Having to share personal space with a stranger in a tight location isn’t at the top of anyone’s to do list. However, this is one of the things you can’t avoid when flying on a commercial plane!
Airline seat mates are not always particularly memorable. Most of them mind their own business or take a nap. But every once in a while, you plop down next to someone who is impossible to forget. Whether they stick in your memory for positive or negative reasons, friendships or grudges formed from short conversations with individuals on long plane rides can leave a lasting impression.
Getting to know the person next to you might be a great idea: they may be an actress, a Holocaust survivor, a sports star, a billionaire CEO, or maybe they just have a really interesting job or quirky life story!
Here are some jaw-dropping stories from Quora and Reddit users who discovered the power of paying attention and striking up a conversation on otherwise monotonous flights!
35. Make It Funky
I met James Brown on a little plane to Augusta, Georgia.
He was really friendly. As we were talking, I mentioned that I was in a band. He spent the next hour talking about watching my money and being careful about who I do business with. None of which was pertinent to my garage band that played in a restaurant a couple times a year, but it was nice that he took the time. The dude had some great stories.
34. An Insanely Compassionate Doctor
I feel kind of ashamed at the assumptions I made on this occasion.
I had been traveling a lot with work so generally got bumped up to business class.
One time I was put in economy, next to a woman who gave a pleasant housewife vibe, and was being very friendly. I thought she would be nice, but not hugely entertaining.
After a while it turned out she was a doctor.
Not only was she a doctor, she was a professor at Harvard Medical School.
She specialized in brain cancer surgery.
She had recently volunteered and organized the funding for surgery for a young girl in an orphanage in mainland China who had lost her sight in one eye and was about to lose it in the other.
After the surgery was successful, the doctor asked what would be next for the girl.
She was told she would be going back to the orphanage where she would have to endure fairly unpleasant conditions.
The doctor adopted her.
33. Hang The DJ
I actually recognized this famous DJ at the Toronto Pearson airport’s VIP lounge. I was relaxing after a tiring flight from New York City and had an hour to kill. The funny thing is, I snuck into that lounge (it was for VIP card members only, or whatever).
I walked up to him and asked (I didn’t want to seem rude), “Are you Steve Aoki?”
He looked up from his seat and smiled, “Yeah, you got that right, buddy.”
I didn’t like his music, but it was amazing to see someone of Asian heritage being so successful in the music industry (he’s Japanese).
I also ended up sitting beside him on the airplane (he recognized me), which made me feel special. We spent the entire four-hour-long flight to Vancouver talking about digital audio stations, performing, and what living in Los Angeles was like.
After the flight, he gave me a shirt and told me to keep representing Asians.
32.Unbelievable Serenade By Lynyrd Skynyrd
Flying from London to Atlanta for the Olympics in 1996 (just to watch) as a none-too-smart student on KLM. Somehow, even with a rucksack and wearing jeans and a t-shirt, I was upgraded to business class, obviously a great start to my trip.
We took off and I settled in with some snacks and a glass of champagne and I noticed that 3 or 4 passengers around me were, if it were at all possible, even scruffier than I was. I started to chat with my neighbor about our respective trips and found out that they were a band who had just finished a tour and were on the trip back home. Eventually, it got to the obvious question: what was the band called and would I know them.
What followed made this flight such a great memory for me. When he told me their band name, I said I was sorry I didn’t know them. This had quite an effect! First of all, the entire band got involved throwing song titles at me and were almost stunned I didn’t know them (I should mention that music, and their particular genre, wasn’t really my thing; had it been an author, a scientist, an actor, I’d like to think I’d have been a bit better!). What happened next was my own private concert. A guitar was retrieved from the overhead bins, drumsticks (or similar, time has made my memory hazy!) were found and the back of my seat became an impromptu drum kit. I proceeded to get the greatest hits, including “Freebird” and “Sweet Home Alabama” and a lot of “you must know this one.” So I got my own dedicated concert by Lynyrd Skynyrd at 40,000 feet.
Afterward, when instruments had been put away, I found out about the band’s history, the plane crash bit going down as well as could be expected halfway over the Atlantic. I heard about how they reformed, about Forrest Gump and a little about American politics. Jonny explained how he was looking forward to running around without clothing in his fields on his return!
The rest of the flight was pretty uneventful except for a few businessmen stopping me on the way out and thanking me for the most entertaining flight they’d ever had.
31. My Hockey Heroes
I was running late for my flight and got there just in time before they closed the gate. I walked down the tunnel, turned the corner and was greeted be the flight crew. As I walked down the aisle I couldn’t help but notice a large group of large (tall and well built) young men. I immediately thought hockey players, but there are thousands of players in the Toronto area. As I looked closer I started to recognize faces. I was like, oh my gosh, this is the Toronto Maple Leafs hockey club. I changed from a 30 year old banker to a young child all excited about my good fortune. I was trying to figure out how I could approach someone on the team, or who I could approach. While we were in the air, I asked the Flight Attendant for her opinion. She said she would see what she could do. I would say from the picture below she did an awesome job helping me.
30. The Exquisite Mia Farrow
One of my more interesting travel companions was an older lady that appeared to be in her mid- to late-60’s. At the time, I was around early 40’s. She appeared frail and very needy, and the kind of person I would want to give assistance to if needed. I struck up a conversation with her and she was very friendly.
She was obviously from a different background than I (I am a southerner from the deep south, USA), and I assumed from she was from the northeast and fairly well off. We talked the entire flight about her interesting family and how she had adopted several foreign children. She mentioned she had a speaking engagement in Tulsa, Oklahoma, she was on her way to, and was concerned about the history of racial violence in that town. She made sure I knew her kids were racially diverse and that she considered not coming after reading all about the town. I assured her I knew people from there and that modern day Tulsa is probably better than those days back in the early 1900’s.
She expressed concern that her “handlers” did not accompany her on this trip, and that she was worried she couldn’t find her next flight by herself. My flight times were pretty tight for my next connection in Atlanta, but I offered to help her find her terminal. A stewardess came by and offered to help her find it shortly thereafter so I didn’t need to help her in the end.
It was a rare flight for me that I had good company the entire way, and visited most of the trip. Although she was quite a unique person, and very different views politically, we managed to have quite a good time visiting.
