I followed the thread of passengers though the 737 to my aisle seat. The man sitting in what my boarding pass indicated was my seat was a friendly giant. He was huge in that former-college-linebacker-who-has-put-on-a-lot-of-weight way, and he smiled up at me while I stood there looking first at him, then my seat assignment and then the number above the row of seats. Finally, I said “I’m sorry. You are in my seat.”
He looked confused for a moment and then when he realized the window seat was already occupied and I owned the aisle which meant he’d bought a ticket to the middle seat, he looked desperate. Beating back the polite Southern girl who still owns a good chunk of my brain and often insists I defer, I waited for him to slide into the middle seat and then took my own. Of course, he didn’t really fit in the middle and sprawled out into my space was well as the man on the other side.
After a bit of shuffling, we silently sorted out our seat belts and the plane took off. I surreptitiously took a photo of the three knees, two of mine and one of his, in front of my seat.
It was a long and uncomfortable flight. He immediately fell into a deep sleep, snoring loudly and sprawling even further into my seat. I moved to lower the armrest between us but it was somewhere in the middle of his back. Unless I wanted to put my arm behind him, and risk either having it trapped there or waking him up, the armrest would stay up, removing what little barrier there should be between us.
I felt a little guilty for not surrendering the aisle but the thought of sitting between the two men for a four-hour flight from Denver to Fort Lauderdale filled me with panic. I spent seven hours in a middle seat on two different flights last week. The thought of doing it again was like being asked to wear a plastic bag on my head.
When our drinks and snacks were served, the man woke up and promptly rested his left arm against the edge of my tray and his right arm on his tray while eating his hamburger. After lunch he was was asleep again. The flight was full, there was nowhere for any of us to move, so I bit my tongue. But it seems personal space has become the weapon of choice for the airline industry. They count on our need--some of us need it more than others-- to drive us to pay for the privilege of being the sole occupant of a seat. And that’s what I usually do. I’d tried to upgrade but both First Class and the expanded economy option were sold out. On this flight, an aisle seat was the best I could do and it didn’t do me much good at all.
Some people will see my complaint as a dig at the man’s size, but it isn’t that at all. My point is it’s not always about how much space we take up. It’s how we use the space we have.
Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a travel writer whose audio essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and public radio stations across the country. She is the author of Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons and can be reached at email@example.com