I have been traveling more than usual lately – conferences and visits to friends, weddings and family celebrations. There is a certain sentence that, declared by the chief flight attendant at the beginning of every flight, while all of us are shifting in our seats, placing airport-purchased bottles of water and sandwiches with too many onions in our carry-ons stowed safely within reach when the flight begins. “This will be a completely full flight.” Wonderful.
There is also the chance to meet new and different people each time we ascend that thoroughfare to the plane. Some have conversations spanning whole trips, meeting new acquaintances, sharing stories about successful grandchildren and new vacation spots, ending with phone numbers clicked into smartphones and promises of a future grounded rendez-vous. The rest of us become somewhat insular, making sure not to have elbows graze past the armrest divisions between seats – a hard boundary causing panic and consternation when threatened. We retreat into our cubbyholes, pulling out laptops to work, cultivating busyness, pausing for drinks or a particularly breathtaking view of the sunset.
It is when delays and mishaps creep into the fold, barriers between these sovereign seats begin to break down. Complaints flow across party lines, offerings of food and magazine articles, stories traded about other “better-handled” situations escape frustrated lips. Quiet people are drawn into conversation, willingly or not, as exasperation can often dissolve the steel of introversion. It is in these moments that who were not willingly drawn into conversation before put down their papers with a sigh, amalgamate all that they have heard and unwittingly blurt out something infused with disdain as a commentary to all of the above in one sentence.
This may have happened to me the other day. I was sitting calmly in my window seat, perfectly nice people sitting to my left. We were chatting briefly, eating almonds offered by one generous outstretched hand, thinking of Italian days in the history of another. We had left one hour late, one of those delays that begins as 20 minutes, and you watch bedraggled passengers struggling off the plane only to have your anticipation thwarted by “Ladies and gentlemen, I have some bad news.” There is a mechanical failure. This inspires mixed feelings. Ok, well, I don’t want there to be a mechanical failure, but if there is a failure, on a PLANE, do I really want the mechanics to go fix it and then fly on this plane immediately afterwards?
Although half of the plane promptly scurried away and sought out the nearest tall glass of micobrewed happiness, 15 minutes later the flight personnel were back on the PA system, announcing that he mechanics had “solved the problem” and that we would be boarding. Fantastic.
Plane seats generally make you feel urgent pressure to lose weight. Not just lose weight. Dehydrate yourself away to a fraction of your mortal being, so that you may lay your paper-thin corporeal self upon the strangely uncomfortable contours of the seat. We shifted, smiling apologetically when a limb left our designated space for a moment, pretending to be absorbed in the luggage carts dawdling outside the window.
At last we were off. A beautiful, sunny, hot day, the sky was clear, the neighborhoods and coastline visible from even such great heights, blue and peaceful enough to inspire daydreams and envy. I closed my eyes for 5 minutes (literally 5 minutes, as the plane ride was a total of 25 minutes), and suddenly I hear an exasperated voice over the loudspeaker saying something like this. “Well, folks, for those of you who have been looking out of the window, you may have noticed that you’ve seen the same thing several times. We’re in a holding pattern, very unusual for this airport” Some muffled words. “This airport has one runway…and there is a disabled plane on it. They’re currently offloading passengers, but it will probably take a while longer.”
Ok, fine, a slight further delay. How long can it take to offload passenge….. “Unfortunately, we don’t have that much gas, as this was a short flight.” Silence thrums in my ears. “Worst case scenario, we will have to fly back to Baltimore, get gas, then come back here.”
I don’t need to tell you the rest. When someone in a position of power says worst case scenario, you pay attention. My fellow seat-mates and I were contemplating pulling out the lifejackets and making a dive for the beach. In a matter of minutes, we were turning northwards, on our way back to Baltimore, and after some phone calls and wisdom from fellow passengers, we learned that the reason for the plane malfunction was a tire that had blown out upon landing. There were calls of “fill’er up!!” chorusing through the plane.
It is here that conversations turned towards a tired introvert’s nightmare. My row-mate began talking about possible strategies to have avoided this disaster, generally focusing on Italy, and suggesting that they should have driven the plane to the gate, with the flat tire.
Here, all my force of disagreement kicked into gear. I had been mostly quiet for the flight, tired and slightly exasperated at the length of my journey (a 3 hour plane trip would be extended by about 3 hours). I began to disagree. (Bad move). I may have possibly said something like “Well, would you have driven your car with a flat tire?” I just thought that driving the plane with a flat tire wasn’t feasible because of the weight of the passengers, damage to the plane, and possible loss of control of the steering if the tire wasn’t intact… Basically, I was trying to say that the airport people probably knew what they were doing. Why do I try to defend the people who are making my trip look like a 6-hour nightmare? I don’t know, probably because we have all had to deal with disaster, and you know that people aren’t whiling away time while we fly back and forth over the eastern coastline. I have this strange tendency to think that people are working to the best of their ability, unless I see otherwise. Call me generous.
Note to all the introverts. When you’re tired, and your flight has become a round-trip without you asking for it, when you left your house at 2pm and there is no sign of reaching your destination until 10pm, when your only reading material is a JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association), and when you didn’t want to be drawn into a conversation in the first place, LISTEN to your first thought. Smile prettily, eat the rest of your pretzels, and pretend to read about the latest combination of cisplatin and biologics that will cure colon cancer. An airplane, perhaps, is not the best time to get into an argument. Especially if you have the window seat.
Truthfully, it wasn’t that bad, but there are those sentences that reverberate in my head long after I’ve said them, the “do-overs” when a tendency towards keeping mum may have served me best. Sometimes thinking about them make me cringe. Thankfully it doesn’t happen often, but sometimes fatigue and lack of control of a situation sharpens words into unintended weapons. Why do some things come out with exactly the wrong intonation just when is the worst time to do it? I don’t think I will ever know. All I can do is catch myself the next time it threatens to show itself. Or chatter away from the beginning like the others. Next airplane neighbor, be prepared for a rundown of the pros and cons of my new Kindle….