Unforgettable People You've Met on a Plane

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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In the 1990s I sat next to a serving Air Force officer who piloted A-10 “Warthog” attack fighters. He was recently back from Operation Desert Storm in Kuwait. He gave a detailed rundown of how the A-10 worked: the pilot would fly almost straight up, turn nose down, and dive toward the target (say, an enemy tank). The nose gun would emit a rapid stream of 30-mm depleted uranium shells, up to 70 per second. The pilot described the action as effectively sending a solid bar of heavy metal into a tank on the ground. The A-10 was designed around its 19-ft. rotary cannon. I have never forgotten the vividness of his description of modern close air support.

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This is seriously the funniest thing I’ve read all day - thank you!!

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I was flying from NYC back home and seated next to a middle-aged businessman in a suit and tie, the polar opposite of who I was at the time (an artist in my mid-20s with black spiky hair and an attitude.) After some polite chit-chat, our flight hit some significant turbulence and he spilled his drink on his tie. He was very flustered. I ended up hanging the tie up in my window in an attempt to dry it, and the flight attendants initiated a cabin-wide trivia game to distract the passengers. He and I bonded and ended up winning the grand prize–New York bagels. (I never questioned where they came from.) His tie never dried, but he seemed far less concerned with it by the time we landed. Most fun I’ve ever had on a flight.

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I was flying from Denver to my home in Chicago. I had been there for a job interview in a small ski town up in the mountains. They had offered me the job and I was in knots because on one hand I loved the nature and the beauty of the place, and it would be a great break from some bad stuff I was going through back in Chicago. But I knew nobody in this little town and it was completely different than the big city living I was accustomed to in Chicago. I was wracked with indecision.

Aboard the plan I’m seated next to a sweet ol grandma type I’d guessed to be 70ish (picture an African American version of Aunt Bee). We chatted briefly… where ya from, where ya going etc. Eventually I told her about the job offer and all the reasons I was so torn about what to do. She patiently listened as I ran through a dozen pros and cons. When I finally finished, she reached over and squeezed my hand and said calmly, “baby, take the adventure. If you don’t like it, you can always go back home”. Until she said those words it never occurred to me that this didn’t have to be a “rest of my life” decision. This was one turn on a long windy road. It was such a relief. When we landed, I found the nearest phone and accepted the job.

That advice to “take the adventure” has stuck with me since. And its guided me to do some amazing things I might not have done otherwise. Thanks to that random seatmate.

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I was on a Christmas flight from New York to Little Rock AR, to spend it with my extended family. At the time, I had a phobia about flying, so even the most uneventful, smooth flight filled me with fear. I was seated next to another young woman who seemed to be quite comfortable about the plane, so I put in my very best behavior, as though it was just another ordinary day.
Unfortunately, the plane encountered wet-your-pants weather, which was so brutal, the plane had to be re-routed to Dallas, Texas.
During this time, I was barely keeping it together, but my seat mate had become quite agitated. As lightning started cracking all around us, she suddenly turned to me and desperately blurred out, “would it be alright if I could just hold your hand?!!” I responded immediately with, “I thought you would never ask!!”
We held hands all the way to Dallas, where we deplaned for our separate flights.
I will never forget that harrowing moment, or the relief it was to be able to share and comfort one another through it all.

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Flying from Houston to Seattle I struck up a conversation with a fellow that was obviously VERY happy. He started telling me about his wife who had opened a cookie shop in their home town using her grandmother’s recipes. The day before they had sold their first franchise for Mrs. Field’s Cookies (named after her grandmother.) Obviously that went well.

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Hey @redcurls100, thanks for the great story! I’m going to move your comment to the main thread about people you’ve met on planes. Thanks again for posting!