Am I the jerk on your airplane?

Editor’s Note: Sally Kohn is an activist, columnist and television commentator. Follow her on Twitter: @sallykohn.

Story highlights

Passengers have particular ideas about what makes a plane seat desirable

Switching seats on a plane can be a lot to ask

Feeling like a jerk is a price you might have to pay

CNN  — 

When people file past me during the boarding process, I try not to look up.

I do the same thing on trains, in waiting rooms and, as best as I can recall, high school cafeterias – lowering my eyes, avoiding any contact, trying to discourage anyone from sitting next to me.

Of course I realize everyone on the airplane has an assigned seat. I like seat assignments – the implicit control it gives me over this one tiny facet of an experience otherwise defined by trusting that mechanical jets and aerodynamics and other things I don’t understand at all will somehow get me where I’m going safely.

Sally Kohn

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I accept that I usually have to give up on my hope of no one sitting next to me. I just don’t want to give up my precious, optimally chosen, designated seat.

And so on one recent flight, I didn’t. I declined to switch. Was I a total jerk?

On this particular trip, I’m flying from Washington, D.C., back home to New York City. I’m not going to get into the great plane-versus-Amtrak debate here except to say that the times where the weather has been perfect, flying has definitely been my preferred option. This is not one of those times.

Just a few hours earlier, I was eating at a divey restaurant near the divey Capitol when the sky instantly shifted from blue to bile and the entire room of iPhones went off in unison announcing an impending tornado.

I peered out through the giant piece of plate glass I was seated next to, searching for a funnel cloud, but suddenly the heavens opened up (if there even is a heaven over Washington).

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By the time I got to the airport after lunch, the bottom half of my pants was soaked and my flight was delayed two hours. And wet people angrily waiting for delayed flights just smell. In the absence of any good drugs to calm my irritation, I downed a box of Tic Tacs.

A box and a half later, I’m in my seat on one of those teeny planes that looks more like an accessory than an airship. For this reason, in advance, I had chosen my seat very carefully – seat 8B, squarely in the middle of the little life raft they called a plane.

I’m not afraid of flying, but I don’t like small spaces and I don’t like smells – so being in the middle, looking out near the window, and most importantly away from the bathrooms at the front and rear of the plane (is it my imagination or do they smell worse when it’s raining outside?), that’s why 8B was the seat for me.

What would make seat 8B even better, of course, would be if no one sat in 8A. So as people come down the aisle, I keep my eyes cast downward at my cell phone, sort of reading but not really.

Two little kids walk by and thwack me with their backpacks. A woman with animals on her sweatshirt almost spills a cup of coffee in my lap as she fumbles with her bag. And a man passes by who smells – I didn’t think it possible – worse than the worst airplane bathroom I’ve ever smelled.

You know how airplane bathrooms have those milky white cakes of air freshener bolted to wall just above the toilet? He might as well try using that as deodorant. It would be a step up from nothing.

That’s when it happens. Someone is doing that thing where they bend down and simultaneously lean forward into your personal space, like they’re trying to literally spoon your attention back up toward the land of the conventionally alert. I reluctantly look up.

A man is speaking to me in broken English, explaining that his wife has the seat next to me and he has a seat in the back. “Could you switch and I sit here?” he asks. He has puppy dog eyes. Dammit.

“What seat do you have?” I ask begrudgingly, sounding like the jerk I’m about to become.


17A? Are you kidding me? 17A is not only all the way at the back of the plane but right across from the bathroom. 17A isn’t even really a seat, it’s practically a toilet.

I look back at 17A then the puppy dog. “No, I’m sorry. I’d rather not.” But a polite jerk is still a jerk.

The couple walks to the back of the plane, presumably hoping to have better luck with the passenger in 17B.

Meanwhile, I look back down at my phone, this time to avoid what I’m sure are the judgmental looks of my neighbors. What have I done? It’s a short flight, couldn’t I suck it up? I would build karma.

And maybe they’re tourists and they’re going to go back to wherever home is and tell everyone how horrible Americans are, foreign aid be damned.

And haven’t I asked people to trade seats with me so I could sit with my family? Yes, and when they refused I thought they were jerks. Now I’m the jerk.

The cabin door closes. I stop checking my email and start playing some stupid game to take my stupid mind off my stupid selfishness.

I want to look up at everyone around me and plea defensively, “Come on, you wouldn’t have done it either. I mean, 17A?!?!” But it wouldn’t help. I imagine they hate me right now. After all, I hate myself.

I keep my head down. Suddenly, someone else appears, spooning at my head for attention. I look up.

It’s my new seatmate, the smelly man who passed me before. Of course it is.

Karma doesn’t seem to care that I have frequent flier status. Whatever points I managed to accrue in the past I just promptly lost.

I toss the rest of my Tic Tacs in my mouth, which somehow now taste more sour than before, and I sit back for what is the bumpiest flight I’ve ever taken. Of course it is.

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What do you think? Bad behavior or perfectly reasonable? What would you do?