what her name was and it’s Angelique Kidjo, which doesn’t mean much to me at the time, but I guess she’s the jam over in Africa and has won three Grammys.

She was sitting coach with the rest of us peasants because of all the snow she had got bumped from a flight and took a coach seat when she normally flies first class haha.

So the even better part is that I get in my Uber at the airport and the guy’s name is Akeem and I can tell right away that he’s Nigerian so I tell him the story and he freaking flips out and loses it getting all excited and crap. He even scolded me because I didn’t get her autograph haha.

Anyways, interesting night, and I totally wouldn’t have had this story if I had done what I normally do and just put my earbuds in and bury my face in my phone. Was kind if cool to see how that whole thing developed…from this being the third flight I had hopped to, to deciding to help this lady with her coat, and turning out to be who it was, then being able to make a cab drivers day with the story and what not. Just felt like it all happened for a reason. I don’t know what reason that is, but it just felt very purposeful.

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Not a big deal for most people but I got to sit next to legendary Coach Lou Holts on a flight from NY to Orlando. We talked about how to motivate people, but the highlight was when I told him a story about my Mother-in-law who was struggling as she had just put her husband in long term care and was wrought with guilt (he had advanced Alzheimer’s). Coach pulled out his personal stationary and wrote a beautifull motivational letter to her. She was a huge collage sports fan. When I gave the letter to her she was delighted and framed it. She is now in long term care and has the framed letter in her room. Although she now has Alzheimer’s she knows what the letter is and treasures it.

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In the 1970’s I was just beginning my career in business and "public affairs"after working a short time for the government. I had to testify at a hearing in Washington, D.C. and had scheduled a number of speaking engagements back home in California. I was an inexperienced public speaker and very self-conscious. While in D.C. I bought a new book entitled “Speak Up With Confidence,” written by a legendary D.C. figure, Jack Valenti. Valenti had been an advisor and press secretary to LBJ in the tumultuous days following JFK’s assassination. But he was better known, later in his career, as the head of the Motion Picture Association of America…Hollywood’s lobbyist in Washington.

On a flight from Dulles Airport to LAX, I was upgraded to first class, and who walks onto the plane to take the sea right next to me but Jack Valenti. For the next four hours we (mostly he) talked about many subjects, including the book and my “anxiety” about public speaking. I arrived in L.A. thinking I should have paid him tuition. A very gracious, nice man. The bottom line: “Know your subject, and know it well.”

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I had just turned 16, and just received SCUBA certification on that birthday. The oldest of three siblings, I drew the odd seat on a flight to Corfu on a family trip. Diving, according to my nervous mother, was not going to be an option for this rookie enthusiast. My seat mate turned out to be a very nice Greek man of about 30. Later in conversation I learned he was a Ph.D. Underwater Archaeologist (Yale) on his way to study some scattered shoreline wrecks on Corfu. Armed with his agreement, I now had an experienced dive “buddy”, accomplished several dives, learned so much (including history and skip breathing) and now look at any unknown seat mate as a potential adventure. I’m often disappointed, but it’s a good attitude of hope with which to travel.

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I was flying back from California and we got diverted to Washington DC. The two people sitting next to me were asked to leave the plane and two men in dark suits, with sunglasses and briefcases replaced them. I was carrying a pocketbook I had macramade out of rope and the man nearest me reached for my bag asking “is this jute?” I grabbed the bag back and said “yes it is, and if you touch it again, or me, I will scream as loudly as I can that you are assualting me.” The two men instantly assured me and showed me their credentials–they were diplomats heading for Bangladesh to research the jute industry. We all had a good laugh and shared some drink.

I boarded a 2 hr flight home once after an amazing trip that had me feeling radiant. I was sitting next to a much older man and don’t know how he got to talking but he started telling me all these stories about the nuclear facility where he worked. He told me about burying nuclear waste in old salt mines and the wire cage elevators and turning on a black light flashlight to scare off scorpions. He told me about a rabbit activating the security system for the whole building. How they had snipers on the roof so he never locked his car. He was a wonderful storyteller, and as he talked he was so lively and no longer looked old. I thought about asking to hang out at the arrival airport but then realized the feds might track me down during his next background check and instead just said goodbye.

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Taking from the movie Fight Club you could also refer to this topic as ‘Great Stories From Single Serving Friends’ .

Years ago I was on a Continental flight to Houston. I struck up a conversation with the guy next to me. As it turns out he was one of a group of people at Continental Airlines that was responsible for scheduling their flights. At the time I was traveling 5-6 days a week and was always fascinated with how airlines figure out where to get a back-up aircraft if a plane is broke, how do they get substitute crews when a pilot has exceeded his hour of flight or their sick or how can then know how to schedule flights a year in advance.

