Dear Terrible Advice,

I fly a lot and because my company does not want to pay for anything but the cheapest seats, I am usually forced to sit in coach. Flying is bad enough, but nothing is worse than sitting 3 across in a fully occupied row right next to some obnoxious total strange. Do you know of any foolproof ways to keep the middle set vacant?


A Very Cross, Cross-Country Traveler
Pittsburgh, PA

Dear Very Cross, Cross-Country Traveler,

You can be picky about your friends, your jobs, the kind of car you drive, where you live, whom you marry, and shoe styles, but you have no control over the person the airline decides will be your travel mate for thousands of miles. Like an arranged marriage, this pairing is predestined and you have very little say in the matter. Once you are on the plane, it is very difficult to get the seat assignment annulled.

Here you are, sealed in a hollow metal tube, unable to move about freely, often confined for hours until the seatbelt light is extinguished, and forced to sit shoulder-to-shoulder in this clautrophobic Hell, next to the kind of person you would cross the street to avoid on the ground.

While you may think that, in the worst of cases, you may only have to endure this person for a few hours, keep in mind that if the plane goes down and you die, your remains will be commingled with this odious stranger throughout eternity.

I do not have to tell you that airline seats are tiny, and to be honest, if aircraft were only used to shuttle about toddlers, there would be fewer reasons to complain about their design. But to increase revenue, airlines have been quietly shrinking the seats and moving them closer together, ignoring laws governing personal space, creating an environment where people are literally, not just figuratively, way too close for comfort.

Pitch, the amount space for both you and your seat is as little as 28 inches front to back, and even for someone like me who is a mere 5’7” with correspondingly proportional and not-too-long legs, my knees are usually scrunched up against the seat in front of me, and I feel, for the only time in my life, very very tall. I can barely image a 6’2” plus man trying to fold his legs in some origami shape in order to keep his lower extremities from smashing up against the magazine pouch, while at the same time, constantly readjusting his legs off to one side or the other just to keep blood flowing from his pelvis down.

Some airline seats measure a measly 17 inches side to side, about two inches narrower than the typical American ass.  Fortunately for airlines, asses are one of the more amorphous and resilient of all major anatomical parts, and they can often be funneled into a smaller space. But following the laws of physics, which apply on airplanes just as they do everywhere else, the extra mass has to go somewhere, and it is usually up and over the armrest, flowing like molten lava into your adjacent seat.

Airlines continue to look for ways to squeeze more people onto their planes. I am convinced that they would us lying on our sides spooning from the bulkhead to the rear galley if they could the FAA to approve it.

It is only the meager armrest that separates you from the interloper next to you. To make matters worse, there are only four of them to be divided equally among three people. The math does not work. One person, usually the most assertive will get two. The others will lean uncomfortably to one side. In some cases, a mousy passenger in middle seat will get none, and will be forced to spend the entire flight with his arms tightly folded up in front of his body like little chicken wings.

Surveys that I have personally created indicate the worst neighbor-passengers:

  • Non-stop talkers, people who feel that because their legs are rubbing up next to yours, they have a right to ask personal questions and share details of their own none-too-interesting lives.
  • Those who have nothing to do, so they entertain themselves by reading what you have displayed on your laptop.
  • iPod users, who enter a musical trance, their headphones turned up too high, bobbing their heads to the melody, and often whisper-singing along just loud enough for only you to hear.
  • People who fall asleep and drool.
  • Women wearing perfume so pungent that its aura can be seen by the naked eye, yet not quite strong enough to release the overhead oxygen masks.
  • Tall, young male travelers in sandals, who sit with legs crossed and their unwashed feet just inches from your snack table.
  • Anyone who appears to be a member of a street gang, who may be traveling to another inner city on a business in order to put a cap in someone’s ass. By the way, there should, be no argument if this person wants 2, 3, or in fact all of the armrests. To show you are not dissing him, you might want to make friendly chichat by sharing your peripheral knowledge of hip banger parlance, for instance complimenting your row mate on how bling he is looking today.
  • An extremely unattractive member of the opposite sex, who you hope the rest of the plane will not believe to be your spouse or love interest.
  • Anyone larger than you, and by this we mean side-to-side.
  • Babies and small children.

