Guest columnist Gene Stamell: The middle seat dilemma

By GENE STAMELL

Published: 03-20-2023 2:20 PM

For those readers who like to skim through guest columns, you are in luck. If you have ever traveled on Southwest Airlines, I invite you to hop down to paragraph four. For all others, I offer the following, brief description of Southwest’s boarding protocol. 

Unlike its competitors, Southwest does not assign specific seats. Instead, passengers are placed in three boarding groups, labeled A, B, and C. In addition, each traveler receives a number, 1 - 60, based on several variables, including when one checks in online and type of ticket purchased (Business Class or “Early Bird”).

When it’s time to board, Group A passengers are invited to form a line, beginning with A1 and ending with A60. These people enter the aircraft and sit wherever they choose. Group B, numbers 1-60, is then called, and, finally, Group C. In my few experiences flying Southwest, the procedure works smoothly and speeds up the boarding process.

But here’s something interesting (Welcome back, Southwest veterans!): Each time I have flown with Southwest, I have been placed in Group C, and on each of those flights, I have found a seat in the first six rows of the plane! I’m not sure I have ever sat in the first six rows of any other flight I have taken in my life. What a joy to be one of the first passengers to deplane, avoiding the crush of people opening overhead bins to retrieve their carry-ons.

There is, naturally, one catch: I always sit in a middle seat. Yes, when one boards in Group C, one is confronted with row upon row of passengers occupying aisle and window seats. Virtually every middle seat on the aircraft is empty. This is fascinating, eh? (Well, fascinating to this writer, who admits to being a bit unhinged.) Literally no one opts to sit next to someone else, even when that person is a spouse, partner, friend or business associate.

Now, I understand that almost all of us, when flying alone, would prefer an aisle or window seat; I certainly do. Easy access to the lavatory or having a window view makes flying a bit more tolerable. But when a couple or a pair of friends leaves the middle seat vacant, I’m left thinking: Do these people even like each other? They would rather take their chances with a stranger sitting between them than leaving an end seat open for that unknown passenger?

What if the stranger is a slob? Rude? Very large? Fidgety? Why take the risk?

More than halfway through my most recent flight from Orlando to Hartford, I decided to broach this gripping subject with the woman in the window seat next to me. I knew that she was married to the gentleman on my left, having overheard their one 12-second conversation when I first sat between them. Her eyes were closed but I could tell she was awake. (More accurately, I hoped she was.)

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“Excuse me,” I said, in my most polite way. “Would you mind if I asked you a question?”

“Not at all,” she answered. She had been awake. Phew.

“I don’t mean to be nosy, but I’m curious why you chose to leave an open seat between you and your husband?”

“Well, David must always have an aisle seat. It’s his thing. And, as you can see, he watches movies on his laptop for the entire flight, so I take the window for comfort reasons.”

“So am I right to assume you are both willing to take a risk on who sits between you?”

“Yes. That would be a right assumption.”

I could have probed more deeply, but sensed it was time to give it a rest. I’m quite a perceptive person, you see, and besides, the woman’s body language was a dead giveaway.

Still, the middle seat enigma gnawed at me. Surely a significant majority of Group A and B passengers were traveling with one or more companions. How many people fly from Orlando to Hartford alone? Some, to be sure, but not many. Was it a “Distance makes the heart grow fonder” thing? Had they run out of discussion topics after being holed up together in a Florida motel for a week? Had they forgotten to shower or brush their teeth?

As I was about to exit the airplane, I sidled my way up next to a pleasant flight attendant who was happy to answer a question: “In your experience,” I asked, “what percentage of people who board in Groups A and B choose to sit in a middle seat?”

“Exactly zero,” she said.

“Zero? No, that can’t be true, can it?”

“Sir. You asked and I’m telling you: zero. Now you have a nice day.”

I did have a nice day — it’s always nice to come home. But I returned with the middle seat dilemma nagging away. I just couldn’t get it out of my head. I was determined to do some research to better understand the psychology behind avoiding middle seats at all cost.

When I arrived home, told my wife what was on my mind. She said, “Well, you go ahead and ponder that issue, but, honestly, who cares? You’re home safe. And the garbage needs to go to the dump, ASAP.”

Gene Stamell often ponders life’s big issues at home in Leverett. He can be reached at gstamell@gmail.com.]]>