Seatgate – And My Role in the Jackson Five (K)

Yet again, I’ve been singled out as a single woman on her own and asked to change my seat on an airline. I suspect it’s because people think we’re going to be the softest touch. Wrong.

It’s happened on a number of occasions and I always refuse (apart from once, but more of that later). It takes me days, sometimes weeks to choose the right airline, day and seat; sometimes I will change the first two purely in order to get the last one right, particularly if flying long haul, which I invariably am.

On one flight a while back, I was in one of two front row seats, and the woman behind asked if I would swap so she could sit next to her boyfriend. I refused and was met with incredulity (less so from him, who seemed quite glad of the three hour relief).

Yesterday, I was traveling back from Spain with aa.com, and I had selected 2A, which was my first choice. Half the seats in Business (which I always choose going long haul as I need a flatbed for sleep) face backwards and, on a train, it’s my preferred method of travel. But on a plane, I want to be at the front, facing the same direction as the pilot, because if we are going to be put in the unfortunate position of having to run, I know who I want to follow at the front of the pack.

After I had stored my hand luggage and settled down with my iPad to read a book, a man came up and asked me if I would move so that his family (wife and two kids) could sit in a row. The seats are very far apart, so it was hardly as if they’d be on a Disney ride together and, after looking at the seat he was indicating behind me, saw that it faced backwards, so I explained that I didn’t want to face that direction. He then asked if they could find me another seat on the plane and I said no. Not only is it my right to refuse, I don’t like being near a lot of people in these Covid times, and 2A, facing the window, is as far away from other people, with my back to them, as it is possible to get (apart from 1A, but that faces backwards. Just so you know!).

He was furious and started shouting at me, wishing me ill will for the future if this were ever to happen to me, and then stormed off to the other side of the plane to try to persuade others to move. Clearly someone else suggested that they ask me because I heard him yell “She refuses to move.” After a lot more hassle, he was back on my side and I tried to explain why I wouldn’t move and that it took me days to get the right seat. “We’re not talking to you!” he shouted. “Well,” I said: “You were talking to me and I’m responding.” By now, two crew members were involved as the man stormed the plane, trying to re-shuffle everyone. Finally, a couple with window seats agreed to move – to the middle, facing backwards! – in order to satisfy the man’s demands.

I went into panic mode and had to walk up the plane to get my breath back. What if he decided to have a go at me mid-flight? What if he were to pursue me at the carousel when we landed? I spent eight hours in fear and, even though the purser had assured me that the man had apologized, saying he lost it because of the way I spoke to his wife. I’d said six words to her, very politely: “I don’t like facing that direction.” There was also no apology to me from him.

After going online and receiving advice from my friend David, who used to be a steward with britishairways.com , I insisted that the purser make a report. I also contacted aa.com through Twitter and wrote my own report, expressing my nervousness at feeling under threat, and fearful during the entire eight hour flight.

I’m a tough cookie, but I was in tears. I wondered if maybe I was being melodramatic, but then thought: What if he’s done this before? What if he does it again? Surely he should be held accountable for his actions and learn to keep his anger in check; he was a bully of the first order, and although I don’t like to make too much of my age usually, he was being aggressive towards a 62 year old woman on her own. Airlines are scary places, and the last thing you need before take-off is knowing that there is someone who loses control at the drop of an arm rest. And why hadn’t they booked their seats in advance, as I had? I know that complete rows were available, because I had been online checking availability for a week. It was just selfish, entitled behavior, the like of which, sadly, we have become all too familiar in the modern world.

They were, by the way, the worst behaved children I have ever encountered on a flight. One crew member thought they were traveling for the first time without the nanny and, therefore, having to deal with their own kids for the first time. Screaming, shouting, yelling – it did not stop; the only admonishment I heard was the occasional “Sssssh.”

All I got from aa.com was an e-mail of apology; not even a measly air mile. They told me they can offer no compensation to anyone because of another passenger’s behavior and I should take up my complaint with “local authorities” – impossible, given that I do not have the passenger’s name because of data protection. As part of the oneworld.com group, they have a duty of care to passengers (although all airlines should have that), so I’m now going to take it to the CEO, Doug Parker. I want to know more about their policies about what action they take towards bullying passengers who make others feel unsafe. It’s disgraceful and extremely poor customer service.