Upon exiting the plane I was approached by several other passengers. We stood in line waiting for carry-ons to be brought down and they asked me if I knew who I just spent the last hour or two visiting with. I stated that honestly, I didn’t. I never asked her her name assuming she would have told me had she wanted me to know. They informed me that she was Mia Farrow and that she was the famous actress and celebrity personality previously involved with Woody Allen (and I later discovered married to Frank Sinatra briefly).
That was one of my more interesting flights.
29. A World-Record Holding Philanthropist
In 2010, I was on a flight heading home to Pakistan from New York, sitting by the emergency exit door of a Boeing 777; a seat given to me as a birthday present by the nice boarding attendant, for it came with the extra leg room needed for my 13-hour connecting flight to Dubai. I decided to enjoy my intercontinental birthday over the Atlantic binge-watching documentaries with legs stretched out to the emergency exit door. Lazying in the air like I just don’t care, I slouched into a comfy lounge-esque position.
As Carl Sagan explained how light bends around a black hole, I felt my divine privacy bubble disrupted by a couple of rubber slippers chirping up to me. My peripheral vision sensed a man wearing ankle-length grayish blue shalwar kurta (a Pakistani traditional dress) with a long white beard, walking up to me and standing right by my unapologetic feet. I looked up wondering, “who dares disturb my… wait… how do I know this man?”
As millions of lightbulbs illuminated my couch potato-esque state of mind, I immediately stood up straight like a soldier, gave my salam (respectful “hi”) and offered this man my seat.
It was Abdul Sattar Edhi. Pakistani philanthropist, ascetic, and humanitarian who founded the Edhi Foundation, which runs hospitals, homeless shelters, rehab centers, and orphanages across Pakistan. The organization has held the Guinness record for world’s “largest volunteer ambulance organization” since 1997.
In his lifetime, his foundation expanded backed entirely with private donations, including establishing a network of 1,800 minivan ambulances. By the time of his death in 2016, Edhi was registered as a parent or guardian of nearly 20,000 children. He is known as Angel of Mercy and is considered to be Pakistan’s most respected and legendary figure. In 2013, The Huffington Post claimed that he might be “the world’s greatest living humanitarian.”
For perspective, he was so trusted and respected in Pakistan, he could go sit by any footpath for a few minutes and collect thousands of dollars worth of donations without even uttering a word.
It was no surprise that he was traveling in the economy class. Abdul Sattar Edhi maintained a famously monkish lifestyle, never taking a salary, never owning more than two suits of clothes and living quietly in an apartment room within the foundation’s original headquarters.
Edhi sahib (“sir”) responded with a pronounced “walaikum” (“hi back”), smiled, and politely declined the offer to take my seat explaining that he was tired of sitting in his seat and needed to stand. He then looked away, facing the emergency exit on the other side. I pondered whether I should switch to my Pakistani manners: “nahi nahi aap please baithain” (“no, no, please you must sit good sir”), or my American “alrighty then sir, I’ll sit right back.” I opted for neither. I just stood there. Awkwardly. Hands in my pockets, staring deeply into that bland emergency exit, right next to the most respected living figure I or almost anyone I knew could think of. Frankly, just felt wrong sitting while he stood.
The awkwardness was short lived. As if he knew me, Edhi sahib simply turned to me and started telling me about what he had been up to. I guess since everyone talked to him like they knew him, he felt comfortable talking to strangers like he already knew them too.
There had been a terrible earthquake in Haiti that year. In Urdu, he spoke about how things there are bad, and that he was just there supplying ambulances. He talked about what he needed to do when he got to Karachi. I kept nodding and indulged him with a few questions. He was surprisingly frank. He didn’t hold back his feelings on matters, most of which pertained to the bad state of things in Haiti and Pakistan.
We chatted for a good 15 minutes. Afterward, Edhi sahib said, “chalain, Allah hafiz” (“alright, goodbye”) and walked back to his seat. It was a nice little birthday present from the celestial gods of in-flight entertainment.
28. Side-By-Side With Smokin’ Joe Frazier
When I was 6 or 7, I was traveling as an unaccompanied minor and was asked by the attendant if I wanted to “meet a celebrity.”
I was taken to first class and introduced to Smokin’ Joe Frazier. He had two seats, one for him and one for his boom-box. They took his boom-box and I sat with him the entire flight. While I can’t recall any of the conversation, I do recall the panic that set in after we landed.
As an unaccompanied minor, you’re supposed to wait for the flight to completely disembark and get taken off to meet your parents. I apparently ended up walking out hand-in-hand with Joe Frazier, which set the airline into a panic once they realized I wasn’t there.
As we walked off, I remember seeing my father who looked at Joe and said, “Well hello, champ. I think that’s mine.”
Flew into Savannah, and Joe’s ride didn’t show up so my father and I ended up driving him home while my father tried to sell him real estate.
My father passed away a couple years before Joe, but when I was going through his things I found out that they had been in pretty constant contact about life in general.
27. The Benefits Of Good Looks
I was 16 and going across the country for the first time. I hadn’t flown since I was a little kid so I didn’t know the half of what to do while flying. I came with 2 carry-ons, wore my favorite dress and high heels, and i had no idea that i would not be sitting next to my friend.
My friend and I both had the middle seats in the same aisle. We both wound up sitting between 2 men. The guy who took the window seat next to me was a gorgeous, middle-aged man with an Australian accent. Okay… cool…
He reassured me about flying (I was pretty nervous to fly that day), and to me, he was like any other decent guy. Aside from that bit of small talk I stayed pretty quiet.
All the flight attendants (female), however, were ridiculously infatuated with this guy. They doted on him like crazy and constantly talked over me (literally) to try to flirt with him. Each time they came to offer beverages or food, they’d be sweet and charming to him… then they’d ask me what I wanted and their demeanor would change remarkably. I knew what was up.
At one point I remember looking at the guy and jokingly telling him, “I think they like you.” He shakes it off (figured he gets this a lot) and we talk a little about where we’re going and why.
Shortly thereafter, the stewardesses come by selling headsets for the movie. The guy purchases a headset. Then the flight attendants ask me and I decline. The guy steps in and buys one for me… much to the demise of the flight attendants of whom I’ve inadvertently become enemy #1 to. Now they’re literally sniveling at me when they come by.
