THE BLOG

Can't We At Least Acknowledge Each Other When We Fly?

03/03/2014 02:30 pm ET | Updated May 03, 2014

We've all experienced it when flying. You sit in the tin can for three, four, maybe even 12 hours and you completely ignore the people sitting next to you. As in not a word. No eye contact. Not even when getting up from your window seat to use the lav, disturbing the people in the middle and aisle seats.

It's just weird. It's probably the reason why, when I fly the JFK-LAX route on American Airlines, I use my miles for a first class seat in their new A321T planes. All the seats are singles. No one sitting next to you, no one to pretend they're not there.

Please read: I am not suggesting that you talk my ear off. Or even engage in an actual conversation.

Look, I understand. We're all paranoid about encountering a motor mouth. It's happened to me only once. It was on a flight from Boston to San Francisco and the woman wouldn't stop talking. She told me her life story, literally. And then (true story!) I somehow ended up standing in back of her in a line for the ATM a few days later and said hello and she had no idea who I was. So much for human interaction.

But still, are we taking "ignore your neighbor while flying" a bit too far?

Again: I don't actually want to have a conversation with you, necessarily. A friendly nod will do. A "pardon me" when you signal that you'd like to get into or out of the row. Even a gentle tap if I'm sleeping. Anything, except that silly silent treatment.

One of the weirdest things about commercial air travel is pretending that the people sitting in your seat row are invisible. I find it truly odd -- maybe it's just me -- sitting next to someone for four, five, six, or 12 hours with a total cone of silence enveloping you.

There's a difference between being a chatty Cathy and simply saying "hello" or at least a wan smile when sitting down at the start of a flight or "excuse me" when getting up from the window or middle seat.

Instead, this is what usually happens these days. The plane is boarding and I'm already sitting in the aisle seat reading a newspaper. Someone stands near the row. He or she does one of the following:

1. Throws something on the middle or window seat and points. No eye contact. No words. Just points. Maybe grunts something.

2. Just stands there waiting for you to get up. Again, no eye contact. No words.

3. Just climbs over you.

And then he or she sits down without saying a word for the remainder of the flight. I see this all the time and it bothers me.

And sometimes it really goes too far. I was on a flight with a colleague on British Airways recently from London to Nairobi. My colleague was in an economy class window seat in a two-by-two seating configuration. I witnessed the person in the aisle seat repeatedly refuse to get up or otherwise accommodate when my colleague had to get up. The aisle seat guy just made him climb over him. They didn't exchange a single word on the 11-hour flight. Weird.

I was on a short flight from Paris to London sitting in a window seat, again on BA, in business class and had to get up. I politely said to the aisle seat passenger "Excuse me" and tried to make eye contact. He grunted and rolled his eyes. I lost it and said, "Don't give me that attitude. I need to use the washroom!" I mean really. Was I out of line?

I'm not a loquacious sort when I fly. I wear my Bose noise-canceling headphones for most of the flight (more to block out wind and engine noise than to send a signal to my seatmates). But I'm always willing to engage in at least limited conversation and I know how to shut it down if it gets out of hand, which, frankly, has happened only that one time. (One other time I had a nice chat with Reebok's VP of Marketing and he sent me a pair of hiking boots, which I still own, so there are advantages to holding a civil conversation.)

When I'm in the window seat and need to get up or sit down, I acknowledge the person in the aisle or middle seats with eye contact, or at least I turn my head towards said person, a hello, an "excuse me, I'm in the window seat." At least I say something. Maybe simply a cheery "sorry!"

So next time you're seated next to me, at least say something ("Good morning" or "Excuse me I'm in 13B" or "You're hogging the armrest" even) and don't cringe if I do the same. Don't pretend I'm not there and I'll do the same. I promise I won't talk your ear off.