Love him or loathe him, philosopher Alain de Botton has gotten a couple of things quite right. “There is psychological pleasure [during] takeoff,” he writes in The Art of Travel. “For the swiftness of the plane’s ascent is an exemplary symbol of transformation.” As it should be; accelerating down the tarmac is a moment of anticipation—both a letting go and a start of something new. Liftoff is the first of many threads that will stitch up that seamless hot-weather holiday to Curaçao, that business trip to China, or that wedding in the Caribbean. And it is that positive state of mind, the seemingly natural one so eloquently expressed by Mr. de Botton, that I hope to achieve one day.
A few of us frequent flyers are ground dwellers at heart. My own entry-level philosophical pursuits are forever trying to reconcile existing in liminal space—neither here (home) nor there (away)—with a sense of calm. But somewhere, mid-air, I unlocked a hidden equation for assuaging my apprehension, and it was directly related to those warm bodies seated beside me: their lack of fear, plus my fear, equals less fear.
My dream seatmate is a stranger who listlessly lounges beside me, exuding not a hint of panic, ever. My neighbour’s airborne ignorance creates my bliss; he or she reclines gracefully, is cheerful but not annoyingly so, and is wholly unperturbed at every turbulent jostle. This companion likely dozes off during takeoff but is awake later with small talk at the ready, providing more calm than any bottle—Pilsner or pills—could ever offer. (Once, my plane was struck by lightning. On a normal flight, this is not ideal. On a half-full aircraft, with nary a seatmate nearby for that force field of companionship, it is terrifying.)
Not long ago, a seatmate saved my psychological life yet again as I flew in to the small Caribbean island of St. Barths. Pilots must hold special certification to perform this landing, and perform they must, as it is most specific. Prevailing winds affect the direction the aircraft will land. If they blow one way, pilots glide toward the beach before touching down upon the world’s second-shortest runway. Should they blow the other way, it means a final descent from the opposite direction and skimming mere metres over the top of a rocky ridge. From this approach, the final seconds in the air feel like flying into the side of a mountain before dropping down—fast—onto the tarmac (or else run the risk of hurtling into the sea).
“I’ve done this landing many, many times,” my elderly seatmate offered, as my grip on the armrests tightened during our 15-minute Winair flight from St. Martin to St. Barths. “Don’t worry. This airline has a spotless safety record.”
“How do you know?” I asked. He reached into the seat pocket in front of me, pulled out the in-flight magazine, flipped to the president’s letter, and pointed to a name: Georges Gréaux Sr.
“That’s me,” he said. “I founded this airline 50 years ago, and I was one of the very first commercial pilots to land here. I used to fly in the Rockefellers, the celebrities, everyone. I taught the other pilots how to do it in the beginning.”
Our 19-seat Twin Otter landed, and we both deplaned. For him, it was a flight of both pride and pleasure. For me, he was the best seatmate I’ve ever had.