A couple hours go by and one of the more annoying of the two flight attendants come by, hand back all his money and tells him, “these are on us today.” He looks down, counts the money before putting it in his wallet, puts the paper with the phone number (one of the flight attendants had carefully planted in the bundle… uhg) in the seat back pocket, and gets on with life.
It… was definitely an entertaining flight watching this guy get hounded when all he wanted to do was enjoy his time flying. He was cool though.
26. Going Where I Had Never Gone Before
Flying from Los Angeles to Washington DC, in the 1980’s, for the very first “Women’s March on Washington” I had the opportunity to spend some time sitting next to Leonard Nimoy. I was a sophomore in college.
My ticket did not put me next to him, it put his wife next to him. But I had happened to be chatting with his wife and some other actors (long story, but I was flying with the Hollywood Women’s Committee to DC, and there were many interesting people on that flight). I mentioned to his wife, who was sitting up front with her friends, that I would love to talk with her husband.
To my joy and amazement, she wrote a little note, and said, “Here, you go bring a note to him, for me.”
I suspect that she wrote something in her note, about me, but I’ll never know. He took the note, and invited me to sit in the empty seat next to him. He asked me who I was. I told him my name, and that I was a student at the University of Judaism, which he had donated to (his name was on a plaque on the donor’s board, and I had seen it there).
We chatted and I said, “I’ve watched Star Trek since it began. I feel like I’ve grown up with you.”
To which he responded, “Just call me Dad!”
25. A Tragic Victim
It was a lady that spoke not a word. It certainly changed me as a person. In 2014, I was wheelchair-bound from a spinal injury, but was still jetting around for work, dependent on an airline’s wheelchair assistance to move around in airports. One beautiful fall day waiting at a departure terminal in LaGuardia Airport, New York, on my way to Greensboro, North Carolina, I found myself sitting in a wheelchair next to a Muslim lady in Hijab. Usually the airlines roll all wheelchair-bound passengers together next to the departure gate so that they can be boarded together before the main cabin boards. She seemed to be my age. It looked to me that she needed something by the way she was looking around.
“Aapko koi madad chahiye (May I help you)?,” I offered to help in my broken Urdu, in the mistaken assumption that a dark-skinned Muslim woman must be from the Indian sub-continent.
She looked at me blankly, and I repeated my offer louder. Hearing my voice, a teenage girl (also in Hijab) rushed in to help her. No words were exchanged, but the teenager figured out she wanted a sip of water. “Thanks for alerting us, sir,” said the girl in fluent English. “My mother understands English, but she can’t speak anymore.” The girl’s features were Middle Eastern and her skin was several shades lighter than her mother’s. I also noticed her father and two (much) younger brothers sitting behind us. They also looked Middle Eastern, and had lighter skin tones than the mother. I also noticed UNHCR tags hanging around the necks of the family (except the mother).
As the older woman tilted her head to drink water, my heart stopped beating for a few seconds. The half of her face away from me was just a gray patch of skin.
Prior to that moment, I had only seen such ghastly sights in pictures of acid attack victims. For the next 30 minutes, as we were boarded into the Canadair Regional Jet and the little plane took off, I couldn’t speak. Usually I text my wife just before we are asked to switch off phones, but I forgot.
The family was seated close to me with the boisterous boys right behind me. The mother wanted water again, and the girl was out of water. I showed her how to press the call button for the stewardess. She thanked me again and this time I had to ask her, “Are you from… “
“Aleppo, Syria,” she finished my sentence. I explained that I was from India and had thought her mother was from the Indian sub-continent, so I had tried to help in Urdu. I also explained how I came to be in a wheelchair. “If you don’t mind, may I ask what happened to your mother?”
She looked at her father for permission and then both started talking, often over each other. It felt like they hadn’t talked in months. The father’s English was a little rusty, as he explained that he was Superintendent Engineer at Aleppo Public Works Department while his wife was a writer and journalist. She also came from one of the prominent families of that area and his mother-in-law had been one of the first female professors in Aleppo. For both these reasons, she had been targeted by Islamic occupying forces. The entire family had been abducted and the mother herself subjected to unspeakable torture. She was now a quadriplegic and so traumatized that she no longer spoke. It’s possible that the burns she had suffered had also affected her speech, but there was no way of knowing since she refused to speak.
They had registered with UNHCR, then spent over 8 months in 2 cities in Europe (Munich was one, I didn’t catch the other one), then 70 days in New York (the girl interjected here to say that she and her brothers had been given the chance to attend school and that’s where she had picked up English. The wonders of a young mind! She had a more Americanized twang in 70 days than I had in 15+ years!). UNHCR had worked to find them a semi-permanent home in North Carolina, but only after grueling interviews of the father and daughter that went on for 3 weeks or more.
Thankfully the mother had been spared once the authorities figured out that she was too traumatized to speak. Their resettlement expenses were being sponsored by a church. The mother had also undergone 2 facial reconstruction surgeries (UNHCR had provided medical aid), but would require half a dozen more (the father was worried how they would pay).
The father hoped to find a job in the construction business in the town where they were going to be settled by the church. The boys both said they wanted to be basketball players and the girl wanted to be a doctor, or work at Facebook. I felt my throat catch and words were hard to get out, but I think I was able to bless the children that they would have a better (at least less violent) life than they had so far.
This encounter has changed me. I used to be pretty hawkish on the subject of Syrian refugees. It still upsets me that the well-to-do Islamic countries like Saudi Arabia, UAE, even Iran, won’t accept even a hundred of these unfortunate people.
I don’t have all the answers. This I do know — trying to stop terrorism by catching 1 criminal among 12 million helpless Syrians is rather like trying to become a millionaire by cutting coupons one at a time. Chances of success are exceedingly tiny, and it will take an exceedingly large amount of your time and energy. A better way is the American way of making a million — invest money for something there is a demand for and it will be repaid many times over.
24. A Convenient Coincidence
When I checked in for my flight back to the US, the agent made a comment that I would be traveling with very good company, but somehow that didn’t register in my mind.
After going through security and passport control, I arrived at the Admiral’s Club. I noticed the staff was unusually excited, but again, I didn’t think much of it. I sat down on a sofa and about 10 minutes later, it happened.
