Chance Encounters

Three women, one airplane journey, and an unexpected friendship

Story by Francesca Street, CNN. Illustrations by Leah Abucayan, CNNPublished 14th March 2022
(CNN) — Regina Dew was one of the first passengers to board the Southwest Airlines flight from Phoenix, Arizona to Baltimore, Maryland.
It was May 2013 and Dew, then 66, was on her way back from a family wedding. She'd been suffering from ill-health and so had arranged for wheelchair assistance to help her with the journey. There was no reserved seating on the flight, but early boarding secured her a coveted front row seat.
Not long after, Debra Jonsson, then 57, traveling from her home in Arizona to visit her daughter, joined her by the bulkhead. Dew was by the window, so Jonsson grabbed the aisle seat, her preferred spot.
More passengers poured onto the plane and Winnie McMorrow, then 67, returning from visiting a friend in Monument Valley, was soon sandwiched between Dew and Jonsson.
The three women were strangers to one another, but as the flight readied for take off, they recognized one another as like-minded souls.
Dew had said a friendly hello to both women when they'd sat down. Then she and McMorrow bonded when they both got their knitting needles out.
"Knitting or crocheting keeps me sane on a flight. So I had my crocheting going and Regina was also knitting," McMorrow tells CNN Travel. "On the other side of me, Deb was working, probably, on her computer, because she took that quite frequently back and forth. But then we started chatting."
Before long, Jonsson had closed her laptop and the three were deep in conversation.
"It was like we were the only ones on the plane," Jonsson tells CNN travel.
"We just started getting along right away, we seemed to just hit it off, like we had been friends for years," adds Dew.
Jonsson is a frequent flier. She previously worked for many years as a flight attendant for TWA, and is now in the hotel business. She's also practiced yoga for over three decades.
She suggested to the other two women that the flight attendants should guide passengers through a seated yoga practice during flights.
Both Dew and McMorrow jumped on the idea, encouraging Jonsson to contact Southwest to discuss the proposition.
"We were talking and giggling and making all kinds of suggestions of what they could do -- the airline industry -- to make our flights even more enjoyable," says Dew.
"We just joked back and forth," says McMorrow.
The conversation moved on to their respective travel plans that day, and then to their lives, careers and families.
Soon, Jonsson was flagging down a flight attendant, buying the women each a glass of wine.
"Debra treated us to wine, which was nice," says McMorrow. "And we shared our stories."
"We were talking about our families and sharing information about our children and what they were doing," recalls Dew.
The three were of a similar age, with shared values, but had also led quite different lives in different parts of the country. McMorrow is a retired nurse based in Maine who loves traveling. Dew, based in Albany in New York, says she wishes she'd traveled more, but is passionate about Reiki healing, as well as her volunteer work helping people living with AIDS.
All three were united by a love of exchanging ideas, and of finding moments of joy and connection in the everyday.
"It was almost magical," says Dew. "I couldn't hardly believe that we were getting along that well. It hardly ever happens."
Flying from Phoenix to Baltimore usually takes around four hours, but bad storms that day changed the flight path, extending the journey by over an hour.
For Dew, Jonsson and McMorrow, the time flew by.
"The storm gave us more time to bond," says Dew.
"It was the fastest, most memorable flight I remember," says McMorrow.
"We probably shut up for the announcements and that was it," says Jonsson, who adds that there's something cathartic about unloading with strangers.
"We didn't have a history. We didn't need to know the history. That's what's special. It's outside of anything else, I think."

