Ben Grefsrud / msnbc.com
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By Travel writer
msnbc.com contributor
updated 11/21/2007 11:28:14 AM ET 2007-11-21T16:28:14

Twenty-seven million people will be hanging around airports and flying on airplanes this busy holiday week. And while most travelers will be dreaming of turkey and pumpkin pie, some folks will be scanning the gate areas and economy seating sections for a potential mate — or at least someone who can help a long flight fly by faster.

Many frequent travelers consider airports and airplanes to be some of the least romantic places around. Folks are stressed out and focused on making it through the security checkpoint and to their gates. And few things are less appealing than spending four, five or six hours squeezed in next to a stranger — even a very handsome or pretty one — who falls asleep and starts drooling and/or snoring loudly. Or worse.

But if you’re looking for love or even just a fun, interesting conversation, keep in mind the conversation I had with Pepper Schwartz recently. She considers airports and airplanes ideal spots to find dates, mates and intriguing “who knows where this will go” conversations.

Schwartz is a sociology professor at the University of Washington in Seattle and a relationship expert at Perfectmatch.com. She’s also the author of “Prime: Adventures and Advice on Sex, Love, and the Sensual Years,” a book featuring plenty of details about relationships with men she’s met at airports.

“For example,” she says, “when I was in my 20s, I saw this gorgeous man at the airport and thought, ‘My, he’s good looking.’ It turned out he was sitting next to me on the airplane. We started talking and he was, amazingly, single. I gave him a ride home from the airport. We kept in touch and ended up dating for a long time.”

Schwartz was happy to share details about other airport encounters and says there are plenty of reasons we should all show up at the airport ready and willing to engage other people in conversation. “Sure, sometimes you’ll be too tired to talk, even if it’s the Dalai Lama sitting next to you. But you should really make an effort because you can learn a lot of things by being thrown together at an airport or on a plane. And you just never know what might happen.”

And what if you want to make sure something happens? Schwartz was also happy to share a few tips for those well-mannered travelers who might want to help things along.

“There are basically two ways: subtle or direct,” says Schwartz. “The subtle way is to sit down next to someone who looks interesting and to start talking about something easy, like how late the flight is. See if they’re willing to engage. And don’t give up on the first try.”

And the direct way? Schwartz says, “I’d sit down next to someone and say ‘I think you’re most handsome person in the room and I thought I’d say hello.’ I’ve tried that direct way many times and it works. Absolutely.”

But what if you’re not feeling so forward? Then consider Peter Shankman’s approach. He founded AirTroductions.com a few years back to offer travelers a way to share information about themselves and their flight itineraries before getting to the airport.

Shankman’s original goal was to connect like-minded business people who wanted to use their flight time for productive networking. But to no one’s surprise, the site became popular with folks seeking personal connections.

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AirTroductions is relaunching in December as Triplife.com, but Shankman says his advice to travelers who want to make the most of personal or business connections at the airport or on a flight remains the same: Don’t be afraid to give it a try. “Anything that passes the time and prevents you from remembering that you’re hurtling through the air really, really fast in a metal tube can’t be a bad thing,” says Shankman. “Don’t be shy about talking to your seatmate but respect their personal space. Keep in mind how really close the seats are on an airplane. Brush your teeth, comb your hair, put on a clean, nice pair of jeans and leave the sweatpants at home.” Shankman says it’s also a good idea to tone down the hairspray, cologne, perfume and makeup a notch or two. “Those seats are really close.”

The well-mannered traveler should definitely keep all this advice in mind when heading to the airport this holiday season. But here’s one more approach, offered up not by an “expert” in the field but by a friend who only agreed to divulge her surefire tip if I promised to protect her identity.

Done, “Sally.”  Now what’s the tip?

“OK. If you’re single and looking and really in the mood, there’s one great way to meet people on a plane. You fly Southwest. Make sure to board with the last group, which means you’ll probably be stuck in a middle seat. Then you walk down the aisle looking for a middle seat next to a really hot guy. Done.”

Harriet Baskas, The Well-Mannered Traveler, also writes about airports and air travel for USATODAY.com and is the author of “Stuck at the Airport.”

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