On a flight with a seatmate from hell | Lifestyle.INQ

OCTOBER 27, 2022

Dumaguete City—I thought it was going to be just another flight. I was eager to spend some quiet time in my happy place. I had taken this flight countless times over the last year. I had no idea that the next hour on the flight would be a hard lesson in airline etiquette and a test of patience.

We were slightly delayed, and it was a very full flight. As I was nearing my seat, I noticed that there was a senior lady seated in my assigned aisle seat. I politely requested the flight attendant to fix things, and the FA asked if I could please take the lady’s original seat, which was the aisle seat across from mine, because the senior lady wanted to sit beside her sister. I agreed with no fuss, since it was another aisle seat anyway.

While fastening my seatbelt, another senior lady in the row ahead of me suddenly stood up, and in a loud voice said: “I don’t know why some people can be so picky about their seats. We better all stay in our proper seats lest we be insulted.” She then moved to take the seat beside me, and was frowning and fuming the entire time.

I thought to myself, this is not an airline where the seats are first-come, first-served. That’s why we check in early online, to get our preferred seats.

A little while later, just as the plane was about to take off, after seeing me struggle to put my bag under the seat in front of me, she made another nasty comment pertaining to me. In my head, I thought: “Strike two. Someone must be so unhappy.” Still, I said nothing.


After that, she inquired from her travel mates about how much a premium economy seat would cost, because she wanted to move. When told, she said: “Never mind, I’ll stay put, it’s just an hour anyway.”

Fifteen minutes in the air, just as I was about to recline my seat, I felt senior lady nudging my right arm, as if pushing it off the armrest.

I had never, in all my years of flying, encountered such behavior. I decided not to move my arm, and my elbow took up the teeny weeny bit of space that was left. And then, without looking at me, she said in a haughty tone: “Miss, can you take your arm off? The armrest belongs to the middle seat.”

I was too shocked to react. This was a first. I had never heard of that rule. I didn’t look at her, and I didn’t budge for the remainder of the trip.

Part of me wanted to ask the flight attendant if there was indeed such a rule, but I thought to myself, why make a big issue out of it? At this point, senior lady was hogging both armrests like a queen on her throne. My elbow stayed put. We stayed that way until we landed in Dumaguete, 45 minutes later.

Once on the ground, I did my research and asked two FA friends. One of them, a flight purser for Cathay Pacific’s first class, said: “Everything is shared on a plane. The arm rest, the overhead bins, the storage beneath the seats. There are no hard and fast rules cast in stone. If she wanted the armrest for herself, she could have asked you nicely.”

My other friend, who flies for Alaska Air, says that it happens a lot on US carriers where the seats are on a first-come, first-served basis. She says that there have been articles written about this, even videos produced for airline etiquette, but it continues to be a gray area.

When I wrote on Facebook about the experience, many comments were focused on how I managed to keep my cool, considering that the lady beside me seemed to want to just rile me from the moment I boarded. Perhaps I was a trigger, and reminded her of someone who had treated her unjustly in her past.

As much as I can, now that I am older, I try to coexist peacefully with everyone. But I will not stand for bullying, either. I call out people kindly as a means to set things right. Sometimes, like in this instance, I keep quiet but stand my ground in other ways.

Three deep breaths

Here’s the three-step process I use for keeping cool under pressure in situations where you cannot leave, like in an airplane:

First, take three deep and slow breaths and sit with your feelings. Most of our challenges are emotional in nature. When you lean into your feelings, it gives you the power to accept them, without letting them get the better of you. What you want to do is respond and not react. You separate the other person’s behavior from how you feel about the said behavior.

In this case, I was thinking about how unhappy this person might be, or how much hurt or unresolved feelings she must be carrying on her person. As they say, “Hurt people, hurt people.” When you think that way, compassion takes over.

Next, write it all down. You don’t need to be a writer to do this. Whip out your phone or a small notebook in your bag. Writing is thinking, and it gives structure to your thoughts and your emotional responses.

Writing calms you down. When I can feel my irritation bubble up to the surface, I take out my phone, open my notes, and scribble all the negativity away. After a few minutes, I can feel peace wash over me.

Third, and you can do this simultaneously with step two, pray or meditate.

Victor Frankl, who survived the Holocaust, said: “Between the stimulus and the response is a space.” Or an armrest. Seriously, whatever space that is, therein lies your freedom.

We have so many problems to deal with nowadays, and this adds to the stress people have. On the same flight, because of the delay, people were made to enter through two doors, creating a commotion. Two men in front of me almost got into a fist fight because one did not want to make way for the other.

Nowadays, our pain seems to always get the better of us. We have forgotten the basic rule that “sharing is caring.” We need to pause more, collect our thoughts and pray more. No one ever wins in a war. Kindness must always be our weapon of choice in a world that is so desperately in need of it.

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