I had assumed it was some dimly lit mission control center in the middle of America with radar screens and huge computers using AI (this is before AI meant your browser pimping you gourmet coffee in ads based on your search history) to make decisions. As it turns out it was much more of an organic pencil and paper way of doing things. He and his co-workers as part of their job had traveled to every airport that Continental fly’s to and they actually knew every plane in the fleet and where they were at the time. Kind of like - where are my kids at any moment in time. So when changes were necessary the answer was straight forward.

So trying to be a good conservationist I remembered a story from an acquaintance about Continental destination and I wanted to see if my single serving friend knew the answer. The acquaintance had told me that when he was working as a civilian contractor in the Marshall Islands (in the middle of the Pacific and a US protectorate) that a single Continental flight came to the Island once a week and that the aircraft was a special built plane that was made out of stainless steel because of the harsh salty conditions on the Island.

My single serving friend gave me a sly smile (I was happy with myself for asking a question worthy of his time I suppose) as it turns out it was a special plane. It had a Teflon coating on the bottom of the plane because the runway at the time on the Island was made of crushed coral and when the plane was rolling on the runway that pieces of coral would get tossed upwards to the underside of the plane and ding the aluminum underbelly exposing it to corrosion. The Teflon coating prevented that from happening. So my single serving friend was the real deal! The flight ended soon after and I had not though about that conversation until I saw the link to this topic today.

Cheers~

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In spring of 1974, I was about 6 months from the end of my military enlistment. I was stationed at the Presidio in San Francisco. I was using some of my accumulated leave and had spent the last two weeks on the Big Island and Maui. While returning to San Francisco on a packed United Air Lines 747, a flight attendant asked me if I would mind changing seats so someone could view the movie, which could not be watched from her seat in the coach lounge. I said sure, and went forward to the lounge seating section. In those days, there was a bar in that section, so I went up to the bar to have a beverage. Standing next to me was another Army soldier, wearing his uniform. (I was in civvies since I was on leave.) I told him I was also a soldier and we struck up a conversation. It turned out he had just finished his tour in Vietnam and was on the way back to his hometown of Sheboygan, Wisconsin, which coincidentally was also where I was from. As we continued our conversation, I found out that we had been in the same high school at the same time, although I was in the class that had graduated one year before his class did. I have a cousin who was also in his class and asked if by chance, he knew him. Our high school had nearly 500 students in each class in those days, so I was surprised to learn that not only did he know my cousin, but they were good friends. We spent the rest of the flight talking about our hometown experiences and when we landed, wished each other good luck and went our separate ways.

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I was going to the Dominican Republic from the U.S. for the first time by myself. I normally always went with family or friends and I was so nervous. I sat by an older Dominican woman in the waiting area and began to speak with her and found myself telling her how nervous I was because I didn’t have friend in the city I was traveling to this time. She ended up taking me under her wing.

When we arrived to the DR, she waited for me outside the plane and guided me through the airport and told me that I was going with her (her grandson and daughter were coming to pick her up at the airport) and that they would drive me to my hotel. I know you’re not supposed to trust strangers, but there was something about this woman that was comforting. As soon as I got in the car her daughter handed me a mug of coffee and some cookies for the ride.

They dropped me off at my hotel and the next day I got a call from her to check in with me. It’s been 2.5 years now and we still talk every single day via Whatsapp and I have even gone to stay in her family home in the DR. I now call her my “mamita” (little mother) and she calls me her niece when she introduces me to others. Thanks to that random conversation she has become a part of my life.

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Thank you for this! It gives me hope that we will bounce back

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I was working as a travel writer, flying from New York to Bangkok via Japan. Our flight was late into Tokyo/Narita, so I missed my Tokyo-Bangkok connection on Northwest and was put on an Olympic flight. My seatmate was a middle-aged man, pretty obviously American, in a rumpled grey suit, with one of the most hangdog expressions I have ever seen. Depression and disappointment and fatigue in every line of his face and angle of his body. He looked so forlorn that I found myself introducing myself. “Hi, I’m J----, I’m a freelance writer. Interesting to be on a Greek plane going to Bangkok, isn’t it?”

He widened his eyes slightly, and in a barely audible voice gave his name and added, “I’m the United States ambassador to Thailand.”

Later, without much conviction, he said, “If you have any trouble in Bangkok, give me a call.” And he handed me a business card that looked to be authentic State Department. Needless to say, I did not bother this sad gentleman during my stay in the Thai capital.

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All of the stories of you guys helping out other travelers, particularly those who are nervous about flying, are warming my heart.

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Some time around 1986 I flew across the country and sat next to an older, distinguished looking man who turned out to be a rocket scientist. Actually he was working on what would become the Hubble Space Telescope — it launched in 1990. He gave me a detailed preview of the kinds of science it would be able to do, and an overview of its instruments. Today my desktop background is the Hubble Ultra Deep Field.

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