The only place in the world where you sit 4 inches from people and never acknowledge their presence is on an airplane. I am in the middle seat because I often travel with my husband (must have window) or son (needs aisle for long legs). When I fly alone (bliss) and have an assigned seat, I check my bag through and stroll onto the plane, carrying only my purse with iPad tucked inside, after everyone else is seated. I’m in no hurry to sit for 5-7 hours as I’m usually flying across country. Of course this method inevitably inspires the disappointed grimaces of the people who thought there was going to be an empty seat in their aisle. Uh huh. When was the last time that happened to you?

“Ladies and gentlemen, this will be a full flight today.” Everyday as far as I can tell.

When I travel alone, I immediately assess the social preferences of my aisle mates. The long forward stare is a good indication that this person and I will be invisible to each other. As is the slouched, earplugs in, device on, posture of the 15-40 year old. For me–person with a novel to read or listen to–these are ideal companions. Not ideal are the bright-eyed women or avuncular men who brought nothing to do.

“Where are you headed, little lady?” Uh oh.

I have two problems with chatty seat mates. For one thing I really want to read the new Elizabeth George or listen to “Girl on the Train.” I’ve been saving it specifically to engage me during a flight. Also–and I mean this sincerely–I cannot keep turning my head to politely converse without getting motion sick. My son, also a victim of heredity, understands this and we conduct terse, face forward conversations when we fly together. The face forward thing became a grisly reality when I puked noisily into the air sickness bag after a lively conversation with the young pilot sitting next to me. He flew for another airline and looked all of 17.

Remember my husband: must have window? He likes to engage the aisle person in conversation across my uninterested lap. Luckily he also likes to look out the window and/or nap so these conversations, once destination, occupation, and education have been established, are blessedly brief. Right now he is sleeping during our Sacramento-L.A. flight. I have nothing but admiration for this talent. It hasn’t been a quiet flight but he has snoozed through multiple announcements (weather in L.A., cruising altitude, cruising speed, distance to L.A., benefits of the tailwind, injunctions to keep seat belts on and not stand in line for the bathroom, and loud offers of beverages). I, on the other hand, have been recording this adventure while simultaneously remembering many previous flights.

People such as myself, who dislike air travel, have different reasons for their phobia. In my family motion sickness has been passed down through the ages. My mother famously lost 15 lbs sailing across the Atlantic to Britain and earned the sobriquet “Bones” from my Dad. My son actually vomited under water while snorkeling near the Chanel Islands. None of us can handle waves; in fact my sister can get queasy from jumping in the waves. Barring turbulence, Dramamine is effective but puts me in a 24 hour trance.

Beyond motion illness lie the other unpleasant aspects of air travel. Claustrophobia rears its ugly head when you’re hurtling through space in a narrow, confining, flimsy, metal tube. An air-van of a sort. And then there’s basic fear of flying. Man or woman wasn’t meant to fly; we don’t have wings, etc. All of that sounds ridiculous unless you’re the one with the tight, dry throat clutching the armrests and ignoring the idiot next to you who keeps pointing out landmarks.
“Oh look, there’s the Grand Canyon, Lake Michigan, Atlantic Ocean….” Shut up.

My friend Mary Jane likes to confide her fears to her seat mate prior to lift off. She once told a man that she’s always afraid she’s on the plane “that they forgot to put the oil in.” He was pretty shook up by that idea and later declined to hold Mary Jane’s hand during landing. I have to stop now because we’re encountering turbulence (I know this because the pilot announced it) on our descent into L.A.. Descent is an ugly word.

Here’s a new thing: our plane, engines off, is being pulled into the gate. Not sure what that’s about but I’m thrilled to be out of the turbulence and on terra firma. Also the landing itself was a resounding thump but the pilot, after apparently slamming on the brakes, coasted for awhile which tells me we’re not going to crash into the gate, hit another plane, or spontaneously combust.

I would like to mention here that people who have no fear of flying are amazingly unsympathetic to the rest of us poor sufferers who board every plane reluctantly. My husband enjoys flying and I can tell this because he likes to get to the airport early and then stand in the line of people waiting to hear the announcement to form a line. In others words stand in the line for the line. Incomprehensible. However this doesn’t make him immune to the irritations that have increased over the years. It’s only in first class that you’re not subjected to people reclining a seat back into your lap so that you can’t even lower your tray. My brother recommends faking a sneeze or cough while simultaneously spraying a mister over the head of the inconsiderate person in front if you. I don’t know if he’s ever actually done this. I once kept my knees against the back of the seat in front of me (not difficult with 6 inches of so-called leg room) for most of an entire flight to prevent the inevitable recline. The second I dropped my knees the seat back came down. I would have used the spray technique then had I been appropriately equipped.

The notion that flying with a crying baby is a nightmare is overblown in my opinion. Rarely have I had to listen to a baby cry and when I have heard the brief sobs I’ve felt nothing but sympathy for the child’s ear pressure pain and the parents’ discomfiture. There are plenty of other, adult, behaviors I have no patience for. The person who blocks the aisle, oblivious of the line of people behind her or him, adjusting a carry on, casually removing a jacket, pulling out the carry on again for a computer, putting a small bag into the upper bin….this person drives me crazy. And there are no mitigating circumstances: extreme age, physical disability, or traveling with multiple children under the age of 5. These people are really in their own little world, aren’t they? Either spaced out or incredibly self-centered. Let’s give them the benefit of the doubt. Let’s give the guy with the ear plugs who keeps asking me to repeat the announcements a pass as well. But let’s hold accountable the folks who give the flight attendants a hard time. After all, they are basically servers who don’t get tipped, trapped on this plane with the rude, the fearful and the clueless.

So now I’m seated on the second flight, going into Houston and it looks to be a pretty good ride. The pilot has some gray in his hair and he made only one announcement. Mike is on the aisle and the kid at the window, after a semi-surly phone call with his mother, put on aggressively huge earphones and is wearing out his thumbs playing a game. Also he has left the armrest for me. Yeah! It’s 2 1/2 hours in the air, hopefully outrunning a storm, and… I have the new Elizabeth George to read.