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The persistent myth of finding love on a plane

Why do cramped seats, gross food, and no personal space make us think of … romance?

According to a study of 5,000 travelers, 1 in 50 people has found love on a plane??
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When Rosey Blair witnessed two people flirting in nearby seats on a flight, she decided to document their fledgling romance on Instagram and Twitter. She eavesdropped on their conversation, sharing it with her followers, and even snapped a picture of the two exchanging family photos. Her initial tweet got more than 300,000 retweets, and what could have been a passing observation transformed into a viral sensation — one that was criticized for being invasive and creepy.

But it’s likely that its original draw — why the tweet garnered so much interest in the first place — was partly because it’s the kind of reasonable serendipity that feels not too far-fetched to believe in. At this point, I’ve accepted Matthew McConaughey isn’t going to save me from a runaway dumpster after my heel gets caught in a grate. But an attractive single person sitting in the airplane seat next to me? Now that seems plausible. And a 2018 study, which surveyed 5,000 flyers across 141 countries, did find that one in every 50 people said they met the love of their life on a flight. (Which … seems high, so grain of salt.)

Of course, not everyone boarding a plane has the privilege of anticipating their seatmate in a positive way; many worry about seat size, discrimination, or just plain motion sickness. (Not to mention all the fears brought on by recent events like the Boeing Max crashes.) Flying is undeniably stressful and fraught with inconvenience, so for many people, a hot plane neighbor is pretty low on the list of things they hope for during a flight. But if one does have the luxury of a semi-relaxed trip, fantasizing that someone attractive takes the next seat might not seem so silly.

This expectation is continually reinforced by movies and television, where a character’s life is forever changed by an in-flight experience. In the ’90s sitcom The Nanny, extreme turbulence causes Mr. Sheffield and Fran to express their love for each other for the first time after seasons of anticipation. The airplane scene in Bridesmaids serves as a breaking point in the lead characters’ friendship and a sort of romance for Melissa McCarthy’s character Megan. And in 30 Rock, Liz Lemon hallucinates that she sits next to Oprah and gleans all sorts of advice from a person who turns out to be a preteen. In pop culture, life-altering things happen on planes, and it’s not a far leap from life-altering to love.

This logic also fits with what we’ve come to expect from travel today: a unique, metamorphic experience rather than utility. Thanks to the rise of transformative travel, a vacation is now sold not as a luxury but as a form of therapy, or, at least, a shortcut to contentment.

According to psychologist and founder of Growing Self Lisa Marie Bobby, LMFT, the allure of travel is the thrill of uncertainty paired with the anticipation of novelty. Before a trip, you spend days, possibly weeks, predicting every detail, so it’s no wonder this mindset extends to your flight. “When planning for a vacation, one imagines oneself having incredible experiences — eating the eclair in the cutest outdoor cafe, swimming under the waterfall — it is especially thrilling for singles to imagine that we may find romance along the way,” Bobby says.

Although these fantasies may be inspired by pop culture or the popular notion that travel is a catalyst for romance, the plane crush does serve an important function: to make flying less miserable. Similar to how a work crush adds excitement to everyday obligations, a plane crush can help you cope with what is arguably the worst part of traveling.

Even a plane’s design can lend itself to flirtatious fantasies, as the same factors that cause what is known as “air rage” (small seats, little leg room) can be oddly romantic. This phenomenon is known as the misattribution of arousal theory ( a classic theory, Bobby tells me). In various studies dating back to the 1970s, researchers found that when people are in anxiety-inducing situations, they are more likely to be aroused by those around them. In other words, they may misattribute a feeling of nerves or butterflies to attraction.

Bobby adds that because of the hyperemotional state of flyers, it’s not actually that absurd to believe you could meet someone you like. “Since it’s known that people in an elevated physiological state are more likely to perceive others as more attractive … it is actually more likely that two people would develop an attraction for each other on a plane than in other situations,” she says.

Laney Gorman, 24, was making her way down the aisle of a flight from San Francisco to Atlanta when she noticed an attractive guy in the seat next to hers. She also heard some squeaking from under the seat and realized he had a puppy.

“He was in his early 20s, a very cute guy,” she tells me. “Not hot, but cute. He had a cute dog, which made him hot to me.”

When she sat down, she considered striking up a conversation, but upon seeing him stuff his baby Australian shepherd under a seat for a five-hour flight, she quickly fell out of infatuation.

And although she didn’t talk to this particular plane crush, Gorman believes that not having the seat next to her filled with an attractive person feels like a missed opportunity sometimes. “You see [a hot person] passing in the aisle, and you’re like, ‘Oh, wait ... sit next to me,’” she says.

When I tell her I’ve never had the excitement of sitting next to a hot single person on a plane, she says I may be taking the wrong flights, as all routes are not created equal. “The flight from LA to San Francisco, an intra-Cali flight, is pretty intimidating,” she says. “New York-to-LA flights also are primetime hot-people flights.”

This would ring true for one particularly lucky woman who recently sat next to actor Timothée Chalamet on her flight from New York to Los Angeles. Her tweet thread details the hour-long conversation they had, and she even posted a selfie.

Airlines have picked up on this plane-crush fantasy as well. This year, Delta and Coca-Cola launched a marketing campaign where Delta passengers were given Coke-branded napkins that encouraged them to give out their number on the flight. The napkins said “because you’re on a plane full of interesting people and hey ... you never know,” on one side and provided a line to put a name and number on the other, along with some tiny text telling flyers to be a “little old school” and give this to their “plane crush.”

Some were charmed, with one woman tweeting, “I friggin LOVE these napkins. How anybody can find this genuinely creepy is beyond me. I once met a guy on a plane and we ended up in a six-month relationship ... and it all started with a smile and a ... number ... on an airplane napkin.” But other flyers did not appreciate the nudge and found the whole thing “creepy AF.”

Delta and Coca-Cola may have tapped into a collective fantasy, but they didn’t factor in that most people want to feel like it’s fate, not corporations, that brings them together. Even if we know our plane-crush fairy tales are just the product of bad ergonomics or too many rom-coms, it’s nice to think the universe independently conspired to seat us next to a well-adjusted person who could improve our lives, at least for a few hours.

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