I must preface this by saying that I spend a greater than normal amount of time above 10,000 feet. It goes without saying that after spending half of your child's college fund to purchase a plane ticket that either doesn't leave at the time you wanted or you end up having seven connections then having to grit your teeth and bear it through the few hours of torture you're bound to endure until you make it to your final destination, you're most likely a wee bit aggravated.
Smart phones have made the checking in and scanning boarding passes process relatively seamless. If only we had smart phones for getting through security in one piece. It seems as though we pack our belongings and get dressed on the morning of our flight only to unpack everything we've brought and then proceed get naked as TSA pats us down. Looking at this process with humor is the only reason I am not the individual featured on the six o'clock news who strips naked in front of TSA and yells "I ain't got nothin to hide!" But after removing a few layers and waiting patiently that awkward process is (thankfully) over.
After the stripping and unpacking comes the mad dash to see how close one can possibly get to the gate before they start boarding, even though you are zone four, without getting questioned by security. One of the better perks of flying frequently is generally getting assigned to zone 1. But for those unlucky souls who are in zone 4 with a rather large carry on bag.. may the odds be ever in your favor.
So after possibly selling your firstborn to afford this flight, getting naked and showing TSA all your intimate lingerie, and trying to channel the hulk while shoving your carryon into an overhead bin now comes the fun part.. meeting your new best friends, aka your seat mates.
It's awkward enough to have to sit in a close proximity (two seats away) in a doctors office or public transportation, but now you are literally squished like sardines into a can. Calling yourselves seat mates is just false to be honest, you are now intimately acquainted due to brushing hands on more that one occasion, touching the poor person's butt while searching for your seatbelt, and spilling some of your coke in their direction.
All these slightly comical yet frustrating interactions aside I have met some of the greatest and most interesting people on my various flights. I've met a software designer, a teacher who recently left her job to care for her brother who has Down syndrome full time, a newly enlisted marine, a preacher from Alabama, a conservationist from England, a woman serving in the Navy who specializes in counter intelligence, a young man who was petrified of air travel (and my knowledge of plane crash statistics did not help by the way), a businessman who hated his work blackberry almost as much as I hate mine, and a former airline pilot. Let me be clear when I say this list is not inclusive, I should have been keeping track months ago. Striking up a conversation when you are actually trapped in a confined space is much easier than anywhere where one party can't run away but each seatmate has a story to tell, an experience to share. And that in itself is a powerful lesson, a lesson of listening because you never know what you'll learn and a lesson of compassion because you never know what burdens another carries.
On my latest flight I received a mysterious free alcohol or special drink coupon on my boarding pass, slightly stumped I proceeded to use it for a glass of white wine at 30,000 feet. I mentioned to the flight attendant that I'd never seen this before and how grateful I was, she smiled but shrugged it off. After this brief interaction a woman in the row in front of me turned around to steal a peek at who I was and a smile slowly crept across her face. She tried to hide it but someone grinning wildly is hard to miss. After a few more passengers redeemed a free drink coupon and her smile growing harder to hide every moment I just had to ask. Turns out her best friend was celebrating her 30th birthday. And that may be just another milestone to most of us except that her friend had battled stage 3 cancer and won. Living to 30 was something she never thought she would accomplish and today she is cancer free. Instead of asking for gifts she requested the money be spent to pay it forward, whether that be donating the money to charity, paying for someone meal who's behind you at the drive thru, or brightening the evening of stressed and harried passengers. The only thing she asked of us was to pay it forward in the future and continue the chain.
The people you meet on planes may humor, aggravate, excite, annoy, or sneeze on you at times but they will always teach you a lesson in compassion and acceptance. We are all flawed, we all have our shortcomings and baggage but we are all human. We are all beautiful just the way we are.
So go out today and pay it forward or strike up a conversation with a passenger in the seat next to you and really listen to what they have to say, I guarantee you won't regret it.