Unforgettable People You've Met on a Plane

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!

In 2000, My father was flying on a red-eye from San Francisco to Philadelphia. My sister was in the hospital following a suicide attempt. Dad’s seatmate was a woman of 35 (my age at the time) who was very subdued and weepy. They were separated by an empty middle seat and did not speak during the flight. Neither one of them was able to sleep much either. When they landed, Dad turned to her and said, “You are obviously sad and I hope that your trip to Philadelphia brings you some comfort.” She replied that her brother had taken his own life the day before, and she was returning home to her family. Dad then opened up about his own reason for traveling, and they exchanged names. Her last name was familiar to Dad, because I went to high school and college with her cousin.

What my father didn’t remember was that I had also dated her brother briefly during the summer before my senior year. He was a very intense guy; we had a short-lived relationship and I never thought much about him as I grew up. I don’t remember if I ever met his sister during the summer that I dated him. Frankly, much of those years is lost to memory. However, she and I had many FB friends in common and her name kept popping up on my screen.

Ten years ago, I got up the courage to send her a private message on FB. We talked for two hours about her brother, my sister, and life in the aftermath of suicide. Although we have never met in person since then, we remain connected to this day more than 18 years later.

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About 15 years ago I was returning from an assignment in Switzerland on the always marvelous Swiss Air, this time in first class as business had been sold out. It was my first only and only time in this special lap of luxury, where I found myself seated directly next to the only other person in First. I immediately offered to move across the aisle…after all, there was plenty of room. “Please don’t,” he said.

Looking directly at me he asked, “You don’t know who I am?” No, I admitted. ”Sepp Trütsch.” Still, nothing. “What a very Swiss name,” is the best I could offer. “I am the Swiss Johnny Carson and the fact that you haven’t recognized me is why I asked to share your company. It’s so rare that I can enjoy someone’s simple presence; people become stagestruck and awkward, as I can show you later.

In fact, I had noticed a pile of epaulets, one stacked atop the next, on the shoulders of his shirt. “They tear these off me. Really. Come, I’ll show you what I mean.” Herr Trütsch was acting as tour leader for a group of women going on a special trip to New York and we were about to enter Coach to visit them.

Fortunately, airplane etiquette decreed a modicum of restraint—no one tried to remove any epaulets—but the minute we he parted the curtain his adoring fans swarmed, swooped, and stampeded until we took our leave.

“See? What did I tell you? Now do you understand why it’s been such a pleasure to share your company?” Listening to his stories and having him listen with evident interest to mine was a once-in-a-lifetime finale to my first major European assignment.

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It was my first solo flight and I had a window seat. A quick hop from Milwaukee to Detroit in a turbo-prop plane. It was 1966, so like everyone else on the plane, I was looking my best in a Summer shift and sweater, and my hair in a kerchief. As I looked through the items in the seat pocket, paying special attention to what my brother John called the “barf bag,” an older man slipped into the seat beside me.

He probably had lots of experience chatting up the girl seated next to him, because he soon had me telling him all about myself: how long I’d been in Wisconsin; why I was going to Michigan; who was meeting me; my dog’s name. He showed me how to make a drinking cup out of a sheet of paper. Then, as we were talking, I noticed him taking a tiny case out of his pocket, a little larger than a fountain pen. He pulled a small, flat, silver object from it. It was a Minox B, the classic spy camera you’ve seen in a hundred thrillers. “Smile,” he said.

The next week, I found a photograph of my eight-year-old self — eyes rolled back, mouth open in mid-sentence, kerchief askew on the airline seat back — waiting for me in my mailbox. I don’t remember giving him my address, but then, spies have ways of finding things out.

I can’t find the photo of me right now, so you’ll have to make due with the camera.

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