A big guy comes in, accompanied by a woman from American Airlines, and he has his back to me as I hear her saying, “I will come back when the flight is ready to board.” He puts the suitcase to the side and sits down at about a 45-degree angle from me at another sofa. He was pulling things out of his bulky laptop briefcase when I saw his face. I was dumbfounded, but now the weird behavior from the airline staff made sense. It was not some third-rate celebrity or retired basketball player — it was Al Gore.
I felt excited and wanted to talk to him because a few months prior, I had become a US citizen and had I been able to vote in 2000, I would have voted for him.
On that specific day, our paths crossed and we are a few feet part and boarded the same plane. It was a great honor.
23. The Most Recent Man On The Moon
In a previous life, I was a Royal Air Force pilot, then moved into the business jet world.
Ten years ago, I attended the NBAA Business Jet Convention in Las Vegas.
I was CEO of JetRepublic at the time; we had just placed a $1.5 billion, 110 aircraft order with Bombardier Learjet.
Aircrafts are displayed on the ground, there are always many to see and sit in.
I was sat on the flight deck of one of the static display aircrafts when this gentleman walked forward to see me on the flight deck of the Learjet and introduce himself.
“Hi, I’m Gene Cernan.”
I nearly fainted. I have never been so nervous.
Astronaut, naval aviator, electrical engineer, aeronautical engineer, fighter pilot. Oh, and also the last man on the moon.
A living legend, just casually chatting. He was absolutely charming; asked me about my Royal Air Force career, what I had flown, where I had visited. Rarely have I been tongue-tied, but words nearly failed me.
He made me feel special, that’s the best way to explain it. I watched him later with other people and he did the same with everyone. A charming, warm, funny man.
22. A Controversial Mercenary Group
I sat next to a Croatian guy who had a daughter who worked for Blackwater Security. He had a ton of photos she’d sent him that he totally wasn’t supposed to show me, but did anyway. He was a really nice guy, and the photos were horrifying. I’ll never forget that.
21. Apple’s Uber-Rich Co-Founder
Okay, this technically wasn’t sitting “next” to, but it was very close and I think is a very interesting (and stupid on my part) incident.
I used to travel a lot for my work. In September 2012, on one of those flights from San Francisco to New York, I was seated two rows behind a slightly overweight guy. The entire time I was working on a presentation for a deal, so I paid no attention to people around me. Wheels down, flight lands in New York JFK; I quickly make a dash for the gate and hurry towards the baggage claim so I could collect my bags and get to the front of taxi queue (for people who think I’m crazy, the line for taxi gets crazy at JFK airport during certain hours). I noticed that the same guy and a lady were walking behind me. I beat the couple to the baggage claim, turn around with a sense of accomplishment only to find that guy was none other than Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple.
For a few seconds, I wondered if I could be wrong. How come no one noticed one of the co-founders of Apple on a 5-hour long flight, or at the airport? Why would someone like Steve Wozniak travel in a commercial plane? I didn’t want to approach and ask if he really was The Woz. So I opened my phone and began searching for photos of Steve Wozniak and his wife. By the time I could find a picture with faces that matched that of the couple in front of me, they were gone. It was Steve Wozniak and his wife!
I wish I paid more attention during the flight or at the airport.
20. Before She Was An Icon
In April 1992, I sat across the aisle fromon a tiny charter plane flying from Pittsburgh to a campaign event in Erie, Pennsylvania. It was right before the Clintons received Secret Service protection, so an Arkansas state trooper was on the plane with me, Mrs. Clinton, and two of her regular traveling staff members. What I remember most about the trip was that we flew through a lightning storm and Mrs. Clinton managed to sleep through it.
This is a photo that one of my co-workers took right before we boarded the plane in the background. And we both wore headbands.:
19. A Brave Woman Battling Neurofibromatosis
I was waiting to board a flight from New York to San Francisco when I noticed a woman in the waiting area who looked odd, almost like she was wearing a mask. As she got closer, I saw that nearly every inch of her face and head and arms was covered with tumors. I found it very difficult to look at. It turned out that she had a window seat and I was in the middle seat next to her.
About half an hour into the flight, I asked something about the book she was reading, and she replied thoughtfully, in an extraordinarily sweet voice. We ended up chatting non-stop all the way to San Francisco. She had
She was also a psychologist and professor, specializing in the psychology of stigma and physical difference. She was on her way to present a paper on the subject at some conference.
We spent the flight talking about the issue and getting to know each other. She was warm and thoughtful, and fascinatingly insightful on body image and American culture. Over the course of a few hours, I found my own reactions to how she looked change utterly, from a very intense adverse reaction, to a kind of fascination, to a point where I think my brain basically got bored with paying attention to how she looked, and her physical differences disappeared and I was just talking to a new friend. I think this was a version of the experience of diversity, of the transformation that people often go through when they’re forced into a relationship with someone who looks different, or is different racially, culturally, religiously, or whatever. If it was a bus, I wouldn’t have chosen the seat next to her, but thanks to today’s horrible, squeezed together, crowded airplanes, I got to know a terrific person, and was forced into becoming a little better myself.
18. Powerhouse Al Franken
Not really an airplane, but close. Yesterday, I was travelling back from New York to DC on Amtrak. It was a few days before Thanksgiving, and a lot of people were traveling, so it was packed. A lot of people were boarding the train, and I walked down to one of the last cars because I saw people lining up in the aisle waiting for other people to put their bags in. I got into the car and was looking for good place to sit, but didn’t see anything. So, I sat on the first seat that was open.
Right opposite me was this guy. White hair. Glasses. Maybe in his 60s, working on his computer. I’m thinking he looks a lot like a politician, but I couldn’t recall his name.
He was kind of goofy. He had his bags on the seat. The conductor came around and told him to put his bags up. He apologized, but then he’s like “yes, you are the boss!” I got a bit annoyed at him for giving the conductor some attitude. Then there were sniffing dogs on the train. A cop came around with his dog in front. The guy saw the dog and went “hey buddy!” and started petting the dog. The cop said in a stern voice “please don’t!” The guy realized his mistake and must have apologized to the cop 20 times. The cop came back after his round and said “look! I understand. You are a dog person, right? It’s almost instinctual.” I am thinking that this is a really nice cop.
