Is plane talk dying?

Me and Melvin plane-spotting at Frankfurt Airport.

Me and Melvin plane-spotting at Frankfurt Airport.

“I don’t talk to people on planes anymore. To be honest, I can’t remember the last time I had a conversation with someone sitting next to me on a plane”, I said to Melvin as we stood on the plane-spotters deck next to one of Frankfurt Airport’s runways. Another 747 rumbled past as I dwelled on this thought.

Melvin responded: “That would’ve been me!… Our flight from Durban to Johannesburg.” We had a good chuckle about it and Melvin added that he too seldom speaks to people on planes.

Has flying become less social?

“Why is that? Has flying become less social?” I wondered out loud. In my teens, even in my 20’s, I would often strike up a conversation with anyone sitting next to me in a plane. I found it fascinating to learn more about that person; where they were from, where they were going to and why, and what they did. One conversation I would never forget happened on a flight from Sydney to Kuala Lumpur. I was 14 and on my way home. An elderly lady sat next to me – she was Australian and was on her way to visit relatives in Germany – and we hit it off in an instant. We talked almost non-stop for the entire duration of the flight (about nine hours) and Renate and I became good friends. Since then, we’ve visited each other and every year, around Christmas, we send each other a card and a long letter detailing our year – she’s the only person I still communicate with via ‘snail mail’!

Visiting Renate in her hometown Canberra.

Visiting Renate in her hometown Canberra.

Another time, I sat next to a journalist from the Wall Street Journal. As I was studying Economics at the time, we engaged in a lengthy and lively discussion about the political-economic situation of the world at the time.

So, why don’t I do that anymore? I thought about this and recalled the drunk I sat next to on a flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur who cursed and yelled at me and others around us. The cabin staff warned him to stop several times but they couldn’t change my seat as the flight was full. After several hours, he passed out in his seat for the rest of the flight. That incident certainly put me off talking to people on planes for a bit, but it certainly isn’t the answer to my question.

She didn’t say another word to me during the rest of the 12-hour flight.

That said, I probably haven’t always been the most pleasant person to fly with either. One time, I sat next to a lady and as the plane lifted off the runway, I remarked how amazing it was that a machine weighing more than 400,000kg could simply take off into the sky like a bird. She clutched the armrests tightly and glared at me before saying that she preferred not to think of such things while in the air. She didn’t say another word to me during the rest of the 12-hour flight. Haha!

A little escape

I still haven’t answered that question now have I? I guess the answer lies in one’s state of mind or perspective. When I was younger, flying was a great adventure and I was all too eager to share my excitement with anyone who bothered listening to me. These days, I see flying as a means to get from point A to B. Moreover, busy schedules and an equally busy personal life leaves little time for myself. Flying has become a little escape – my time for me; a place where I can quietly pursue leisurely activities like reading a book or watching a movie or playing Angry Birds (my favourite!). I also use this time to reflect on something or come up with new ideas.

I don’t seem to be the only one who thinks this way. Most people I sit next to these days seem quite pleased that I’m not the talkative type. There’s often a quick exchange of pleasantries, then the headphones appear or they bury themselves in a book: a clear “Do Not Disturb” sign. People are also willing to pay more for their privacy. Many airlines these days have single seats, or screens separating two seats in Business and First Class.

In cathay Pacific's Business Class cabin, screen separate each passenger.

My own space in Cathay Pacific’s Business Class cabin.

At the other end of the spectrum, airlines like KLM have introduced social media integration during the booking process, allowing passengers to check if anyone in their social circles are on board the same flight. I’ve never used this function.

When was the last time you had a conversation with the person sitting next to you in a plane?

Have you met someone on a plane who inspired you or someone with whom you became friends/partners? Please feel free to share your story in the comments section below.

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23 Responses to “Is plane talk dying?”

