Unforgettable People You've Met on a Plane

We’ve all been there. Taking our seat on a crowded plane, looking up at every new person coming down the aisle, alternately hoping or dreading that they are going to sit next to you. But every so often you end up sitting next to someone fascinating and unforgettable, who ends up adding to your whole trip experience. Now, we want to hear about the incredible chance encounters you’ve had at 30,000 feet!

When I was coming back from a visit to Iceland, I ended up seated next to a young woman who was traveling to the U.S. for the first time. During the flight I got to talk with her about her life in a small town in northern Iceland, a far cry from Reykjavik and the major tourism in the country, where I had just come from. She’d never tried the fermented shark hákarl that the country is so famous for, and she told me about the water quality rivalries that exists from home-to-home where she’s from. Talking with her, I had an honest, authentic window into the country that I never would have otherwise experienced. I got to tell her about Wisconsin. Even though it happened as I was leaving, it ended up being one of my favorite parts of the trip.

Tell us about the unforgettable strangers you’ve met on airplanes in the comments below. Tell us where you were going, what made your encounter so incredible, and whether you ever caught up with them again. We might share your response in an upcoming article on Atlas Obscura! Sometimes, wonder is other people.


(Image: Tim Gouw/Public Domain)

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She was a mother with a baby and a toddler, a little overwhelmed and looking resigned about the looks of trepidation fellow passengers were giving her since it was a 13-hour flight from the US to Asia and the second of three legs for me - the total always ends up to about a day, give or take. They were technically seated right behind me. Throughout the flight, I would borrow the baby and amuse the toddler, to give her breaks. It was going to be their first time to meet their mother’s side of the family.

This happened over a decade ago and at that time I had gotten the news my father might pass away, having had a massive stroke, which led to a sudden flight to go back home in a race against time. He ended up surviving but bedridden with a worsening case of Alzheimer’s, no longer able to care for himself or remember us until he passed away 8 years later.

The distraction afforded by the mother’s plight distracted me from my own concerns and I still think of her and her kids. They made me think of the future, that the world doesn’t stop for our pain and that life goes on.

“On particularly rough days when I’m sure I can’t possibly endure, I like to remind myself that my track record for getting through bad days so far is 100%. And that’s pretty good.”

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Not everyone from Iceland does the Kæstur hákarl? Why you build a house of lies?!?!?

I met the nicest Croatian om the way to Split even gave me and my friend a lift into the city

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Unforgettable for all the wrong reasons , but a pair of Geordie (from Newcastle) evangelical christians who were former heroin addicts on a flight from Mexico city to London , it was hellish (pun intended :stuck_out_tongue: )

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She wouldn’t (couldn’t) stop crying. I was flying from Albuquerque, NM to Seattle, WA and was seated next to an older teenager girl. She seemed sweet and looked like a young Sarah Paulson with very tinder brown eyes. Her face was red from crying. From the moment she sat down to the time we left the plane she was surrounded in a deep cloak of sadness. It wasn’t normal “teen” stuff. It was the intense emotion of leaving someone she loved, or a place where she was happy or a time she would never be able to return. I asked if she was okay, but she just nodded her head no and looked at me through her tears. Then turned her head. About 20 minutes after take off, she put her hand on my right hand and held it as she just looked forward. We never spoke but help hands for a while. She slept the rest of the flight. I think she just needed a friendly stranger. But she never wanted to talk. Eventually she fell asleep. She had to be emotionally exhausted. When we stood up after landing, she hugged me and said, “Thanks.” Those were her only words during the entire flight. I have thought her often and hope that everything turned out okay.

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M______ C_______ who was a South American woman I met in the airport in the mid-80s when our flight was delayed by bad weather. I’d grabbed a soda and gone into the lounge and found an open seat at a table she was at and asked if she minded if I sat there and soon enough we started talking and she turned out to be smart and funny and charming and as the delay got longer as the weather got worse we got deeper into things and I was surprised (unfairly, I know, but still) to learn that a lovely young woman was in the business of streamlining operations for the meat-packing industry and so there went three hours and when we finally boarded we found we were sitting next to one another and the whole thing was delightful and kinda sexy and I got her info and we kept in touch for a short while but you know the way things go I lost the paper and we lost touch and decades go by and to this day I think about her from time to time because I think she was one of those doors you come across in life that make you wonder where you’d be if you opened it.

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I met a man on a flight from Lisbon to Vienna (he was going from one conference to another and I had a connecting flight on a vacation). We talked the entire flight, exchanged emails and continued talking until baggage claim. Two days later we met for coffe, and I joined him on his way to the CAT train, where he kissed me. We continued emailing, and after many daily emails, 2 trips each back and forth between NYC and Dublin, we got engaged a year after we met.

