Image: Traveling characters
Ed Reinke  /  AP file
Loud cell phone talkers are just one type of annoying character you'll encounter if you're a frequent flier, Tripso columnist James Wysong writes.
By James Wysong Travel columnist
updated 3/6/2007 10:50:10 AM ET 2007-03-06T15:50:10

If you fly often enough, sooner or later you will sit next to a passenger you can't stand. There are the complainers, the opinionated, the loud and obnoxious, those with unusual quirks or phobias, people with screaming babies, and others with gas. You name it, and I have probably sat next to it at one time or another.

I wrote this column while sitting next to the classic nightmare seatmate. After announcing his importance to the world by constantly using his cell phone, he managed to annoy everyone around him with his loud and incredibly embarrassing points of view. He drank too much, spoke too often and pretty much complained his way across the Atlantic. I hoped that he would eventually glance over my shoulder and see himself in my column, but unfortunately he never did.

I usually consider a flight next to a stranger a chance to delve into another person's outlook. The inspiration for most of my writing comes from such opportunities, but to be honest, there are times when I just want to be left alone and relax in my own private world. Those are the times that my neighbors get on my nerves. Take these people, for instance. Do you recognize any of them?

Mr. High Flyer. This gentleman complained about everything during the first half of the flight. When he discovered that I am a flight attendant, he decided to complain to me the rest of the way.

Miss Fear Of Flying. This poor soul burst into floods of tears during the taxi out, and it only got worse after that. It was a nine-hour flight.

Mr. Freaky. This middle-aged man stared at a picture of a boy, chanted and swatted at imaginary flies the entire flight.

Mr. Itchy. This fellow either had a bad case of jock itch or was — well, let's just say he was feeling a bit crabby. By the end of the flight I was feeling itchy myself, but maybe that was just my imagination.

Ms. Drinks Too Much. First she tried to get me to join the Mile-High Club with her, then she started talking to herself. Eventually she needed to use both our sick bags.

Mr. Politically Incorrect. This United States senator let me know he had no respect for stewardesses or female pilots. I waited until our second drink to tell him that I am a flight attendant and my wife is a pilot.

Mr. Gassy. This gentleman made no attempt to disguise the matter that was rotting inside his intestines, even though the restroom was vacant the entire time. Talk about airing your problems! Another gentleman, Mr. Smelly Feet, comes in a distant second, though I must say his were the worst feet my olfactory passages have ever encountered.

Ms. Not Contagious. Now, how does anyone ever know that they are not contagious? This was her claim, but she sneezed, coughed and wiped her nose throughout the flight. Needless to say, I came down with her cold two days later.

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Mr. Nose-picker. If this man were to embark on a career of nostril mining, he would be a huge success. Unfortunately, I have peripheral vision and I couldn't help witnessing the whole booger-extraction expedition.

Mr. Multi-tasker. This fellow was a claustrophobe who also had Parkinson's disease and Tourette's syndrome. No joke. We actually became quite good friends, which just goes to show that you should give your seat neighbor a chance. I'm sure you're not always a joy to sit next to, either.

So what is the decent, well-mannered traveler to do when stuck with a difficult seatmate? Here are 10 tips.

1. Move it. If the flight is not full, you don't have to suffer through the entire journey in your assigned seat. Get up and move to another seat; either ask a flight attendant to find you a different seat or locate one yourself. The person who was enjoying two seats may roll their eyes a bit, but he'll get over it.

2. Bring earplugs. My favorite standard amenity comes up aces again. Just make sure your seatmate sees you plug in, or he'll be talking at you the whole flight anyway. Are there such things as nose plugs? If it is a smelly situation, put some mild, fragrant lotion under your nostrils and point your air vent toward the source of the problem.

3. Lie if you have to. Don't let your seatmate know what you do for a living, especially if you work for an airline. I know it sounds dishonest, but how many questions about your field of expertise do you really want to answer in your time off? Instead, make up a conversation-stopping occupation. Insurance salesman or data processor usually does the trick.

4. Talk it out. Try to converse with the person. Annoying people can be interesting, too (my friend with Tourette's certainly was).

5. Find a way out of the conversation. If your seatmate turns out not to be interesting, or if she's just an overly chatty person, fake a yawn and then pretend to sleep. Alternatively, you could just tell her that you aren't in the mood for conversation, but this direct approach may be taken for rudeness, and then you're stuck with an icy relationship for the entire flight.

6. Phone it in. If you have an in-flight phone at your seat, take it out of the cradle and pretend to make a phone call. In a loud conversational voice explain to your imaginary friend on the other end that you are sitting near a complete moron. He usually gets the message, and the announcement gives the others around you a good chuckle.

7. Look on the bright side. Don't like your seatmate? Take heart. Odds are, you'll never see him again.

8. Go a little crazy. You could pretend you are mentally deranged and try to scare off the offending neighbor with a bit of bizarre behavior, but be careful not to overdo it, as you might get taken off the flight.

9. Fight another day. If you find the atmosphere getting hostile, avoid any direct confrontation. Instead, notify a flight attendant. I was once pretty close to telling the guy next to me where he could stick his cell phone, but my rational side prevailed.

10. Sympathize with your fellow man. Realize that some people are not at their best while flying: mothers with infants, fearful flyers, folks who have just been laid off — you name it. Chances are you've been a less-than-perfect seatmate once or twice yourself, so cut your neighbor some slack.

Some of the most interesting people I have ever met are passengers that I had dreaded sitting next to. But then again, some made my Worst Nightmare list. Each flight is a crapshoot. You just never know what will turn up.

James Wysong has worked as a flight attendant with two major international carriers during the past fifteen years. He is the author of the "The Plane Truth: Shift Happens at 35,000 Feet" and "The Air Traveler's Survival Guide." For more information about James or his books, please visit his Web site or e-mail him.


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