Shhh! How to deal with annoying seatmates

Airline Passengers
You've checked your bags, stood through security lines, stowed your carry-on, found your seat and now you just want to relax and enjoy your flight. But what is that odor, and who is yapping into your ear? The Well-Mannered Traveler offers tips to politely and effectively handle irritating seatmates.Walter Hodges / PictureArts

Need a strategy for silencing a too-talkative seatmate?  Wondering what you can do if your seat mate is smelly?  The Well-Mannered Traveler answers your questions.

Q: By the time I get to the airport, through security and onto the airplane, all I want to do is sit back, close my eyes and relax. But I always seem to get a yakker for a seat mate.  What can I do to make it clear that I want to be left alone?

A: There are some wonderful stories of couples whose romances began with a bit of seatmate small talk. And it’s a treat when a long flight seems to fly by while you’ve been having a pleasant conservation with an intriguing seatmate. But it can be excruciating when you want peace and quiet and your seatmate is intent on telling you his or her life story.

Like Cheryl H. of Aspen, Colo., many of us have discovered that it’s both well-mannered and useful to make some contact with your seatmates at the beginning of a flight: “... I’ve learned to initiate some conversation ... introducing myself, asking where they’re from, etc.:” That way, “I feel more comfortable asking them to get out of their seat so I can go to the restroom, ask for help if I drop something under their feet, etc.”

But if your seatmate takes the pre-flight chit-chat as a sign to keep on talking while you’d rather sleep, dream, work or read a book, you’ll need to take action. Closing your eyes, donning your headphones (whether they’re tuned into anything or not) or turning your attention to a book or magazine ought to do it. But sometimes you’ll need to be more direct with comments such as, “Wow, it’s been a long day. I’m going to try to get and some sleep. Wake me if I snore.” Or “Please excuse me if I don’t chat, the only time I get to read these days is on an airplane.”

If a yakker just keeps yakking, you might need to look around for another seat, be even more direct (“It looks like you finished your magazine; would you like to read this?”) or try one of the strategies offered by other readers:

Frederick from Mexico says when “an overly talkative seatmate ... invariably asks, ‘What do you do?’ I simply say I’m a proctologist. It almost always ends the conversation.” Bill from Minneapolis tells seatmates he’s a mortician. But imagine trying to chat up J.T. from Little Rock, Ark. when he’d rather be left alone: “... [A]ll you need to do is retrieve a small plastic figure from your pocket and talk to it as though it were alive. Ask it questions such as: ‘Are you still about to throw up?’ and ‘What did the devil tell you to do?’ After a bit you will not be bothered. Lonely perhaps, but not bothered.”

Q:  How do you handle a stinky seatmate?

A: While a lovely aroma can transport you to another place and time, in the close quarters of an airplane even the nicest perfume can be overwhelming. And while everyone reacts differently to different smells, we can all pretty much agree that it’s no fun sitting next to someone with super stinky feet, bad body odor or a serious case of flatulence.

Most airlines actually have a clause in their “Conditions of Carriage” policies that gives them the right to deny boarding to someone who is super-stinky. On American Airlines, for example, you can be refused transport if you “have an offensive odor not caused by a disability or illness.” In an e-mail, spokesman Tim Wagner says, “ ... I know of specific incidents in the past where we did ask a passenger to disembark because other passengers were complaining of the person’s body odor. In one particular incident, I know we gave the person a hotel voucher so that he could go and shower. We then put him on a later flight to his destination.”

Alaska Airlines has a similar clause in their Contract of Carriage, reserving the right to deny boarding to “Persons who have an offensive odor (such as from a draining wound or
improper hygiene) or have a contagious disease provided it is not the result of
a handicap.” Via e-mail, Alaska Airline representative Caroline Boren says, “Our customer service agents are trained to identify and address any such issues that arise before a passenger boards the aircraft by compassionately and discreetly suggesting a nearby, private location for the passenger to cleanse themselves and/or change clothes.”

But sometimes a serious odor problem isn’t obvious until a passenger has boarded. Then, says Alaska Airline’s Boren, it’s up to the flight attendants, who are “ ... trained to compassionately and discreetly mitigate any issues that might arise after boarding by, among other options: seeking to relocate nearby passengers or the person perceived to have an odor issue (if passenger loads allow), opening air vents, providing air deodorizer, opening coffee packets and placing them in nearby seat-back pockets to help with odor absorption, etc.”

So, when seated next to someone who smells strongly, don’t be too shy to excuse yourself from your seat and alert a flight attendant to a problem. The sooner the better.

And here a few other ideas:

Tear out magazine pages with perfume samples and tuck a few in your carry-on.  If your seatmate has a stale odor, you can open up a few strips and test new fragrances.

Victorian ladies kept scent-infused handkerchiefs tucked into their sleeves so they could take a whiff of something lovely when encountering an “off” aroma. You can try that as well, or perhaps carry a tiny bottle of lavender or peppermint oil with you for just such occasions.

Or stock up on personal-sized containers of nicely-scented hand creams and other products. For example, at you’ll find 2 oz. bottles and individual “pillow” packs of Pharmacopia’s lavender and citrus scented body lotions.  The Web site, which specializes in travel-sized products, also carries lavender, lemon and peppermint-scented towelettes from Herban Essentials and a variety of “scent inhalers” from Earth Solutions. The “World Peace” inhaler with a blend of scents that includes clove for “courage and strength” and geranium which “brings peace and acceptance” might be especially useful.

Whatever you do, please don’t do what a lady aboard an American Airlines flight did back in December. By lighting matches in an attempt to cover the smell from her flatulence, she caused an entire airplane bound for to Dallas/Fort Worth from Washington Reagan National Airport to make an unscheduled stopover in Nashville.