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I was travelling from a stopover in Iceland back home to Boston, just having spent a birthday week with one of my favourite people in Sweden. I was sad, as the ending of an adventure-filled week was setting in. A nice couple sat next to me, the woman in the middle seat. I noticed her, white knuckled and praying, already wishing the flight was already over just minutes after we had taken off. We hit some light turbulence an hour or so into the flight and she went into an almost panic attack, grabbing my hand. We sat that way for the rest of the flight, as she told me about their trip to Iceland and her son who lives in Boston and that she’s from Brazil, near where my sister-in-law grew up.

She kept asking if it was okay if she held my hand, that it was helping her get through the flight. Her husband was grateful. And so was I, in a way, as it helped me get out of my own head about leaving Sweden and Iceland going home and back to the real world the next day… I’m not sure whose flight was improved more, hers or mine.

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I was living in Louisville, Ky., working as a graphic designer at the newspaper, and flying home to visit family in Colorado. I was seated next to a Jean-Claude Van Damme look-alike who was a sportscaster for the Swiss National TV station, flying to Salt Lake City to cover the Olympics. He was very excited to see the Rockies on the last leg of his flight from DIA to SLC.

At one point, I told him that I thought we were getting close to Denver, and that he may be able to see the Rockies in the distance. But as we looked below us at the ground, it looked like eastern Colorado was covered with a glittering blanket of snow. I kept commenting things like “Wow! There must have been a huge snowstorm that covered everything so thoroughly! I can’t even see any trees!” Eastern Colorado is pretty barren, but usually you can see a few roads, at least. As we got closer and closer to the snow, I wondered why nobody else seemed nervous.

Eventually, it looked like we were about to crash-land right into this crystalline ground covering. I had this poor newscaster (and myself!) SO convinced that what we were looking at was, in fact, snow-covered ground, that we held hands and squeezed our eyes shut as the plane touched it. When we emerged on the bottom side of the smoothest cloud bank I have ever seen, we let go of each other’s hands, laughed hysterically, and enjoyed watching the brown farmland of eastern Colorado roll beneath the plane as we landed uneventfully.

I have never felt so stupid in my life.

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So I met this woman carla she and I had such a similar background we talked to the whole 3 hour flight. We stayed in contact and then we didn’t talk for a few years till I got engaged and I messaged her and she agreed to photograph my wedding. Before the wedding I flew out to Kansas where she lived so we could do my bridal photos and my engagement photos she became my best friend and she shot the wedding and my indian reception 7 months later. She is one of the most amazing women I have ever met and she gave me something o never expected and that was photos where she captured my beauty and showed me I was beautiful. I forever will treasure our relationship, photos, the part she played in my wedding (she was basically a family member by the time the wedding rolled around), she was involved in shooting the announcement of my pregnancy and she is just so amazing I will forever thank God for placing me in the seat next to her.

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En route to a Puerto Vallarata vacation, our young family was waiting at the South Bend airport when I recognized Muhammad Ali sitting down the way. [It was well known in the area that, for years “The Greatest” lived in relative seclusion on a riverfront farm in Buchanan, Mich. about 15 miles away.] My 5 yr old son was too shy, but my gregarious 3 yr old daughter accompanied me to meet the champ. We approached the entourage - his wife, Yolanda, three children and his longtime bodyguard and personal photographer - stopping at a respectful distance. Without hesitation, he stood and walked right to us, shaking hands and shakily asking my daughter for a high-five. It was a real thrill for me.
We board a tiny commuter plane for the 35 min. puddle-jump over Lake Michigan to the Mexico connection at Midway Airport. Ali & Co. then board and he and Yolanda sit behind my daughter and me. In flight, she keeps looking between the seats, laughing. Ali is playing peek-a-boo.
The next morning, the kids are watching TV in the bedroom when I hear my daughter yelling, “High-five! High-five!” In the bedroom, my daughter is jumping on the bed and Ali’s lighting the Olympic torch in Atlanta. He was front page news in all the papers, and we kept that picture on our fridge for probably 10 years. To this day, we refer to the The Greatest as High-Five.

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I love this story @ raymondlowey1! I’m going to move the comment over to the main discussion thread, here:

2002; just going back Stateside from Germany after meeting my now-husband’s family. He got stuck with some stupid visa thing. Vast amounts of stress, foreign language, tears on my part. I get to the gateway, they were just shutting the door. They booted out the man they had given my seat to (god, how embarrassing). I sat down, on the verge of tears from total stress.

The elderly man sitting next to me (in my boyfriend’s seat) asked me what was wrong. I told him. We chatted off-and-on for the 8 hr flight. He was from Sweden; my husband lived there and loves the country and mourns the fact he can’t practice his Swedish. He is an engineer; my husband studied at a big-time technical university that he had actually heard of. He had similar interests to my husband. He would have been the perfect person for my husband to sit next to.

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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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