Two hours into the ride, and a little out of Baltimore. He talks on his phone: “Andy. This is Al.” I’m going “Al, Al, Al…” Holy! I’m sitting right next to Al Franken. I Googled his name and checked his photo. It was the same guy. Next thing I did was update Facebook. I know he’s a big progressive guy and wanted to say something semi-intelligent to him, except that I have no idea what he has been doing. I could have Googled it, but as luck would have it, my phone ran out of battery as soon as I posted on Facebook
So, I sat there silently. The girl sitting next to me was talking to me about not being able to charge her phone too. She had an accent. He asked her, “where are you from?” “Ukraine.” “Sorry about the Russians.” “Yeah!” “Those jerks!” “They are jerks.” She probably didn’t know she was taking to a US Senator. I am thinking, “hey, if I say I’m Indian, he will apologize to me about Pakistan or something,” but I kept quiet. I’m a smart aleck only when I’m behind a keyboard. In front of people, I stay quiet.
Then a guy who recognized him came and sat across the aisle and talked to him about politics. The guy was in school to be a lawyer, and apparently he is in the same school that Al Franken teaches in. I didn’t know Al taught at Georgetown.
Then sometime later, he calls his friend again and starts telling him about this piece he’s writing about Ted Cruz. I’m like, Al Franken is writing something funny about Ted Cruz right now in front of me. How cool is that?
Twenty minutes later, he looks up from his computer at me. I’m scared now. “Did we cross Philadelphia?” “We crossed Philadelphia a while ago.” “Where are we?” “We passed Baltimore.” “Baltimore!” The lawyer student guy said “We are 10 minutes away from D.C.” Al Franken is like “Where does the time go?” I guess making fun of Ted Cruz is really engrossing.
After reaching home, I was thinking about it. And the most surprising thing is how he’s like a regular guy. If you don’t know he’s Al Franken, you wouldn’t know he’s a US Senator. I mean he was in Amtrak like the rest of us. No bodyguard. No entourage. Just working on his Mac and talking on the cellphone like the rest of us. And he’s a nice guy, too. He apologized to the conductor for keeping his bags on the seat. He apologized to the cop for messing with the dog. He apologized to the woman next to me for Russia. He played stranger footsie with me. He could have asked me to move, but he didn’t.
17. An Incredible 9/11 Close-Call Survivor
On a flight from London to New York in late 2008, I was sat next to a guy who had an incredible story. Seven years earlier, he was taking the same flight from London to New York. Just as the plane began its descent into JFK, he looked out the window and could see smoke rising high into the atmosphere from Manhattan.
It was the morning of September 11th, 2001, and the first plane had just struck the first tower. As his plane made its final approach, passengers had a perfect view out of the window toward the city and the burning tower. Unsure of what happened, it was only after passing immigration they found out that a second plane had hit and that it wasn’t an accident.
His flight was one of the last flights to land in NYC before the diversions and airspace shutdown came into effect. He showed me the stamp in his passport with point of entry “JFK – 9/11/01.” He even had a reservation for a hotel in downtown Manhattan, close to the World Trade Centers, which were completely inaccessible. Before he could get into the city, the tunnels and ports closed, and he relied on the kindness of others to get him to a motel somewhere out of the city. He was planning to meet someone at the World Trade Center only days later. A completely unforgettable experience for this man, and a story I often think about when landing at JFK.
16. A Brilliant, Efficient Crusader
I sat “next to” Ralph Nader on a red eye from LAX to Houston, which was actually a longer flight than you might think back when prop planes still flew on some routes. I put “next to” in quotes because I was sitting in the far-right seat and he was in the same row, in the far-left. The row was empty and I doubt if there were 5 people on the entire plane. So I could see clearly what he was doing.
I learned something from him that preceded Google News, that website where links to all the online articles about a specific topic are gathered in one place so you can see how each publication reports that topic.
His method was analog in the extreme, but highly effective. I was so impressed that I immediately followed the same method, at least until the Internet came along and made printed newspapers obsolete.
He boarded with a stack of newspapers. Apparently, he had stopped at the newsstand in the concourse and bought one of every newspaper. I estimate he had 10 newspapers.
He placed the pile on the empty seat next to him. But instead of reading each newspaper serially, one by one, the way literal-minded, uncreative me used to, he quickly turned through the pages, scanning the titles and headlines. When he found an article that caught his interest, instead of reading it, he tore out that article and placed it on a growing pile of articles next to the shrinking pile of newspapers.
When he was done, he sorted the article pile so the various versions of similar articles were collated together, and then, finally, he read the articles.
It was a revelation to me on how to quickly research newspaper articles across various publications.
Had he been sitting immediately next to me, and seemed interested in conversation, I would have loved to ask him questions. But I am a New Yorker. We do not approach celebrities. We respect their space and honor their privacy.
By the way, I suspect that many of you do not know how important Ralph Nader is. He single-handedly, against the most vicious and outrageous opposition by leading automakers, forced them to take seriously the need for building auto-safety at the design level.
It was he who stopped the production of the dangerous Chevy Corsair. It was he who helped prosecute Ford for the gas tank that was installed directly behind the rear bumper and too often exploded even following a minor rear bumper tap from another car.
15. A Double-Whammy Of Celebrities
It was 1998. My husband died in July, and it was now August. I was traveling to Boston to spend my birthday with my daughter. I was definitely in a fog, putting one foot in front of the other.
I got to the airport, LAX, and at the check-in counter learned my flight had been canceled with no flights available until the next day. I think I sort of lost it. Not angry, just flattened. Hugging my daughter was the only joy that had kept me focused for those hard last weeks. I was crying, blurting out my little story. The airline clerk asked me to give her a moment and she would see what she could do.
A few minutes passed and she called me back to the counter. She handed me a packet, and told me to RUN to the next terminal, to an airplane on another carrier. I thanked her and took off as fast as I could, dragging my little suitcase, realizing the terminal was several minutes away.
After a long dead run, totally breathless, I boarded the plane. I handed my packet to the stewardess and she directed me to my seat. WHAT? FIRST CLASS? Never in my life had I flown first class. Was this a mistake? The stewardess just smiled and confirmed I was in the right seat. So I settled down and settled in.
