Personal Space on Planes

Let’s talk about personal space on airplanes. There is none. I get it. I really do. The plane companies want to make sure they make money which sometimes means they must take a little bit extra – let’s say extra comfort for passengers in Coach – to make sure they turn a profit. Cushy digs for the First Class passengers who, after all, are paying the big bucks. What’s a little legroom; what’s a slightly narrower seat? We grin and bear it but, come on, give us back a little, would you? Especially when the average American is 5’7” and between 168 to 196 pounds.

My last plane ride was a disaster from start to finish. It was partially my fault. I pre-booked late and was the last group in the airplane. I was also one of the last people to board. There were hardly any seats and no room in the overhead. I walked past a middle seat – I hate middle seats – it turns out it was the only seat left. The man (maybe an attorney?) was making notes on paperwork and didn’t hear me when I said excuse me (twice.) It took the flight attendant to make him move enough for me to get into my seat. The lady near the window was reading her e-reader. I don’t think she looked up the entire time – just shifted occasionally. There I was between a rock and a hard place.
Literally between a rock – this chick had to be 200 pounds – and the hard place – the man did not stop elbowing me the entire two hours. I am not a skinny Minnie myself. I could stand to lose 20 pounds or so but I don’t force myself into peoples’ personal space. I was cramped in so hard that my shoulders formed a lovely C shape. My outspread arms were crossed and I didn’t move my feet for the entire two- hour trip. I had about two inches inside my seat section but this guy continued elbowing me, brushing against my arm, and flicking papers around. It was creepy. I was miserable. I tried to ask him to stop touching me and even snapped down the armrest with an evil glare. Nothing. He even ran over the armrest to get into a quarter of my seat space. By the time the plane landed I felt like asking him to pay me for the quarter of my seat that he used for the entire two hours of flight time.

Now, I’m the first on to say I might be unnaturally protective of my personal space. I would not do well in Japan. Japanese culture’s idea of personal space is much smaller that of American’s. Just looking at a picture of a Japanese subway is enough to give me panic attacks so when I say I don’t like people getting in my personal space, I mean the American version of personal space.

So there I was so vertically challenged I was practically folded. Oh, one more thing: I suffer from motion sickness. Usually I can control it with pharmaceuticals but I’ve never come into Denver without getting horribly, disastrously sick. The window seat is best so I can see out and look at the horizon; the aisle seat is second because I can usually stretch out and ease the pressure on my stomach, but the middle is disastrous. In 2015, my daughter and I came into Denver for my niece’s wedding. Again, I had the middle seat. A lovely lady shared our row and we all started talking. Then, my daughter suggested that we play a card game we had gotten in Ireland some time ago. We were all playing, laughing, and making a friend to this lovely lady who, surprise, lived in our neighborhood. All of a sudden, heat waves rushed over me. I didn’t even have time to feel nauseous and I certainly didn’t have time to get up to go to the bathroom. All I had time to say was “Excuse me,” grabbed the vomit bag, and let go. That effectively killed all future conversation. We all sat, staring straight ahead, uncomfortable. The seat belt sign was lit; I couldn’t even get up to throw it away. My humiliation was complete when an airline hostess had to take it and throw it away for me.
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry,” I said again and again.
“We get it all the time,” she told me.
Somehow that didn’t make me feel any better. That was the worst incoming flight ever. I was so sick I had to let all the other people off the plane. My knees were shaky, my stomach heaving. My daughter helped me off the plane like a decrepit old lady. When we disembarked I felt so badly I asked the ground crew if there was a nurse’s office or a first aid station where I could lie down. I was told no but I could go upstairs where it was less busy and lie down on the floor. Sometimes people did that when they were delayed. WTF? I’m sure I’m not the first person who came into Denver and was overcome by the mountain turbulence. Lie on the floor? Ridiculous. I did just that. I mean, even Disneyland has a First Aid station with cots and the park is the happiest place on Earth. I was sick there too for pretty much the same reason. The California Screamin’ ride is not my friend. It’s faster than lighting, has backwards acceleration, and a loopy-de-loop. I’m sure they were cleaning the puke up for days. I’m sorry, Mickey. Mea culpa.

Anyway, back to personal space. I’m also sure I’m not the only person to be uncomfortable with strangers touching me. I get that there’s not much space but just don’t brush against me time after time. Don’t elbow me. Don’t get in my space, man. Random touching is sometimes unavoidable but after the first time, just don’t. I’m sure this man has nerves in his body just like me. I’m sure he could feel when he touched me. Are you getting off with these random touches? Why the hell don’t you apologize for getting in my space and fuckin’ stop doing it.

Right about now, I’m sure many of you are saying, “Why don’t you just verbally let him have it?” Well, for one, airlines right now don’t have the best track record for dealing with upset people and I really didn’t want to have airport security come for me or find myself on the no-fly list. Second, I was raised Catholic. Enough said.