Of all noxious travel experiences, sitting next to a child is perhaps the worst. I personally love children, so long as that remain at ground level. There is something evil triggered in a child above, say, 5000 feet.

I have long suggested to airlines that they have a special section of the plane for parents and children, or they transport all passengers under 12 together on their own special flights. Perhaps Boeing or Airbus will consider designing very comfy child seats, just like regular adult seats but much smaller, but locate them inside the overhead compartments. The Kiddee Class would provide a little TV, maybe some games, and candy service. The overhead door would be sound insulated, so a child could kick and scream from Chicago to LA to their little heart’s content.

I would gladly hold my luggage on my lap for 2800 miles in exchange for this convenience.

No amount of Frequent Miles the airline awards can make up for a bad travel-mate experience.  Ironically, if you suffer through trip after trip, the airline shows its appreciation for your loyalty and perseverance, by letting you fly some more for free next to a person, who it will turn, is more odious than any you have heretofore experienced. If you think your seats were bad when you paid for them, just wait until you are assigned to non-revenue producing ones.

And don’t bother complaining. The moment you do, you will be labeled an unruly passenger and a security risk and will be greeted by air marshals upon arrival. From that point on, you will be strip searched prior to every flight and the contents of your luggage will be emptied on the table for other travelers to see the style of underpants you fancy.

You will usually not know who will be assigned the adjacent seat until it is way too late and you are already on the plane. Your fate is in the hands of the agent at check in. That is why you should treat them with respect and courtesy no matter how badly they treat you, for much the same reason you should be nice to even the most incompetent or surly waiter or waitress, knowing they can orchestrate any manner of humiliation to your food between the kitchen and your table. Be rude to an agent and just wait until the next person suffering with the flu comes to the counter looking for a seat assignment.

Generally nothing you say will influence the ticket agent to keep the seat next to you open, though you might try one the following:

“Please hold the seat next to me for my friend.”

 “I just had surgery and am afraid if someone bumps my ribs, my sutures will rupture.”

“If you don’t put anyone in the middle seat, I will give you ten thousand dollars.”

On flights where there is open seating, however, it is in your power to keep the seat next to you free, so consider any chicanery fair game. Believe me, when you see the bulkhead door close and the aisles are clear of people, you will smile and feel no guilt, and the only thing that could possibly ruin the peace of your flight would be some kind of mid-air mishap.

So here are some tips to keep the middle seat free:

  • Be proactive and if you see an empty row, take the middle seat yourself. Since most people also hate sitting right next to someone, passengers will walk all the way to the back of the plane to find less crowded accommodations. There is, however, a danger should you find a couple who want the aisle and window seat, and are not put off by carrying on their personal conversations for 3 hours directly through you.
  • Spread out your work out on the middle seat and make no eye contact with anyone coming down the aisle.

  • Pretend to be asleep and sprawl out as wide as you can, with your arms dangling in the aisle and your feet hanging over the middle armrest.

  • Spill a 7-Eleven Slurpee on the seat you wish to remain open.

But perhaps the best tip is one I learned from a friendly business traveler a few years ago, a sage flyer who generally sat comfortably and during alone on his flights, enjoying 2 empty seats no matter how crowded the rest of the plane was. As soon as he sat down, he placed an open air sickness on his lap, faking wooziness and bowing his head toward the opening in anticipation of a gastro-intestinal event that was sure to be unpleasant. To make the effect even more dramatic, he draped his necktie inside the bag. No one, he claimed, wanted to sit next to someone about to throw up, and especially not next to someone who was about to throw up on his own tie.

I hope this helps.