And caught a glance at my seat mate in the window seat. Gee, he looks familiar. He introduced himself. Mike Wallace. The 60 Minutes Mike Wallace. Holy cow. After brief exchanges, he shared that he had grown up in Brookline, Massachusetts, where I was headed. We were chatting pleasantly waiting for the delayed takeoff when he whispered to me, “There’s a celebrity coming aboard.” I said “I thought YOU were the celebrity.” He just smiled and pointed to the two men, obviously Secret Service, entering ahead of a celebrity passenger.
The last person to board was Nancy Reagan. She was placed in the seat directly in front of me. She had a brief exchange with Mike Wallace and then we took off.
I then witnessed a great conversation between the two across the seat. Updates on the health of the former president, discussion about a conference she was attending in Boston. I leaned forward and asked if she would like to exchange seats with me, so that they could converse more privately. Secret Service men checked out my area while I stood in the aisle, and then she took my seat, and I hers. Mr. Wallace was a lot more fun to talk to than the Secret Service man I was now next to, but I enjoyed seeing the two famous people chatting away during the rest of the flight.
Just before landing, we had to switch back. Mrs. Reagan said, “Mike told me about your husband. I’m so sorry, dear.” And she gave me a wonderful motherly hug.
When we landed, she thanked me again and I wished her, and our former President Reagan, well.
Mr. Wallace walked with me through the terminal to the gate where my family was waiting. He greeted them and told me goodbye. My family was flabbergasted.
I learned that day that my life was not over. That many new wonderful experiences were ahead for me. And that good people would show me kindness, if I let them. All I had to do was be open to possibility.
14. Wildly Fascinating Indigenous Veteran
One time during an airplane flight back in 2007, I had the chance of sitting next to a man who was full-blooded Native American. I never really had the opportunity to talk to many natives growing up in Miami, Florida, as the government put the native reservations near the swamps, away from most people. Most of the people I knew in Miami were from Central America or South America. Some Europeans, Russians, some African-Americans. You get the picture.
So this man is sitting next to me was an indigenous veteran of the Vietnam War. We had the best conversation about the war, too. My father was a Vietnam vet, so we had some things in common. Then, this guy started speaking his native language! I’m not sure what tribe he was from (sorry, I’m not too updated on how many native tribes there are left beside Navajo, Cherokee, Miccosuke, Calusa). I wish I could’ve remembered his name. He had a really interesting name, too.
I was so amazed. Being a musician, I was always into the language of music, and how music was itself related to other languages that people speak. I was utterly fascinated with the sound, inflections, and percussiveness of his native tongue and the fact that after all the horrible things his people had to face on their own lands, that this man, a Vietnam vet who served for the very country that eradicated most of his own people, still had his language, his traditions, and spirit. After all the horrible history, he still spoke to me like an equal. He was passionate in telling me about his language and traditions. He wanted to teach me, and I wanted to learn. I was very touched by his kindness.
He was such a special person that nine years later, I still think about it occasionally sometimes.
13. A Fascinating German Spandau Prison Veteran
We were flying back from L.A. to Brisbane with my wife. Long flight (about 14 hours). On top of that, I am scared of flying, and on top of that, we had our 2-week-old son who was born in San Diego after 5 years of unsuccessful IVF attempts. Just to paint you a picture of my state of mind. Yes, I needed a distraction!
Next to us was an old couple from Texas.
After taking off and the usual pleasantries, I asked the man if he was on holiday. The plan was to try to engage him in a conversation to distract my brain, and also because I was genuinely interested in giving him some information about Australia. I like to offer tourists suggestions.
He said they will be traveling around (as usually is the case) starting from Brisbane, then down along the Pacific Ocean and so on.
I asked him what he used to do for living: ex-military. Jackpot! I am fascinated by that topic. He told me he was stationed in Germany during the Cold War. Another jackpot! My favorite historical period!
I asked him where: Spandau prison. Are you kidding me? I just finished reading Albert Speer’s Spandau diaries. What the heck was he doing in Spandau?
Turns out he was the prison dentist. So he had the chance to meet Speer and Rudolph Hess amongst other inmates.
The prison was run in turn by France, Britain, USA, and Russia.
We talked about their lifestyle in Germany at the time, how he met his wife and other things that I can’t remember.
To this day, that was the most interesting person I met on a plane.
12. Kind-Hearted And Transformative Buddhist Monks
Back in the summer of 2016, I boarded my first flight to fly to New York. Interestingly, another girl occupied my seat (54A) by mistake (she had 54F) but since I was flying for the first time, I wanted to take the seat which was allotted to me.
Two Buddhist monks sat next to me. One likely in his 40s, the other one was a 93-year-old holy man.
They took interest in my interests, wanting to know where I come from and what I’m heading to the US for. It was Fashion Law. And when the Abbot, Nicholas Vreeland (who we all call Nicky) of Rato Dratsang Monastery in Mundgod, Karnataka (which I found out later through his emails to me), he told me his grandmother was called the “Fashion Empress.” He would tell me I’ll get lost in the big city and kept pulling my leg.
He also revealed his journey that as a young boy, he grew up in a privileged family, having lived in France, US, and Germany, but once unable to discover the true meaning of life, he set out on his journey to study Buddhism.
Only after I returned to India did I read more about “Nicholas Vreeland” and in my interactions with him for 6 hours, he had only been able to give a glimpse of his personality. He is also known as the “Monk with a camera,” and there is a documentary on him.
Rinpoche, the 93-year-old holy man, was a joy to look at. His eyes had a spark and his smile contained in it the infinite joys, as you see in a child’s laughter. We soon became very fond of one another. Nicky would convey what Rinpoche would say to me as he spoke very softly and didn’t have strong hearing anymore.
When I had to get off at London to catch my connecting flight, Rinpoche held my hands, “Take care and we hope to see you again,” and blessed me.
They did meet me in New York a few days later. I met them for Rinpoche’s eye checkup. And they brought along another friend of theirs who was a smart lady, who taught me a lot about the infinite options of salads to choose from. We all went for lunch at a French Restaurant in East Side.
My journey in the US seemed more like unfolding for all spiritual reasons. And having Nicky and Rinpoche’s presence occasioned my journey with grace. And them coming to meet me was a sign that I was loved and cared for.
I’ll never forget my first flight experience.
