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Airline mind games

Troy Mathew | Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Southwest Airlines has some definite pros. It often offers dirt-cheap flights to popular destinations. The colorful planes are fun to look at and sometimes the pilot even cracks jokes over the plane’s address system.

However, Southwest Airlines also presents a rather terrifying prospect — unassigned seating. That is, your seat partner is determined by the whims of the airline gods. The right actions could land you a highly desirable neighbor. Conversely, failure to take action could result in disaster. You could find yourself enduring a perpetually screaming ginger tot (as I did for an eight-hour flight), strange smells or other harrowing possibilities.

Having flown alone several times, I know all too well the fear a completely full flight can inspire. Without the useful buffer of a family member or friend, nothing separates you from whatever random human decides to take the adjacent seat.

Sometimes the neighbor is innocuous and barely noticeable. This is the mark of a desirable neighbor. A desirable candidate for a neighboring seat is defined as follows: someone who appears generally hygienic, can easily fit his or her body within the allotted single plane seat, is not a child, appears to not be deathly ill and is not possessing any type of pungent or ethnic food.

To seduce a desirable person into your adjacent seat, you must typify the desirable characteristics yourself. For example, listen to your iPod or read to show you won’t try to engage in creepy or unwanted conversation with this stranger. Try to maintain a facial expression of alertness and health, to assure the possible seat-occupant you don’t pose a threat of contamination. Stay away from the middle armrest, to show your potential neighbor you won’t impede on their personal space.

However, use these tactics with caution, as this strategy will attract both desirable and undesirable potential neighbors. This is where the practice becomes nuanced and complicated. You must be constantly evaluating boarding passengers, using a skilled eye to instantaneously determine which people you could tolerate having in your personal- space bubble for the next several hours.

Thus, attracting desirable guests is only effective if you also discourage the undesirables. To do this, simply break all of the above tips. Grab a nearby barf-bag, and lean precariously close to it. Dig out a bag of sour cream and onion chips, and eat them with your mouth open. Perhaps you can even arrange your coat to make it appear as though you have body fat that poses a threat of spilling into the neighboring seat.

Play this game with skill and careful attention, and you’re well on your way to a relatively enjoyable flight. Now if you can just nab an extra bag of peanuts from the flight attendant — forget Southwest, you’re practically first class!