For a lot of people, air travel isn't their favorite mode of transportation. From fear of heights to air sickness to annoying seat mates, sometimes airplanes can be unbearable. Although, sometimes that is not the case. There's always a chance to have an interesting seatmate, which makes traveling easier and more fun. Luckily, that's what happened to these people.
These folks share the most interesting person they've sat next to on an airplane. Content has been edited for clarity.
"I was flying from Los Angeles to Tokyo where I was stationed in the United States Navy. I had with me my three-year-old son and my newborn one-month-old son. Caring for two kids on a long intercontinental flight was a real challenge, especially since I had not known I was going to be the only adult.
Shortly after getting to cruising speed and altitude, the Chief attendant announced the famous boxer Muhammed Ali was on the plane and wanted to take the time to meet passengers. This was a Boeing 747 with seats in the middle, five if I recall, and seats on either side of the aircraft, probably three on each side. Ali walked down the right side of the aircraft shaking hands and signing autographs. He walked all the way to the back of the aircraft, then headed forward coming up the left side.
I was in coach, middle section next to the left aisle, and almost all the way to the bulkhead before First Class. When Ali reached me, he immediately saw the challenge I was having with two very young children. Instead of passing on by, as most celebrities would have done, he asked if it was alright for him to sit with me for a while. Muhammed Ali sat with my kids and I for hours, playing with the kids and talking about life. He was as nice a guy as I had ever met. Finally, when we were a little more than two hours out of Tokyo, Ali excused himself and said he needed to get some sleep because he had a big fight the next day.
About ten minutes later, this older gentleman came back to my seat, introduced himself as 'Bundini' and said, 'The Champ sent me back to help you take care of the kids.'
He brought with him pin-on buttons, signed photographs, and all kinds of Ali memorabilia.
Mr. Bundini told me if I ever was in a town where Ali was getting ready to fight, I should stop by the training camp and ask for him. Several years later, Ali was getting ready for a fight in the Washington DC area where my family and I were living. On a chance, I gather my two sons up and off we drove to the hotel where Ali had his training camp set up. When I went to the security guy at the entrance to the rooms reserved for Ali, I told him I was looking for Mr. Bundini, and to tell him I was the guy from the airplane trip to Tokyo.
About ten minutes later, here comes Mr. Bundini. He actually remembered my name and invited us to come in to watch the Champ spar. He took the boys and I right up to the ring where we watched. Finally, Ali decided to take a break.
He saw us from across the ring, said loudly, 'John! It's good to see you.'
He shook my oldest son’s hand, patted the younger on the head, then said his goodbye.
I cannot imagine a more interesting airplane trip story."
"I sat next to a young boy and his dad on a seven-hour flight from Oslo to Dubai. The dad was walking around the plane most of the time because of some muscle pain of some sort, so the boy was shifting around in the window seat, obviously very bored. I usually avoid contact with other people on long haul flights because I prefer to watch movies or sleep. But I noticed how bored this kid was and how he kept looking at me, so I started talking to him.
We introduced ourselves. His name was William. He told me he was 10-years-old and in 5th grade at a primary school just outside of Oslo. He told me how older kids bully him for no apparent reason. That he wouldn't tell his teachers or his parents, because he was scared that the bullies would find out. He told me his parents were divorced and he was going to Dubai on Easter holiday with his dad. They were meeting his mother and her new boyfriend there.
I felt bad for him. Divorced parents who try to keep the family together for their child by going on holidays together, but which might ultimately lead to more emotional distress for everyone as they have to be around their new respective love interests. The kid is being bullied at school and doesn't dare tell anyone about it. He fears repercussions for telling his teachers. Maybe he feels that his parents won't take much note of it, or they are too busy with their lives after the recent divorce so they won't care. But he told me.
This was clearly a boy who needed some good influence by a paternal figure in his life, an older brother perhaps, so I decided to play games with him on the entertainment system. I always let him narrowly beat me. We talked freely about football, traveling, etc. We joked and laughed.
A flight attendant took a picture of us with a Polaroid camera. When he was writing our names on the picture I asked him if he remembered my name. He said, 'Of course. Your name is Peter, just like my uncle.'
The dad would sometimes check on us and he apologized for his son disturbing me. I told him it was fine. Later, William proudly showed his dad the Polaroid picture.
When the plane landed and we were going our separate ways I shook William's hand, and told him I was really impressed at how skilled he was at those games we played.
I hope he's fine at school and that his parents are coping well.
I know how it is to be a young boy with divorced parents. Not easy."