There was one occasion when I did agree to change seats, but that was before take-off and, therefore, a situation that did not induce fear, just mild irritation, and it became a week in which had more in common with La Toya Jackson than any other human being on the planet.

Waiting to board an airnewzealand.com flight to Los Angeles, I was sitting in Heathrow’s staralliance.com lounge (more of that horror later), when an announcement came over the speaker: “Would passenger Stephen please come to the reception desk.”

Given the dreadful year I had endured in every respect, I was expecting another bereavement, or at the very least a doctor standing by advising me not to travel, as I had less time to live than the flight took.

I was therefore shaking when I went up to the desk, where I was greeted by a lady speaking in hushed tones. “Miss Stephen?” “Yeeeeeees.” “We wondered whether you would be willing to change your seat on the airline.”

Now, as I said, whenever I travel I am extremely particular about my seating arrangements – eurostar.com: have to be traveling backwards, odd number in the aisle and near a toilet (73, 77, 11, 13), but not right next to the staff kitchen where they uproariously get the meals together (usually carriage 8).

Flying: next to the window, provided there is no one seated next to me, near an emergency exit, no upper levels, near a toilet (I have a very small bladder and drink at least three liters of water a day, hence the toilet obsession).

On virginatlantic.com, I am less fussy, as I love their Upper Class lounge so much, I am so relaxed by boarding time, they could strap me to a wing and I wouldn’t care.

I have no idea about britishairways.com because I refuse to fly with them. I am still chasing a claim from over ten years ago, when they lost my luggage on a flight to Toulouse and I had to re-schedule meetings, cancel the flight back, and take the Eurostar to Paris.

They finally wrote to say they had credited me with £3.60 and thanked me profusely for choosing my “preferred airline”. I never got it and I will strap myself to a pigeon before I fly with them again.

But on airnewzealand.com, when I was living in LA, I was quite particular about my seat. Their LA service (where they break before traveling on to Australia and New Zealand) used to be second to none. Terrific food, wonderful staff onboard, and although they didn’t have a great lounge, they knew how to look after people (that all changed, by the way).

At the LA end, I used to have the amazing Lounge Concierge, Thierry, who saw me on and off the aircraft, got me through Customs quickly, and looked after me so well he beat even the virginatlantic.com lounge in terms of my priorities.

The problem for ANZ in the UK was the staralliance.com lounge, which they shared with what seemed to be 100 other airlines. Awful food, screaming kids, bad lighting, and often poor, or no internet.

And then, the request: would you give up your seat, because… even more hushed tones: “We have a celebrity on board who would like it.”

Minutes passed. Oh, for God’s sake, speak up: who is it? La Toya Jackson.

United, at last: she was in 5K but wanted 7K. I had it. But I melted. I had a soft spot for her, after her appearance on I’m a Celebrity in the UK, and it was clear what terrible pain she was still going through after brother Michael’s death.

So, I said, okay: suddenly, 7K was gone. My seat. My special, special seat, quiet, away from the throng. I had surrendered it in a rare act of martyrdom to someone not who I thought deserved it more, but who I thought really needed the privacy more.

“Okay,” I said, “as it’s her.”

“If it was a Royal, I’d have TOLD you to,” I was informed.

Then, I saw red. Quite frankly, I said, if it had been a Royal, I would have told them where to go. And it’s a darn sight further down under than even New Zealand is.

My friends were mystified as to why I agreed to the change, but I was quick to point out that I demanded an upgrade next time I traveled, as a reward for my sacrifice.

I had also requested that La Toya thank me in person – which she did. I suspect that if the poor lamb had realized she was going to have to show grateful thanks for the entire 11 hour journey, she would have stayed in 5K. Having said that, by the end of the flight, she had practically promoted me to head of the murder inquiry into Michael’s death.

Anyway, at least it got me talking to her wonderful business manager Jeffre (who she later married – I KNEW I should have stayed in lucky 7K!), and in La Toya I found a person of such extraordinary gentleness, sweetness and charm, I was even more won over by her than ever.

Mind you, if I’d had the chance to spend 11 hours in 7K, I’d have been Miss Sweetness and Light when I landed, too.

Thierry, poor man, ended up seeing what 5K can do to a girl.