  1. Keith Jenkins 02/12/2014 2:08 pm

    Phew! Glad it was in jest! ๐Ÿ˜‰

  2. Tiny Traveller 01/12/2014 12:21 am

    The last person I talked to on a plane punched me in the arm.

    He was a flight attendant on a Finnair flight from London to Helsinki.

    (The punch was in jest!)

  3. Keith Jenkins 24/02/2014 2:08 pm

    Hey Nicole,
    Thanks for your lovely comment and for sharing your experiences! I also like talking to the flight attendants when they have time. They often have lots of funny travel tales to tell. ๐Ÿ™‚


  4. Nicole 24/02/2014 2:01 pm

    I sat next to the same guy from Melbourne to London, via. Dubai. He didn’t say a single word to me the whole flight, even when I tried cracking a joke before take off in Dubai.

    I don’t often talk to people on planes, like you it’s a respite from schedules and often the rush to the airport, but the most memorable – and probably the last full conversation I had – was with a guy who was flying from San Diego via. Las Vegas, Phoenix and Denver to get to Texas (almost 24-hours of flying!) just to fire a guy from his job.

    We discussed this at length, world travel, the American economy (which at the time was just when the recession began), life, love and why the heck he didn’t drive to LA and take a direct flight! The memories may still be around because he was insistent that we drink together and kept ordering double drinks as a way for him to sleep well that night and for me to celebrate being in America and the end of a bad road trip.
    Everyone else in Business was silent or sleeping while he was roaring with laughter.

    I also try talking to the fight attendants when they have time.
    I like to thank them, particularly ones who have made my trip memorable, and also to have a normal conversation with them! Some of my best travel tips are from hosties. ๐Ÿ™‚

  5. Keith Jenkins 01/10/2013 1:10 pm

    Thank you Wendy! ๐Ÿ™‚ I agree with you, it often depends on our mood at the time.

  6. wendy 01/10/2013 4:57 am

    I was reading a travel article and your blog came up! Glad I stumbled upon your blog, its really fun reading.

    Ya, I totally agree, I believe sometimes its also who you are sitting next too. and your mood at that time. I would love to chat, but sometimes its the topic we choose to chat, in my mind would be..”what if we had a sudden awkward silence cos we don’t have much to continue.” That awkwardness could leave a weirdness for the next 10hrs on flight. so lets just mind our own business and not start it.

  7. Keith Jenkins 04/09/2013 10:32 am

    Thanks Lorenzo for sharing your views. I guess we all just want a peaceful, pleasant flight. Guess that’s what makes sitting next to a non-talkative person rather appealing. ๐Ÿ™‚

  8. Lorenzo 03/09/2013 12:40 pm

    I still make an effort to strike up a conversation whenever I’m flying, but with the advent of
    “excessive use” of Social Media, people have become too awkward to talk to. It’s almost as if they aren’t used to chatting with strangers anymore. I also understand that people like to be in control of their surroundings and are afraid of talking to someone that will make their flight terrible?

  9. Keith Jenkins 30/08/2013 6:54 am

    Wow, thanks so much Julio for sharing. Those were some pretty horrific experiences! Glad you also had some pleasant flights! ๐Ÿ™‚


  10. Julio Moreno 29/08/2013 4:23 pm

    I feel like I’ve had similar situations on planes these days. Usually, I bring my journal along in the plane to see if someone strikes up a conversation (begging the “what cha doing?” question). I have tried myself, but it has, at times, lead to some disastrous results.

    This sums up my past experiences:

    *10 hour flight Seoul to Amsterdam with a rather smelly 20 yr old.
    *10 hour flight Amsterdam to Seoul with middle aged women talking to each other the whole time, while basically leaning over my seat and covering my screen the entire time. The crew wouldnt say anything because of the honor older people are given in Korea
    *5 hour flight with a guy who took up at least a seat and a half.

    But I had had some pleasant flights.

    *I met a girl on a flight in 2009. We didnt speak each others language but found out we live in the same city. We exchanged info, but I lost track of her once we reached China. We actually hung out when I returned, but the magic of “meeting on a plane” had ended.

