I'm on a four and a half hour flight from Las Vegas to Jacksonville, FL, and I'm feeling quite comfortable right now as I type this into the handy Wordpress app on my iPhone. Sure, the old woman beside me smells a bit smokey... but she's friendly, quiet, isn't using the armrest between us (even though middle seat should always get dibs) and best of all is "normal" sized.
Southwest Airlines has an interesting seating policy. They assign you a letter and number, not a seat. When it's time to board, you line up in the order of your letter/number combo... and once you're on the plane you take whatever seat you want (um except in the cockpit, thankfully).
This leaves room for a little fun and a lot of anxiety, especially on a full flight.
Lan and I typically choose aisle seats across from one another. This allows us to talk to each other without having to sit side by side and without the need to talk over someone, which is strangely considered rude. The game then becomes the task of making the seats next to you look as unappealing as possible.
The window seat next to me was taken right away by a nice older gentleman. This was a good first step. Immediately after, a cute girl who we'd spoken to and joked around with in line at Burger King in the airport came down the aisle, and I suggested she take Lan's window seat, which she did. Lan then had her leave her bag on the middle seat, while he slouched down and tried to appear to be larger than he is and sloppy looking. This is actually a pretty good play.
There are, of course, more effective methods, but they often come at a cost. As people come down the aisle you can have bouts of coughing and/or sneezing. This tears up your throat though and almost requires that you continue with the act even after someone sits down (if they are brave or don't care, or even worse, if they are already sick themselves). Otherwise your plan becomes obvious and you just look like a jerk. That makes for an awkward flight and almost guarantees an armrest war.
For this flight I chose "the wall". I leaned forward and buried my head in my iPhone, creating a formidable barrier while shielding my face from passers-by. This method has three layers of protection. First of all, it shields my face, which doesn't allow someone the ability to judge how good of a seat companion I'd be, and in this case the mystery is usually enough to compel a would-be-middle-seater to move on. Secondly, since people normally like an invitation before they join two existing people who have already staked out their territory in any situation, the hidden face also means they can't just give you that friendly nod as they approach, because you stupidly made eye contact first, which then means you agree to get out of the way for them to enter the row. Lastly, people normally hate interrupting someone else, and since I look so intensely busy on my muy importante iPhone they have to tap my shoulder to get my attention and ask if I'll move so they can get in. This is undesirable to most, and they cattle on.
DON'T HOLD OUT FOREVER
At some point you will likely notice when a flight is really filling up, and you have to start planning for a much unwanted intruder. This is a list of the most common choices from least worst to absolute worst (there are subcategories for all of these which include sweatiness, cough factor, general hygiene among other things, but these are the basics):
1. Attractive women - I don't actually know who they end up sitting by, maybe there's a really cool separate room for them in back because they never stop at my row.
2. 16-24 year old skinny people - They usually aren't experienced fliers, which makes it more likely that they will be too shy to take the armrest even when it's rightfully theirs. They also are usually too embarrassed or nice to wake you up so they can use the restroom, and would rather sit and hold it. They also don't typically strike up meaningless nap-depriving conversations. Bonus!
3. Business people in suits (still skinny) - These people usually travel often so they know to use the restroom beforehand, they know the armrest rules but are sometimes evolved enough to understand the positions that exist that allow two people to use the armrest at the same time, and they are usually too busy reading a book or looking at pie charts to be annoying in any other way.
4. Older people (still skinny) - They have to use the restroom more often and don't have reservations about waking you up so they can do so, but they are usually polite about it. They sometimes come with interesting odors, from smoke to perfume to old-people-smell, but this is usually tolerable especially once the flight is in motion and the vents are blowing. They are more chatty than any of the previous categories, but will typically let you sleep if you can find the opportunity to close your eyes in between sentence.
5. People with children - I love kids. Just not on planes. They can't sit still or be quiet or understand the effect they can have on those around them trying to nap... but they can't be blamed for it. I just want them to be children in another row. But not the one behind me because they'll kick the back of my seat JUST as I'm falling asleep.
6. Fat people - I'm chubby. But I still fit in the seat without my arms or rolls encroaching into the seat next to me. So when I say fat I only mean people who make it impossible for you to be comfortable because their bodies are actually unable to stay contained to their space as defined by the borders of their seats. I know what it's like to struggle with my weight, so I'm not saying they shouldn't exist or that they need to diet or anything like that. It's just absolutely uncomfortable to sit next to them on planes.
Actually #6 has major subcategories that correspond, in order, with #s 1-5 of the list. 1-5 are the skinny versions. So I guess it should be:
6. Fat attractive women.
7. 16-24 year old fat people.
8. Fat business people in suits.
9. Fat old people.
10. Fat people with kids. Or people with fat kids.
11. Fat people with fat kids. (I realized this was worse than either of the options in #10.
There is also another category that I think would best even #1, attractive women. That would be drug mules. I think they'd be small and try to be as invisible as possible. Not taking the armrest, not going to the restroom (to avoid suspicion), and pretty much non-talkative. The only reason they don't make the list is because they aren't the easiest to identify. Unless people really can tell when someone looks like they have something up their butt.
If you have a full flight, SOMEONE is going to sit next to you. Lan's fat-slouch and the purse were doing such a good job that everyone moved on. Not one person stopped. He and his fun companion (who was a nice mix of categories 1 and 2) celebrated. Far too soon.
After a few minutes, an 18-year-old-looking kid came up from the back and asked to sit between them. Apparently there were no more seats in the back. They hesitated before saying yes and he awkwardly said that he saw a seat (the only other open seat) ahead of them and that he'd sit there instead. And THAT was their big mistake.
Sometimes you take something undesirable in order to avoid something even worse. Sometimes in life you have to understand that luck doesn't always last forever. Sometimes you give in, ESPECIALLY to a #2.
They should have taken the kid.
About 30 seconds later, after their sighs of relief at having averted an attack on their beloved open middle seat, one more person came up from the now-full back. She had nowhere else to go. She sat between them. She's still sitting there now as I type this. Lan is trying to nap, next to his very own number 9.