25 OCT 2012: I recently flew from Hong Kong to Los Angeles, and not once in the entire flight did I exchange a single word with the passenger (a pinstriped male banker type) sitting inches from my right elbow.

In LAX, I changed airlines to connect straight through to Montreal and was surprised to find myself once again seated next to the same guy. This time we managed a silent nod of recognition – a sort of unspoken “Oh you again” - before climbing back into our road warrior cocoons for a further five hours of studied silence.

Misanthropic? Not really. That’s just the way ‘the pros’ do it. In fact, in First and Business class cabins it has become pretty much the expected code of conduct. Not so however in “the back of the bus”, where, horror of horrors, complete strangers frequently have the audacity to actually try and engage each other in friendly conversation.

So, as corporate travel rules tighten up and a growing number of business travellers are faced with the discovery that there are actually seats behind that curtain on the right, they are also going to have to learn a whole new set of airborne survival skills. The harsh reality is that when you are seated next to ‘a talker’ there is no simple solution like pleading the fifth.

The first rule is to know your enemy. An in-flight verbal assailant’s opening gambit will vary greatly depending on their country of origin. For example, the standard American, zero foreplay, approach could almost have been lifted from Homeland Security's Interrogation 101 Manual. A favorite opener is, “So, where are you from?” followed by “Where are you going and why?” Next comes, “What do you do for a living?” And, if you really hit it off, "When did you stop beating your wife?" might be only moments away.

Brits on the other hand, tend to be more “chatty”. A typical opener may be something like, “Oooh, wasn’t it ‘ot in that airport?” or, “I can’t wait to see how much my grandkids have grown in the last two weeks. Here, let me show you their photos”.

Building an impregnable repertoire of polite but shutdown lines to keep such ”chatastrophes” at bay will greatly enhance the egalitarian (aka economy) travel experience.

Technology can be a big help. Essentially anything that has a headset attached provides a great escape vehicle whereby one can simultaneously tune-in and tune-out. Keep it polite by saying something like “Oh wow, excuse me but I’ve been dying to see this movie” as you tune into something you vowed you’d never watch.

You can of course pretend to only speak some obscure language like Icelandic where the chances of running into someone who happens to speak it are microscopic. But this can be a perilous approach: if you’re next to a ‘chat-at-all-costs’ type, they are very likely to just keep talking at you - but just very slowly and at double the volume.

If you subscribe to the theory that the best means of defense is attack, a good reply to, “So, what do you do for a living?” is always, “Glad you asked. I sell life insurance. How’s your coverage?” Just be sure your inquisitor isn’t a genuine insurance person or this one can backfire badly! An even better alternative is to say you are an auditor for the IRS. This line might also earn you the bonus of the ultimate travelling companion – an empty seat – as your neighbor flees to the bathroom and never returns!

One friend of mine swears by the in-flight "chat-free zone" that results from consuming a garlic-laden pre-flight meal. He claims it works every time - everywhere that is except on Alitalia.

Another highly effective, if more theatrical, ploy is to make a few sudden violent twitches of the head and shoulders, then appear to quickly swallow a few pills – M&Ms will suffice. And if you really want a whole row to yourself, immediately after the feigned seizure a huge carnivorous grin at your neighbor will usually seal the deal.

Just as a yawn provokes others to yawn, itching seems to draw a similar reaction. So another simple and highly effective ploy to win additional space is frequent frenzied bouts of scratching your arm and under the armpit closest to your neighbor. Rapid inhalation through clenched teeth while mid-scratch adds to the overall impact.

If all else fails, then you can of course actually try conversing with your next-seat-neighbor, and who knows, you may even be surprised as to how much faster the flight will pass.

But, where’s the sport in that?

David was unable to write a column this week so we opted to run a "best of..."

This column was originally published in December 2009

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David Tait

David Tait's insight and irrepressible humour give us an insider's take on the airlines and the industry in general. He doesn't pull his punches, and readers find his columns thoughtful, informative, amusing and infuriating – regardless, David's views on our industry are always original. 

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