Do Not Occupy

Waiting to board the final leg of a two-flight trip, a number of things go through my mind. First and foremost was this blog post. It was four days late and I really don’t like being late. I thought, “What should I write about?”

A few things popped into my head, some focused on customer service.

I started to be more aware of my surroundings as I boarded the aircraft. Listening to announcements a bit more intently, seeing how the agent eyed my phone, noticing how the first flight attendant was probably having a long day, avoiding eye contact.Turning the corner, navigating the gap between the jet bridge and aircraft, my thoughts turned to the question that all those who fly on an airline that provides open seating: aisle or window? I decided to take first available. And then I saw the flight attendant, hovering on the left side of the aircraft about row 4. I thought, “perfect!” Approaching, I provided a head nod that I would soon be sharing a request to slip into that row. Her glare shut me off, it was a look followed by an utterance that was likely provided to the previous 47 passengers: “I am saving two of these for a passenger.”

Yup, the tray tables on the window and middle seat were down with official looking placards declaring “DO NOT OCCUPY.”

The flight attendant cautiously offered the aisle with the condition of me protecting the two seats. I said “yes.”

Putting my roller bag in the overhead storage area and reveling in my total score of getting an aisle seat so close to the bulkhead, I thought about the passenger and was pleased with my role to help with the day’s flight.

That subtle, self-congratulatory moment was quickly quashed by the loudest non-verbal communication I experienced that day! The glare and judgement from so many that were boarding in the “B” and “C” groups was not so subtle and at times a bit intense. Like me, they too were making that turn into the cabin thinking “fourth row, left side, two open seats.” Approaching, some even strained their necks to see if there was a child in the window seat. Then their challenging glare, pace and growing stature increased on their approach, reminding me of a peacock’s in a mating ritual (I have peacocks in my neighborhood and it s a fascinating ritual, but I digress).

I had to tap into my inner issue management playbook and head this one off at the pass. I needed a talking point. It needed to be simple, provide empathy and connection while providing them the essence of the situation. After all, I have been ordained by the now invisible flight attendant to save these seats!

Testing messages is always important, you don’t want to seem impersonal and aloof.

Take #1. A sheepish smile followed by a tactical glance to the two laminated placards seemed to work. After the third time, I realized it would most assuredly result in a trip to the optometrist when I returned home.

Take #2. I kept the sheepish smile and proclaimed as people were at my aisle, “seats are being held”. The most, looking to the bulkhead, I added in a shoulder shrug as a visual cue, demonstrating empathy to those were were just entering the gauntlet.

Wait, I am also a passenger, thrown to the passenger wolves for a shot at an aisle seat. Desperate times called for desperate measures as the condescending glares were really getting quite intense.

Take #3. I looked two rows ahead and proclaimed to fellow travelers who glanced in the vicinity of row 4 on the left side of the aircraft “the airline is holding these seats!  Very direct, only a slight and defiant smile that relayed ‘do you really want this to be your Waterloo?!’

Only a few challenged my predestined authority. Those who had a certain physical stature for the two seats didn’t even look twice at the space… which is a good thing because I had no clue who my mystery date would be and the flight attendants were, at this point, avoiding all eye contact!

The plane now completely boarded and completely filled, the two seats to my right were still vacant! The flight attendants were on that phone, you know the one they use when talking about passengers. I was reading the lips of the attendant who appeared to mouth, “I don’t know if that person is going to board the plane.” HORROR! I could feel the glare of a middle seat revolution starting to form.

Was I on candid camera? Was this a cruel joke that flight attendants play on a random passenger? Was Ashton Kutcher going to appear proclaiming I was PUNK’d? Or maybe John Quinones was going to be my secret seat mate asking the question “what would you do?!”

Just then, the passenger arrived, was seated and the glares subsided.

I shared that story, to share this information. When faced with a messaging crisis and only moments to respond here are some key tips to keep in mind:

  • Keep the message short and relevant.
  • Show compassion to the victim(s).
  • Be transparent and don’t pull punches.
  • If you can, be proactive.

To prevent a coup d’état, I alerted approaching passengers. Keeping in mind that the fellow travelers were also looking for a seat close to the front, I showed compassion. My message was short and shared that it was the “airline” holding the seats and not me. When those who were judging role as protector of the seats saw my row mate, they would understand this was not just an exercise.

Also, good on my row mate for buying that extra ticket. I’ve been on flights before where that wasn’t done and created an awkward flight for all involved.

Tom Garrity, The Garrity Group Public Relations

Tom Garrity is founder and President of The Garrity Group, an agency specializing in media relations, issues management, marketing and online communication. The Garrity Group is headquartered in Albuquerque, New Mexico.