If you can pick your seat, why can’t you pick your seatmate?

Back in the ’70s, a British author named Brian Moynahan decided to write about what happens behind the scenes in what was then the glamourous and high-priced world of air travel. During his research, he interviewed a check-in agent in Paris who described how she would reward passengers she liked, and punish those who annoyed her.

In those days, the check-in agent was the power broker who decided where each passenger sat on an airplane, and who they sat next to. Passengers made life difficult for the check-in agent at their peril.

“I had one businessman who was unbelievably patronizing. Knew it all. Off to Los Angeles,” explained the unnamed check-in agent.

“He still won’t know that it wasn’t just chance that had him stuck between a smelly hippie and a merchant seaman for 11 hours.”

“You get people you like, of course, and you put attractive people together. I often wonder how many love affairs I’ve started by simple seat allocations.”

Check-in agents no longer have the control over their passengers’ fates they had when Moynahan’s Airport International was published in 1978. Many passengers today choose their seats online or at an automated check-in kiosk.

While passengers now have the power to choose their seats, they still have little control over who sits next to them.

It’s a game that some people call seatmate roulette. Choose your seat, board the flight, and see who you’ve ended up with.

Odds are on any flight that you and your seatmate will behave as though you’re on a prolonged elevator ride, either avoiding eye contact or engaging in a bit of small-talk about the weather, delays or lack of legroom.

Things can go pear-shaped, however. Fly often enough and you’re bound to end up with a seatmate who is a howling infant, incessant chatterbox, dirty old man, or a connecting passenger from a long-haul flight whose most recent shave and shower was 23 hours and 4,000 miles ago.

Once in a while, though, it seems the gods of seatmate roulette are smiling down on you. What starts out as a bit of small talk ends a few hours later with a shaking of hands and a sincere “it was nice to meet you”, or an exchange of business cards… or even a new friendship or romantic interest that starts your life down a path you would never have followed had you been in any other seat.

What if you could reduce your odds of ending up next to the seatmate from hell, and improve your odds of sitting next to someone you like? Would you pay $10 for the privilege?

Would you pay $10 to avoid sitting next to this guy? (Copyright © ABCNews.com)

Would you pay $10 to avoid sitting next to this guy? One entrepreneur is already designing a system that would allow airlines to better match passengers to one another. (Copyright © ABCNews.com)

If enough people are willing to pay for this, then I’m suggesting that the airlines use the Internet to merge online seat selection with social networking.

Here’s how it would work:

When you choose your seat online, you’d be prompted to join the airline’s social networking site for free. You could upload a picture of yourself and create a profile (both optional). You would control what parts of your profile you wanted others to see.

Since not everyone chooses a seat in advance, the airline would make a bit of an effort to put compatible types together: families with families, business travelers with business travelers, et cetera. This service would still be free.

For ten dollars, however, you can view other passengers’ profiles and shop around for a seatmate. You can even do a profile search to look for fellow passengers you might have something in common with.

Or, if that’s too invasive, the airline’s web site could use colour-coding to show the location of passengers you have the most in common with (highlighted in green), those you might want to steer clear of (highlighted in red) and everyone else in between (yellow).

Maybe the idea is just too far out of the mainstream.

Or maybe that check-in agent Brian Moynahan interviewed more than 30 years ago was on to an idea that could give an airline an edge over its competitors.

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About theviewfromseven
A lone wolf and a bit of a contrarian who sometimes has something to share.

3 Responses to If you can pick your seat, why can’t you pick your seatmate?

  1. Fat Arse says:

    re: “… view other passengers’ profiles and shop around for a seatmate. …. the airline’s web site could use colour-coding to show the location of passengers you have the most in common with (highlighted in green), those you might want to steer clear of (highlighted in red) and everyone else in between (yellow).”

    Egad!
    Nifty idea?
    Definitely not.

    I can see it now, yogurt swilling yoga freaks requesting no ‘fatties’; inbred gap-toothed hillibillies requesting ‘white only’; Alpha-males requesting babes; Tory’s requesting no ‘tree-hugging fruity lefties’, horny dudes requesting chicks; fundamentalist’s requesting same…. the possibilities are endless! And most of them unseemly. Will there be a ‘no Arab’ section? ‘No child’ section? Are blacks going to have ride in the… well you get my point.

  2. Wow, it’s like what might happen should e-harmony merge with a major airline. What would we call the new entity? Air-mony? The Love Jet? Connecting Flights? I could have fun with this.

  3. theviewfromseven says:

    I’m not sure, but I think the first airlines to try this should be either from the Virgin Group (Virgin Atlantic in the U.K., Virgin America and Virgin Blue in Australia), or Southwest (which uses “LUV” heavily in its advertising)

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