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By "Guido Veloce"
Illustration by Gilbert Ford

Airlines have frequent flyer miles all wrong. It's not just how far you fly that makes a flight long. It's also who sits near you. The time has come for a passenger insurrection — not about inedible food, poor on-time records, lost luggage, or steerage-class seating. Those things are hopeless. We want bonus miles for annoying seat mates.

Our flight began well enough, with me on the aisle, my soon-to-be-suffering wife in the middle, and a seemingly pleasant middle-aged woman in the window seat. She spoke English poorly, but began by telling the story of a five-week visit with her daughter, the first in many years. She was returning to her home on the Baltic. So far, so good.

Then came the little things. She had special dietary needs. No problem there. But she also had special coffee needs. She used copious amounts of cream and sugar, demanding it from the flight attendant after he turned to other passengers. We automatically began to give her ours. That solution lasted only one or two more beverage services. She requested a small carton of milk, duly delivered, then insisted that the liquid in it was inappropriate for her coffee, which required exactly the same kind of milk from the flight attendant's cart. It was still relatively early in the flight and we wrote that one off to a language problem, not a character flaw.

Then came a deluge of requests for service. Because she never mastered the button to call the flight attendant, she devised a code of her own: raising her arm, fluttering her hand, and making high-pitched noises. She fluttered to have many special needs met, including a protracted attempt to buy a copy of an on-flight promotional video for Australia. It mostly featured sweeping aerial shots of the coastline, new age music, and pictures of young men and women in bathing suits. (In fairness to her, it wasn't the worst movie on the flight.) Among the other things demanding immediate attention was her entertainment monitor, which "broke" and, she insisted, needed to be replaced. After several minutes — as my wife and I stood in the aisle — the flight attendant discovered the problem. She didn't know how to operate the controls.

By themselves, each of those would be a minor irritation, but taken together, our companion's repertoire of quirks was literally exhausting, especially her inability to stay in her seat. Whenever we started to doze, she'd have to go to the bathroom, a non-negotiable demand under any circumstance. These walkabouts lasted around 20 minutes, and the pattern persisted, at roughly two-hour intervals, for the 21 hours we were on the airplane together. We became skeptical that the call was entirely nature's. I could see her in the open area near the restrooms standing with elbows bent and fists near her chest, flapping her arms. It was either an exercise, a perspiration issue, or a misguided attempt to help the plane fly.

Around the midpoint of the journey she came back from one such expedition promising to look for another seat. That took yet another 20 minutes, after which she returned, having found no satisfactory alternative, including my seat, which I offered for her convenience, or an open aisle seat three rows down.

At that point paranoia set in, perhaps out of sleep deprivation. We recalled the fictitious Kazakhastani journalist, Borat, played by a British comic, whose bad accent and worse behavior encouraged Americans to make idiots out of themselves as movie cameras rolled. I became convinced that a film crew was secretly taping reactions to our companion. Upon landing we'd be asked to sign a release and assured that we would receive credit in the movie. Henceforth, we knew her as the Bride of Borat.

The trip ended without a homicide, but with a flourish nonetheless. A flight attendant came by to explain to the Bride of Borat the logistics of the wheelchair she ordered. At first we were puzzled why someone with a proven ability to walk aisles needed a wheelchair. Then it became obvious: She found a way to have someone else get her to the right terminal for her next flight. It was tempting to ask if she had a window seat, but we knew the answer.

Qantas, you're on notice: Double frequent flyer miles for that one.

"Guido Veloce" is a Johns Hopkins University professor.

Return to February 2007 Table of Contents

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