"This was on a flight home to Japan several years ago. The little girl next to me asked me, 'What sound does a cow make?'
'Yeah!' She giggled and screamed. She was about 4-years-old.
'And what sound does a pig make?' she asked.
I made some pig sounds. Oink, groan, squeal, grunt.
'Yeah!' Again she giggled and screamed.
Her mother asked her to quiet down. This went on for the whole flight whenever she could think of a new animal.
She eventually asked me nonsense questions like, 'What sound does an octopus make?'
I make up octopus noises, clam noises, and butterfly noises as best my imagination could muster. She pulled out a coloring book and asked if I wanted to color.
'Sure.' It was another eight hours and I had nothing better to do.
So, we colored red and blue striped zebras, polka dot elephants and pink lions. She screamed a high pitch scream when I came up with new coloring ideas. Eventually, she fell asleep and I talked with her mother. They were permanently moving back to Japan after living a few years in the States. Having a cute, giggly, creative girl next to me on a flight was never something I imagined would be so fun. She was hilarious and somehow not intimidated at all.
I wonder how she's doing. That was probably 10 years ago now."
"I was 22, fresh out of college, and landed my first job. I didn't really like it, but I had no clue what other career I should pursue. The job was okay, but I always felt like I was destined to do something else. I just couldn't figure out what. Then, on my way to my hometown, I met this guy on the plane.
I don't normally start a conversation, but he opened up first. An unassuming man in mid-40s of Indian heritage, he told me his story. He's a son of an ordinary store owner who had big dreams. He wanted to travel the world. He didn't have the means, but he was strongly motivated and found some help from a relative.
He studied and worked hard, just to earn enough money to go to Germany and lived there for several months. There he had to work two jobs between classes to support himself. He made it. Seven years later, he graduated with a diploma in Electrical Engineering. He worked in a company for a while but, figured out structured, ordinary life didn't suit him, so he began to travel. He'd spend his times in public libraries researching about his destination countries. He'd use most of his savings and when he ran out, he'd stay for a while in one country and work. He'd do any job basically, from harvesting crops in Italy to writing freelance to becoming a ship crew in Micronesia. He'd been to the world's most magical places and seen some things along the way. He continued his journey world for the next 12 years.
His story was exciting and captivating. I've never heard anything like it in my life. I thought life was about graduate from school, get a job, get a partner, have kids, settle down. I never though there's more to that. It's possible to choose a non-ordinary path. And despite the risks it poses, it can be more fascinating and enriching. When we parted, I felt enlightened. Now I had a purpose. I want to travel and experience it for myself.
Fast-forward two years later: I got a scholarship to Japan. From then on, I started traveling to different countries. A few years later, I wound up in Germany, in a place where it all began for him. By the time I turned 30, I spoke four languages, lived in five countries and visited no less than 15. This may not sound much, but for a girl born and raised in a small town in East Borneo, from an ordinary middle class family, this way of live is unthinkable.
The day I took the courage to follow his footstep was the first day of self discovery. The more I travel, the more I realize about who I am and about my place in the world. So far, my experiences have been eye-opening, humbling, and enriching. I grew more self-assured, knowing that it's okay when you value different things in life compared to most people. I'm glad I met and spoke to him."
"I was flying from New Delhi to Bangalore, all set to take up my first job after graduating from Manipal University. The seat next to me was empty, so I was kind of happy I would not have to shamelessly fight for the armrest. On the aisle was seated this foreigner reading his magazine with his headphones on. We greeted each other, and I got to my window seat. Once all the take off precautions were over, he took out his Mac, a very stylish pair of headphones, and a few pen drives and external hard drives. He connected them all and looked really engrossed in it.
Although I was intrigued by all this, I didn't bother starting a conversation as he had his headphones on. Because there was an empty seat between us, I could get a glimpse of his screen now and then. He was using some software, something to mix and cut and copy or do something with the music he had. I was constantly looking at his screen now. The two and a half hour journey was about to end, and subsequently he had to switch off his laptop and all other electronic devices. Once that was done, I casually asked what was he doing with all the devices and software. I had guessed he was mixing music, but still wanted to confirm. Now, he started talking.
He told me he is a DJ and producer from Neuchâtel, Switzerland and was in India to play at the Sound Awake festival in Bangalore that very night. I did not know Sound Awake was a big festival, and neither had I thought that a famous DJ would travel economy. I started telling him about Hardwell's tours to India, which were planned for September, then how I had enjoyed the SHM concert when they had come to Bangalore. By this time, the aircraft had come to a halt and we were waiting to move out.