11. A Maternal Change Of Heart
Last summer, My sibling and I went on a trip to India.
Whilst returning, our seat numbers got switched and I ended up sitting next to a girl that looked about 12 and a little boy that looked about 7.
Now, call me selfish but I was kind of disappointed because I thought these little “creatures” would bug me the whole flight and I wouldn’t get any sleep.
I settled down in my seat and the plane started doing its thing. I then told my antisocial self to talk to these “creatures” and appear friendly. So I introduced myself and the girl quietly introduced herself as “Ahva” with a H. She was quiet for about 5 minutes and then to break the tension, I saw the book she was reading (Harry Potter….forgot which one it was) and made a comment on it. Her eyes instantly lit up and she started talking about it. Now, keep in mind that I had NEVER even touched a Harry Potter book and I was completely clueless on whatever she was saying but I tried to connect some pieces based off of what my obsessed friends had talked about. The plane started to get ready to take off and she instantly gripped my arm and started shaking. She was scared of take-offs. To ease her tension, I asked her if she traveled alone with her brother and she said yes. How brave.
For the rest of the fight, we talked and talked and talked. She was so interesting and she kept telling me about her trip to India and her half-Indian ethnicity. She had beautiful hazel eyes and she told me that she was ready to “get all Amurican” when she goes back to Alabama. Since it was a 16 hour flight, she had fallen asleep and I was watching a movie. Her head rested on my shoulder and when I tried to get up to go to the bathroom, she gripped my arm tighter. I got some sort of maternal feeling which was very extraneous according to my dark soul.
Yep, when we got off, I was kind of sad and she shook my hand and then we parted ways. She truly made my flight interesting and watching her stare in fascination at the Qatar Airways flight food was pretty exciting.
10. A Genius Dutch Lawyer
Not having been a regular flyer, I remember a number of people I have been seated next to during flying visits to the U.K. and continental Europe.
However, there were two real stand-outs during all those travels. One was a hostess named, I think, Heidi, on the Singapore Airlines flight from London to Singapore. All the cabin crew were excellent, but she stood out in the way she engaged each passenger, briefly and appropriately, as she did her rounds. A smile and a brief, friendly comment or question made all the difference. The woman next to me and I spent quite a bit of the trip talking about how well this young woman interacted with passengers.
I spoke to this hostess as I was disembarking and told her how impressed we had been, and later sent a commendation to the airline. Heidi had recently completed a degree at Heidelberg and spoke very fluent German.
The highlight, though, was my companion as I flew out of Berlin, returning to England. We were waiting to take off and I noticed that she was anxiously leafing through papers on her lap. This went on for a while, so I asked if she was alright.
It turned out that she was a Dutch academic lawyer specialising in how traditional law and formal law interact, and wasn’t nervous about flying, but about the fact that she was going to London for a job interview with a Muslim-backed educational institution concerned with similar issues — certainly an area with overlaps with her own research field, but also very different from the traditional universities she had been involved with in Germany.
As you can guess, she was a very intelligent woman, and also witty, and our conversation was both intellectually stimulating and uproariously funny, all the way from Schönefeld to Gatwick. At least, I presume the flight took place, as I didn’t really notice it.
We continued our conversation on the train into London. I got off at London Bridge to head back to Sidcup, and she was getting off somewhere near St. Pancras. A young woman who worked in a jewelry store and had been part of our conversation on the train offered to guide my companion to the correct connections.
I have often wondered if she got that job.
9. A Miracle Medical Career Breakthrough
So this is going to be the story about the greatest professional moment of my life, you can call it a completely career-defining moment, too.
It was in 2011. My third year had just begun in medical school. I was onboard an Indigo flight from Manipur to Kolkata via Guwahati. Yeah I know, tedious northeast flights. In third year, we begin surgical subjects and they had caught my interest already.
So that eventful flight I was carrying a textbook and reading like a complete nerd. I was off to vacation at my sister’s place in Kolkata. I remember I was sitting next to a Manipuri lady when the flight started from Imphal. I had a window seat, though generally I prefer the aisle. Suddenly my rapt attention was broken by a male voice sitting next to me. “Bengali?” he said.
“What? Oh, yes,” I said, taken aback. He was a man in his late 40s, bespectacled and good looking, in a nice suit. The rest of the conversation went in Bengali. For obvious reasons, I did not ask if he was Bengali too. We talked about Tagore songs, Bengali commercial movies, sci-fi Bengali literature by Sharadindu, fish, hilsa and everything nice about Bengal for the next 15 minutes.
As I am very bad with small talk, and I wanted to go back to reading laryngeal levels of dissection, I found an excuse. Just before the flight started the descent, he asked, “third year, is it?” I was taken aback again. Was he a doctor too? Oh no. I was acting a snob in front of maybe a senior doctor, given his age.
As I started putting down the book and finally registering the man’s face now properly, he said, “get a version of McGregor. Start anatomy from there. Before you read any surgery. These days they don’t make such surgical books here anymore.” He gave me his card. Consultant Surgeon and Professor at a very reknowned medical college and hospital; Bangalore, it said. Cardiothoracic and Vascular Surgery Department. I noticed his long amazing fingers, his clean short nails and the perfect way he had held his cup of coffee.
I was red in the face. Somehow I kept up a straight face. He was Assamese. Knew Bengali, amidst other languages. Of course I met him again. And of course I hunted down an original McGregor from College Street Kolkata which is still the best bedtime read I have. We stayed in touch through professional links, both when I started learning surgery in Bangalore years later, in a different institute, and even later, when I was frustrated with Indian exams.
Now that I am almost ending a degree in infections and half-done through a degree in surgery, I think that was the moment that defined me as a doctor.
8. An Annoyed Baseball Player Named Pete Rose
Sat next to Pete Rose on a flight from Tampa to Cincinnati in 2002. Leaned over just a tad and said “how much you wanna bet this plane crashes?” and then made a face like that dog making a joke meme.
He looked at me like he was horrified and I very quickly realized that my faux pas was on multiple levels. One, his betting on baseball got him banned from the game and shut out of the hall of fame, so me referencing it probably isn’t as funny to him as it is to me. Two, this was less than a year after 9/11 and asking another passenger about the likelihood of the plane they’re currently on crashing probably isn’t as funny to him as it is to me.