    I wish I met more talkative people on planes :(…and that I wasnt so shy.

  11. Explorista 26/08/2013 5:46 pm

    I hardly ever fly alone. One time I did though, to Barcelona. I was young and afraid of flying (too many episodes of Air Crash Investigations ;-)). I flew to my parents and sister who would pick me up. I was sitting next to a young couple and was too scared to engage in a conversation, because they were too busy with themselves and I was insecure. I would’ve loved to had a chat to ease my fears.

    When I flew to Egypt with my boyfriend we sat next to a really nice guy who chatted away the whole flight. That was lots of fun. He had an amazing outlook on life and a seriously funny accent.

  12. Clifton E. Hill 15/08/2013 6:49 pm

    I still enjoy talking to people on flights, most especially when I’m flying to Ghana. Otherwise, it is a hit and miss. I shy away from conversations with people who are rude, racist, and/or malodorous.

  13. Keith Jenkins 15/08/2013 5:00 pm

    Hi Steph,
    Thanks for your lovely comment. I guess people only start chatting with one another when they’re excited about their trip. Haha! Would be cool if you get to catch up with Eric one day.


  14. Steph | A Nerd at Large 15/08/2013 4:57 pm

    I’ve been wondering lately when airplanes became like libraries. It can be daunting talking to people because you feel so conspicuous. Nevertheless, in January I was on a daytime flight from Toronto to Los Angeles and ended up talking to my seatmate Eric for 5 hours! I was starting my South American odyssey and he was on his way to study veterinary medicine in New Zealand for a year and it was his first time away from home (he was 17 but by his own admission looked like he was 12.) We were both brimming with nervous energy and it was a fun. meandering conversation that seemed to bemuse our third seatmate who stayed silent throughout, but could be seen smirking from time to time. Aside from us chattering away, the rest of the plane was eerily silent. I occasionally think about Eric and wonder how he got on in NZ and whether he still has a photo of his cow on his iPhone case.

  15. Keith Jenkins 15/08/2013 2:07 pm

    Thanks for your comment Jonny! ๐Ÿ™‚

  16. Jonny Blair 15/08/2013 2:06 pm

    Hi Keith good post – I do it a lot less than I used to to be honest. Bars in airports are still cool though. My last few flights Ive been sat beside some right d heads so no talking wanted. Safe travels. Jonny

  17. Andi of My Beautiful Adventures 15/08/2013 3:09 am

    I don’t talk to people next to me, because I talk so much that it’s nice to just be quiet. Plus, I’m always so excited to catch up on movies and books that I haven’t had the time for!

  18. Guilherme Tetamanti 13/08/2013 8:05 pm

    I realy can’t remember if i had a good talk during a flight…probably not. That’s a shame, because in a lot of situations, the person sitting next can have a lot in commom.

  19. Renuka 13/08/2013 5:39 pm

    The idea that you picked is intriguing, but I am also one of those who prefer a private space while flying – no endless conversations please! The only time I remember really talking to someone was a student sitting next to me on a flight from Mumbai to Delhi.

    But I really appreciate your friendship with the old Australia lady – that’s a valuable one!

  20. Daniele Polis 13/08/2013 3:02 pm

    Melvin, I guess this is a good reason! Ahaha

    Well, the last time I travelled alone (the last couple years I’ve been traveling with my husband), I tried to talk to a girl that was sitting next to me, but she was not that open to conversation ahaha
    But I remember the first time I was coming to Brazil, after 3 months away from home, and I had the overnight flight talking with a veteran, that shared lots of experience with me. This was nice.

  21. Keith Jenkins 13/08/2013 1:24 pm

    LOL!!! That’s a good reason. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  22. Melvin 13/08/2013 1:14 pm

    I remember that a guy I had a really good conversation with, threw later up on me. Is that why I stopped talking to people on planes? hahaha ๐Ÿ˜‰


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