Continuing the connection

From left to right: Regina Dew, Winnie McMorrow and Debra Jonsson, who met by chance on a Southwest airplane.
From left to right: Regina Dew, Winnie McMorrow and Debra Jonsson, who met by chance on a Southwest airplane.
Courtesy Regina Dew, Winnie McMorrow and Debra Jonsson
When the plane landed in Baltimore, the three women went their separate ways, onto their connecting flights.
"You feel like you came away meeting some really great people," says McMorrow. When she got back to Maine, she shared details of the memorable flight in her journal.
"On [the] trip home I sat between two extremely interesting women and the five-hour flight went by quickly," she wrote.
Over the next couple of days, the women looked one another up online, connecting on social media.
From there, they shared their home addresses. Jonsson sent the other three greeting cards she'd designed. McMorrow says she was struck by how thoughtful this was.
As they started to communicate on Facebook, Jonsson, Dew and McMorrow discovered they had even more in common than they'd realized on the plane. Staying in touch was a natural next step.
"I think because of our age, I think we like some of the same things," suggests Jonsson.
They all have a shared appreciation for beauty, she says.
"Whether it's a beautiful yarn or a beautiful tapestry. I know that they particularly comment on photos that I post of scenery."
Over the last nine years, McMorrow, Jonsson and Dew have come to respect and value one another as a faraway connection capable of lighting up their day from afar.
Jonsson says getting a message from either woman is "like a warm hug."
Some years ago, when Jonsson moved from Arizona to Utah, Dew mailed her a Utah travel book, along with a bookmark with the following inscription:
"Good friends are like stars... You don't always see them, but you know they are always there."
"The bookmark is something I still use," says Jonsson.
Dew says keeping up with both women on social media is "joyous" and inspirational.
"That just encourages me to keep on growing," she says. "Both of those ladies encourage me in that."
"If you get a post from Regina, you know it is going to be something worthwhile, valuable, have a lot of cultural aspects to it. She's just a great person," says McMorrow.
"And Debra is like a mover and a shaker. She's just had so many experiences. And oh, when she posts about a project that she's working on, it's just so much fun to see. And I think of Deb as such a family person. She has the most beautiful family."
The space the three created on the airplane for deep connection and exchange of ideas has also migrated to social media.
"I think that's the beauty of meeting a stranger in keeping up with a stranger," says Jonsson. "That gift, for me, is I can speak freely to these women and I might talk to them about things I would never talk to my kids about."
From time to time, the three still discuss Jonsson's airplane yoga idea -- they all agree the recent uptick in disruptive airplane passengers suggests it could be needed now more than ever.
The women are also there for one another from afar. Last fall, when Dew got back from a period in hospital, waiting for her was a bouquet of flowers sent by Jonsson.
"I was truly astounded by her kindness and her generosity and her caring, it just touched my heart so deeply," says Dew. "Winnie and Deb both are terrific supports for my journey."

Life-long friends

After meeting on the flight, Regina Dew, Winnie McMorrow and Debra Jonsson kept in contact via social media and snail mail.
After meeting on the flight, Regina Dew, Winnie McMorrow and Debra Jonsson kept in contact via social media and snail mail.
Leah Abucayan/CNN
When Dew, Jonsson and McMorrow parted ways at the airport in Baltimore, they knew it was unlikely they'd see one another again in person.
But that doesn't mean the three don't daydream about a reunion one day.
"That would be super," says McMorrow.
She'd love to meet Jonsson's family and get a glimpse of her life and work in Utah, explore Albany with Dew and see her many volunteer activities -- and she'd relish showing them both around Maine.
Dew, meanwhile, suggests the three could get together for a think tank of sorts, discussing how to make flying more enjoyable.
"I think that would be a useful tool for us to get together, brainstorm and have some airline -- or all the airlines -- agree to accept these ideas of forming friendships, alliances, on the planes," says Dew.
"If Deb and Winnie and I could be part of a project to reverse what's going on the negativity and be part of the positivity? I'd be all for it."
Jonsson imagines the three would hang out somewhere near a beach and "eat, tell stories [and] create new memories."
Whatever happens in the future, the women say they'll continue to stay in contact via social media and snail mail.
"For some reason, we were on that plane together so that we could be friends forever," says Jonsson. "Even if we never saw each other again, the rest of our lives -- and we were pretty sure we wouldn't -- that we could just care for each other after that."
"We're going to communicate as long as there's a way to do that, with technology, we'll communicate forever," she adds. "And we're not young cookies, so we're going to share a lot of love and sorrow."
The three friends hope their story will encourage others to be open to connection and embrace positivity.
"I would like people to be ready and open to embrace the simple, unexpected things that travel can bring to their lives," says McMorrow. "Worldwide travel opens our eyes for sure, but [it] can happen on a short domestic trip."
"I think that's the message that Deb, Winnie and I discovered that day, on our little journey," agrees Dew. "Why not be friends? It's so much more enjoyable."