Airplane Etiquette: On Old Women and Window Seats

by  Zoë Mintz | Aug 2, 2012
Plane in the sky
Plane in the sky / undefinedundefined/iStock

Air travel brings out the worst in anyone. Check-in and security lines resemble cattle herds – a completely dehumanizing process where we’re searched inside and out.  By the time we board, we’re not on our best behavior. Whether it’s getting the emergency row, silencing the crying baby or stubborn seat kicker, we pine for the little things that make us happy. Our own Mike Barish is an aisle guy. As for me, I like creating a nap nook that the window seat allows.

For some travelers, seat preferences are something sacred and worth fighting for. A recent New York Times piece describes how author Joe Sharkey refused to forfeit his aisle seat, citing that he paid extra for it. Last summer, my mother and I went to London and Paris to celebrate that she was in remission from breast cancer. On our first flight we encountered a similar situation:

An elderly woman with bags at her feet, blanket on her legs, and book on her lap stared at me from the bright blue KLM window seat. My window seat. I glanced at my boarding pass to ensure that I wasn’t mistaken. Hours earlier, with giant overweight bags in tow, I had requested a window seat for this transatlantic flight from Montreal to Amsterdam.

As I leaned in to kindly tell the old lady that she was in the wrong seat my mother pulled me back. “Go get the flight attendant,” she instructed. Apparently, in situations like this, an intermediary is key. I did as I was told, and the young airline employee explained the situation to the elderly woman. Her cloud grey hair framed her wrinkled features. She had a thick Dutch accent and her answer surprised me. Since she had been unable to reserve a window seat when she checked-in, she decided to just sit in one.

The flight was full, the flight attendant told her. If she was to have the window seat, it was up to me to give it to her. I looked at my mother, my manners mentor since I was a child. At this moment, however, she left the decision to me. “Just remember, Zoë, it’s a seven hour flight.”

I asked the woman to move.

A girl no older than my 23-year-old self was seated in the window seat in the row behind ours. After my decision was made, she offered her seat to the older woman. Rather than sitting in the empty middle seat beside her, the girl moved to our row. After putting her bags away and buckling herself in, it became clear why she decided to make the move. She turned to my mother and said, “You girls are such bitches.” Under the impression that we had no hearts, she began to lecture us on my merciless decision. Nearby passengers joined in the attack.

It took a lot to get us on the plane that evening. During my mother’s year-long treatment, doctor’s orders forbade her from straying away from her hospital. With this in mind, my mother’s temper emerged. “It’s none of your fucking business,” she told the girl. Awkward silence resonated down our row for the next seven hours. Bathroom breaks were a no-go and access to our bags in the overhead bins seemed like an insurmountable goal.

Of course there’s room for common courtesy while traveling. Had my flight been shorter, I would have happily given up my seat. However, a plane is not the NYC subway. There is no priority seating for seniors and pregnant women. Thankfully, I did not have to continue the debate on the flight. I feel asleep. That’s why I asked for the window seat.

What are your thoughts on giving up your seat on a plane? Join the debate in the comments.

Air Berlin plane at runway before takeoff
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