Back when I enjoyed flying, I always liked using Southwest. I enjoyed feeling as if I controlled a little of my destiny by choosing where I sat. I thought I chose well on one flight from Nashville. I looked near my preferred section and there were two open seats on the right side. The window seat was occupied by a professionally dressed woman calmly looking out the window. She looked as if she would keep to herself and be a reasonable seat mate. I chose poorly.
She didn’t say a word as I stowed my carry-on and sat down. She didn’t speak as the Captain used the loudspeaker to say we would have a slight take off delay. Then the plane backed from the terminal and taxied toward the runway. She started talking and did not stop until we landed in Baltimore.
First, she started breathing heavily as the plane left the terminal. “Here we go,” she said, “It’s going to be okay, it’s going to be okay, it’s going to be okay, it’s going to be okay . . .”
“Um, is this your first time flying?” I asked.
“No,” she snapped, “I fly all the time.”
I didn’t believe her, of course. Frequent fliers are a lot calmer, especially when the plane is still on the ground.
“It’s just that we’re coming up on a dangerous part,” she continued, “and it always makes me nervous.” Then she continued muttering that it was going to be okay quietly even as the flight attendants ran through the routine of telling is the safety exits. UNlike other seasoned travelers, my seat mate leaned forward and listened intently. She also carefully looked toward any emergency exit they pointed out. I wouldn’t have been surprised if she took notes.
We had to stop for a moment as we approached the runway, during which she turned to me somewhat apologetically and said, “Sorry, it’s just most people don’t realize how many things can go wrong, even when a plane’s on the ground.” She then proceeded to list all of the things that could go wrong. It was a long list, including many possibilities I had never considered.
She continued listing all the ways we could die horribly as we taxied to the runway. She was still in the middle of her list when the plane picked up speed for take off. She suddenly gripped her armrests with white knuckles, stared forward while almost, but not quite shouting, “Please! Please! Please! Please! Please! Please! Please! Please!” Those around us began to look toward us.
After we finally leveled off, she finished her list of all the ways we could have died on the ground. I then made the mistake of saying, “Well, at least we’re in the air now. I’ve always heard the most dangerous parts of air travel are take off and landing. Once you’re in the air things should be fine.”
“Oh no, no, you couldn’t be more wrong,” she said, her eyes wide, “I work for the NTSB reading incident reports. You have no idea just how much can go wrong once you’re in the air.” I wish I still didn’t. The flight from Nashville to Baltimore is usually just under two hours. That day it seemed much longer, mostly because she spent it telling me all the things that could go wrong in the air.
If you’ve ever flown into Baltimore from the South, you know that the wind blows off the Atlantic strongly and that landing planes will often wobble just a little as they touch down. Something told me that experiencing it with my current seat mate would be no fun at all.
Complicating matters was a moderately sever thunderstorm. We circled the airport twice waiting for the go ahead to land. You can imagine how she reacted. When we were finally dropping through the clouds, she grabbed her armrests again and started the “pleases” back up. Because of the storm, the plane wobbled a little more than usual and the scream I feared had been building in her the moment she stepped on the plane was released, and it was blood curdling.
Nobody panicked, exactly, but her yell caused considerable commotion. People began looking around wondering what was wrong. I just stared at her in shock. Her scream continued as we landed and only trailed off when the engines reversed and the brakes were applied. Finally, she began whispering, “Thank you, thank you, thank you” repeatedly.
I don’t think a plane has ever emptied more quickly than ours that day. all of us knew we were escaping and truly felt that way. I looked back at the passengers who were continuing to New York and remained on the plane (as was my former seat mate). I caught one’s eye, shrugged and mouthed, “Sorry.” He shrugged back, looking miserable.
Part of my week was spent fearing I would somehow be on the same plane with her again when I returned home on Friday. I’d rather experience another nearly full strip search instead of that.