Finally, I asked him if he had some tracks online which I could listen to. He was quite pleased to hear that, and told me to listen to Rise Up (Rainbow so high). Now it hit me. He was Yves LaRock. I felt a little embarrassed not recognizing him. We were walking towards the airport shuttle. I told him I was genuinely sorry for not recognizing him at first. He started to laugh, and then he told me this was the best part of the conversation.
'I am happy that you did not recognize me by my face and I am bloody happy that you recognized me by my music. My music is my identity, not my face,' he said.
When we reached the terminal, he went to his agent and then came back while I was waiting for my luggage.
He gave me a Sound Awake pass for that night and with a pat on my back he said, 'Rise Up!'"
"I was flying Senator Goldwater back to D.C. from his home state of Arizona. He’d taken with him a man who was the U.S. Navy liaison to the U.S. Senate. It was late at night, and we were about an hour out of Andrews when the Navy guy came up and started chatting with us in the cockpit. He was pretty interesting, being an active duty Navy captain who had been a former prisoner of war in Vietnam. After the POWs were released, he’d taken a slot as commander of a Naval aviator training unit, so that meant he was no longer rusty as a pilot.
I’m thinking, 'Hmmmm. Former (and famous) POW, very interesting and cool guy, fun to talk to, and fairly current as a pilot. Why not offer him my copilot’s seat?'
He accepted, so I sent my copilot back to chat with Goldwater. The Navy guy flew really well and I let him stay even as we started to descend into Andrews. At first, I’m sure we both thought he’d go back after a while and join Goldwater in the back, but he kept doing well and we were both having fun, so I let him stay longer. Soon, it became obvious to us both that I was going to let him take it to the landing, I’m sure we were both a bit surprised.
He said something about what if he messed up the landing. I said he could explain that to Goldwater! We laughed and he took it on in. He made a nice landing, considering that he was a Navy aviator and not even a real pilot (that’s an old joke, I know, but never call a Navy aviator a pilot—they’re not. We USAF guys can tell because they can’t land at all).
On rollout, Goldwater applauded, which meant he had low standards to be applauding any Navy guy’s landing—just kidding again—and my temporary copilot had a big smile on his face.
It wasn’t until a few years later, however, until I realized exactly how interesting a man I’d been seated next to that night.
It was Goldwater’s future replacement, John McCain."
"Early this year, my wife and I were on a long flight from New York to Mumbai. We had a very ordinary looking Indian person sitting next to us. Shirts were untucked, no laptops, an old attache case.
While taxiing, we started to talk. He asked my mother tongue, I told him that it was Bengali. He said he was from the Northern Mariana Islands and lived in Gujarat, so he knew both Hindi and Gujarati. After a little chit chat, we went to sleep.
Couple of hours later, we talked about cricket and he suddenly started talking in fluent Bengali. No accent, nothing, just like anyone raised in Kolkata. He said language was his passion and he knew more than 40 languages fluently.
And it took him the last hour to recall and load his Bengali skills in the frontal cortex (Well, apparently he kept the language packs in a special drive inside his brain and load time is about an hour). We were impressed, but obviously we were not fully convinced.
I know a little Marathi, I tried that. As fluent as any one from Nagpur. My wife knows Spanish, next that was up for test… and guess what? She was out of words in five mins and she had studied Spanish for two years. I told him I used to live in Bangalore and he started talking Kannada. I had to stop him to say that though I lived there for eight years, I didn't learn to speak that language.
Then he started telling his story. He was with the Indian Navy, and used to be a submarine crew member. He learned lots of languages from his submarine colleagues. Then, went on to work for United Nations peacekeeping and was posted in New York as an Indian Navy delegate to the United Nations for many years.
Now, he is a big exec at some chemical company. And now he needs to travel extensively for his job. How extensively you ask? He goes to 170 countries extensively. He visits at least 50 countries a year, and he was visiting seven North and Central America countries in eight days and showed me his itinerary. Breakfast in Honduras, lunch in Chicago, dinner in Toronto.
Well, I had nothing to say."
"I had the good fortune to sit by two at one time. We clambered in and startled to get settled. The young guy on my right was quiet, average height with dark hair, young 20s. The girl on my left was about the same age, light brown hair and glasses. We each exchanged a small smile and hello as we sat and got our seat belts and arm rests sorted out.
The girl was obviously a little nervous about flying, and started chatting nervously. I humored her, since she was friendly and needed the distraction, and the young guy joined in occasionally. I soon learned she was in medical school, soon to become a doctor, and terrified of flying. At this point, the young man divulged his secret that made both of our jaws drop.