For those of you who were raised Catholic, you get it. For those of you who weren’t, we have been told since First Holy Communion that we’re guilty. Of everything. Forever. And a woman started the whole thing. Thanks a lot, Eve. Catholic nuns and priests make you feel guilty about everything and the indoctrination starts early. In Catholic school you are trained that to ask too many questions means you don’t have enough faith. I’m sorry – I just want, like Doubting Thomas, proof. A bunch of ancient guys writing a book about another guy decades after he died is not proof, it’s hearsay. Romans didn’t write about him and Romans wrote about everything. I disagreed with almost everything taught to me. I spent most of my adult life trying to be a good Catholic and understand the faith thing. It only took one visit to the Vatican to turn my back on Catholicism forever. Women did not start sin. Women are not the root of all evil. Look at the world. Men are in charge. Babies cannot be born with original sin and people of all faiths and cultures can be good people and do not have to be heretics or witches. Again, ‘nuff said.

Anyway, after my Catholic upbringing I was sitting miserably thinking that I must have done something horrible to be stuck in between these two people, unable to move or even think properly with all the unauthorized touching going on. (If you are a creeper and want to touch someone, pretend to be deaf. It worked for this guy.) If not my background, maybe it was Karma. That’s it. I hate spiders and I kill them if they get too close. It was spider Karma, no doubt. That’s why I was in the plane seat from hell.

Other people would have treated the situation differently. My daughters are mistresses of the misdirection. My middle daughter, Kelly, would have talked about him in a loud voice to shame him. My youngest daughter, Danice, would say something rude and get all “mean girl” on his ass. My fire fighter son, all 6’5” of him, would just talk to him in his deepest fire fighter voice and remind him that touching someone without their permission is against the law until they cringe away in terror. My husband, however, is the master of the sneak attack. In airports when a person gets too close to him in line, fling his coat around so it smacks the creeper in back and then sweetly apologize. I have seen him deliberately step back on his heel on the usurper’s toes. A yelp from the offending party generally ensues. An apology is offered. I can’t do these things. I was raised to be long-suffering and to put others first. I guess that means giving up a quarter of my airplane seat when necessary. I wish I could.

Years ago, when I was still appearing as a background artist in films TV, I was standing in a line to get my hair and makeup done. It was a long line, it was very hot, and the man behind me was crowding me. I inadvertently flipped my long hair over my shoulder and hit this man in the face. He growled something at me and I snapped, “You wouldn’t have this problem if you didn’t crowd me.” I had to hear him bitching and complaining about the “long-haired cunt” in front of him. See – if you comment on someone taking your space, you’re a bitch. If you let them, you’re a doormat. My older sister would say that I would have to enter the conversation with understanding and give the person a chance to do the right thing. My younger sister would make a joke about it. Me – just get out of my space!

I’m not the only one to have plane-space issues. I took my daughters to Ireland and England in 2015 and it was a wonderful and magical trip. First, however, we had to deal with the plane passengers. Why is it that people get on planes and think they’re in their own homes? The first thing my husband does is take off his shoes and air out his feet. Eew. And he’s my husband. I have had someone else’s stockinged feet under my chair and the combination of motion sickness with someone’s gangrenous smelling feet totally made my trip. On the trip to Erie, Kelly had the worst of it. Kelly had the seat in front of her suddenly shoot back even though she was still eating. Danica said, “Hey, you’re spilling my sister’s beer.” You can see what’s important in our family. Kelly also had the person in back of her put his bare feet on her armrest. Gag. I would have tickled his sole until he peed his pants. Smelling urine couldn’t be as bad and having foot fungus on your armrest. I have had to ask a child’s mother to ask him to stop kicking the back of my chair – as if she couldn’t see that. When my kids were young I was proactive on that front. The first kick, “No, do not kick someone else’s chair.” When crying, “I’m sorry, everyone. He’s feeling the altitude.” I can remember walking up and down the aisle for hours while on a red eye with a fussy baby, partially to soothe, partially to negate the crying baby factor on the airplane. By the time I stumbled off the gangplank, baby and gear in tow, and a nice woman said, “Oh, what a cutie,” it was all I could do not to thrust the sleeping tot into her arms and run for the hills.
I guess my main issue here is what happened to people being aware of other people’s feelings and being polite, even gracious? I’m not that old (really, I’m not) but I can remember people being polite to each other, even on planes. Can we get back to that? Can we? It would mean so much to so many. I guess the “me generation” must have started it and the millennials are taking it to the next level but can we not “just get along” but can’t we be kind to one another? Kind, like not getting in people’s personal space because you think what you are doing is more important than your seatmate’s comfort? Kind, like keeping your shoes on in the plane and if you have to take them off, put on clean fuzzy socks and don’t put them on someone else’s armrest. Kind, like checking behind you before you put your seat back and police your damn kids. Last time I checked, I was not being paid to be your babysitter or to tell your kids the rules of polite intercontinental travel. So, please, let’s be kind to one another. Let’s be nice to one another. And Southwest, widen those plane seats, will ya’?

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1 thought on “Personal Space on Planes”

  1. Preach it, I fly a lot, and as you know from my FB, it’s those who think they are in their home that annoy me. Please do not sleep on my shoulder, elbow me, fart, belch, and have your nasty bare feet on my leg. Your kids are not min and I don’t need to hear their ipad for 6 hours. I could go on and on. Traveling is not glamorous.

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Naomi Brett Rourke is the pen name for the author, teacher, and theatre director living near the beach with her husband Tim. Naomi Brett Rourke has three children, three step-children and nearly a baseball team of grandkids. Her menagerie includes dogs, cats and a tortoise. When not writing, she can be found with a book in her hand, very often reading two or three at a time, with murder mysteries and horror being her favorites.


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