7. Nathan Fillion’s Stunt Man
Nathan Fillion’s stunt double for Firefly. I felt bad for him because it was an 8 hour flight to London and I would not be quiet. But he did tell me about Serenity the movie a few months before news of the movie came out, so I got to feel like the cat’s pajamas for awhile.
6. Not The Best Band, But A Band None The Less
I was once on a plane to LAX with all the members of Korn plus their management team. they sat in coach. haha this was in 2002. it was a long flight and we all ended up inebriated. they bought all my beverages. gave me some really nice stuff. we never once talked about their band. it was actually pretty cool. nice dudes. terrible terrible band.
5. An Entitled Celebrity
My former husband used to be a road warrior. He was almost always bumped up to first class so he met a lot of characters.
On one flight though, he sat across the aisle and a few seats back from this woman who was acting totally crazy. Putting her feet on the wall in front of her, gabbing on the phone before take-off. The flight attendant asked her numerous times to get off, and she wouldn’t. Finally the flight attendant said sarcastically “should I have the captain wait??” the woman stopped her phone call and said “oh, yes, would you?”
Anyway, as the flight went on her behavior became more erratic and domineering. She pulled out a salad and ate it with her hands, spilling it all down her front and all over the seat. She stole the paper of the guy sitting next to her (who clearly was not with her, just a stranger), yelled at the flight attendant many more times complaining about drinks and food and pretty much everything around her. The entire first class cabin was flabbergasted.
Finally the flight attendant who had seen my ex on that flight many times came over and talked to him and said “I think she’s a “somebody” but I’m not sure…hang on”…she brought over the manifest and said to my ex “does. A. Huff ring a bell?” and he said “uhhh yes, Arianna Huffington definitely rings a bell”
Sure enough he texts a buddy of his when he lands who used to work with Arianna Huffington and says he saw her on his flight. His buddy said “was she acting insane?”…
4. A Nasa Astronaut
My son and I and three others had just climbed into a 206 Cessna when the pilot beside me climbs out and a guy wearing a NASA flight jacket climbs into the pilots seat. Sat beside a retired astronaut til I bailed out at 8,000 ft. Not every day you meet an astronaut. Too bad he couldn’t get the little Cessna to space. Good pilot though.
3. A Humbling Royal Presence
For our honeymoon trip, we flew first class out of Paris to Bangkok on Thai Airways A380. After boarding the aircraft and settling in, the flight attendant in the first class cabin came to our seats and had an unusual request. She wondered (more like ordered) if we would be amenable to using the business class lavatories instead of the first class lavatories because a member of the Thai Royal Family was going to be flying with us that day. Little did we know that it would be the Crown Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn along with her ladies in waiting that would occupy about half of the remaining seats in the first class cabin. Of course, we were a bit disappointed that we spent good money on first class tickets, yet we won’t get the full first class experience aboard because they have to block off some of the amenities on board because there’s royalty.
Upon landing in Bangkok, the same flight attendant asked (more like ordered) us to remain seated while the Crown Princess and her entourage disembarked from the plane. While we thought that the Royal entourage only occupied half of the first class seats, there was a significant number of business class seats that were also occupied by the Crown Princess’ entourage.
I think the redeeming part of flying with the Crown Princess is that Thai authorities would shut down congested roads so that the Royal family members can cut through city traffic. By the time we cleared immigration and customs, the roads that Thai officials previously closed for the Crown Princess were being opened just as we were driving through. We were expecting heavy traffic to the Peninsula hotel downtown, but because of the road closures due to the Crown Princess, we totally didn’t experience the traffic at all.
So are we going to take Thai Airways again? Most likely not. The hard product was alright, the soft product was passable, it was just the weird request not to use certain facilities because the Royal Family member needs to use it is a bit too much for us. So from that perspective, we wouldn’t pay good money for Thai Airways again. It was an interesting flight for sure, but Thai Airways Royal First Class really degenerates to Thai Airways Commoner First class when a real royal is on board.
2. Out Drank By A Girl
I was flying to Amman, Jordan for a semester and my first flight from Boston was heading to London. I was a little nervous that I would be leaving home for 4 months, but figured that this was an experience that would really help me mature and become the adult my parents expected me to be.
As I boarded the flight, I noticed that my seat was next to a cute girl and slid in past her to take the window seat (she took the aisle… weird right?). Anyways, other than the quick hello, we were pretty much silent for the first 30-45 minutes. Only did once the flight attendant came around did she reach over and grab my attention (I was watching a movie on my tablet). She asked what I wanted to drink and reminded me that there was free drinks on the flight. In order to look more cool, instead of asking about all the choices they had, I simply told her that I would have whatever she was having.
4 hours into the flight, I felt like I was on the verge of fainting. Anna (who we’ll name the cute girl) was having more than I’ve ever seen anyone have. I mean, I feel quite experienced with my drinking capabilities and this girl was putting me to shame. I assumed that the flight attendant would stop getting them to us, but Anna became friendly with one of them and they only switched us to lighter ones after the 8th or 9th regular.
We talked about where we each were going; I think she said she was studying abroad in Ireland or something. Anyways, the small talk goes for the entire flight and with about an hour left, she asks if I want to go see the top deck of the plane. I knew we couldn’t get up there, but I was down for the adventure. We got up from our seats and stumbled to the front of the plane. There we met our friendly flight attendant who talked with us for about 10 minutes before explaining that there wasn’t anyway he could let us up there until the plane landed.
Disappointed, we began stumbling back to our seats when I began to notice that everyone in coach was locking eyes with me. They were staring at me like I had a weapon of some sort. Anyways, just before we get back to our seats, I notice the guy in front of me with the disappointed look decided to move his chair all the way back, great… The rest of the plane wasn’t fun because Anna fell asleep and I was now having my legs crushed by some guy.
Come to find out, most people had thought that I was attempting to join the mile high club with Anna who was clearly not fully there. Long story short, I found her on Facebook and we message every now and then.
Weird flight, but definitely a memorable one.
1. A Danish Guy
Mine was a Danish guy who’d had a bit too much to drink and said “it’s a very long flight, do you want to kiss me?”
When I pointed out that my boyfriend was sitting next to me (I had the middle seat), the Danish guy looked at my boyfriend, shrugged and said “I’ll kiss him too.”