He was a fighter pilot in the air national guard, and very knowledgeable about aviation - air speed, altitude, safety, flight paths, etc. To him, it was all very routine. He'd go up in his fighter, fly a training mission, stay in military air space and land. He actually had started to find it a little dull. I let the 'kids' take it from there. Talking to a fighter pilot was all the distraction the girl needed, and he seemed to enjoy her easy company. I assumed the role of interested bystander as she asked him question after question. They were about the same age and a little shy, so it was kind of sweet.
We began our initial descent and the girl got anxious again, as she particularly hated landing. It was time to divulge a secret of my own.
'You know what my wife, kids and I do that helps?' I asked. 'Reach to your side and press the magic button. It helps the pilot put down the landing gear.'
Both she and the young fighter pilot looked surprised, then delighted.
I continued. 'The other time to use the magic button is when you take off. It helps the plane gain altitude and fold up the landing gear.'
The girl's face brightened. 'I'm totally trying that. Anything to take my mind off what's happening.'
The pilot is the one who surprised me.
'That's actually pretty ingenious,' he said. 'I'm trying it too. I hate not being in control of the airplane back here.'
So there we sat– a doctor a pilot and a traveling salesperson (sounds like a great start to a bar joke), all grinning like little kids and all pushing the magic button as the plane touched down gently (all due to our help, I'm certain).
Does the magic button really help? People, yes. The pilot? Well, I know of at least one that it helped a lot."
"I was in a long-distance relationship with my girlfriend for around four years. Initially, we met in my hometown in Gujarat, India. Then, I moved to Mumbai for higher studies. Our long-distance relationship started at that moment.
I completed my masters in Mumbai, and joined an international company. I worked at their domestic office for a year, and suddenly, they decided to transfer me to their Tokyo office. We were planning to get married, but this transfer delayed the plan. So I moved to Tokyo.
Despite being an international company, the pay was very low. Also, I was living in the company’s shared apartment with some other colleagues. My girlfriend wanted to get married soon, for various reasons. Some of them were social reasons and family pressure, but the biggest of them was simple - She wanted to spend her best years with me.
But whenever she told me this, I used to delay it by saying, 'First, I need to get enough financial freedom.'
She had also moved to Ahmedabad and was also working. So, she understood my situation and didn’t say much.
One year forward…
I visited India on my annual leave. We spent some time together, and I stayed in India for few weeks. It was the happiest time of the year. After the holidays finished, I took the flight back to Tokyo with a stopover in Hong Kong. On the flight to Hong Kong to Tokyo, I was sitting beside this kind, motherly African-American lady in her 50s. She was pretty talkative and seemed to have a lot of experience in life. We talked about travel, life, philosophy and a lot more.
I also told her about my girlfriend, long-distance relationship, her wish to get married soon and my wish to delay it to build myself first. Then she said the sentence which changed my whole thought-process.
'Well, when I got married to my husband, we also had the same problem. But based on my experience, this is my advice. Instead of building your empire first and then welcoming her in, get married to her first and then build your empire TOGETHER! A team of two is better than working all alone always!'
This changed my way of thinking. I stepped off that flight, proposed to my girlfriend, and the rest is history.
We got married soon, and she came to Tokyo! She got a job here and moved up the corporate ladder. It has been four years and now, she has left the job and we are planning to start our own venture in Japan!"
"The flight had only one open seat, the flight attendant said, so squeeze in. The middle seat was open between me and what appeared to be a businessman, who was dispassionately reading the newspaper next to the aisle when the announcement was made. He set his newspaper down and turned to me, with a strange grin.
'I bet,' he said, 'We can have that empty seat here.'
'Oh?' Naturally, I was intrigued.
'Start an argument with me. We can be so unpleasant no one will want to sit here,' he said.
I immediately did, asking how he could dare consider something so selfish. It continued from there, with the two of us quietly snarling at each other and glaring daggers at anyone who looked like they even considered intervening or sitting between us.
The plane continued to fill. We ended up at some point reciting the Monty Python argument skit from somewhere in the middle, so we never ran out of material. Any topic we could think of, we argued about. Seats around us vanished. People hastily stood to let people slide in.
He never had to. The last person finally was seated, leaving the space between us open.
Immediately, his face switched from outrage to smug satisfaction and he extended his hand to me.
'Thank you, that was fun. I'd love to do that again sometime,' he said.
Then he picked up his newspaper, shook it open, and continued to read. We said nothing else the rest of the flight.
I think about that guy every time I’m sitting next to strangers."