The Pleasure of An Empty Plane Seat: Trans-Atlantic Flights Done Right

This post was contributed by Victoria Derr


So, I’m settling into this aisle seat on this jumbo plane, two stories high and three aisles wide. The flight attendants strut by, their hands running along the overhead compartments to double check they’re securely closed. The safety video drones on in the background, repeating routines heard a thousand times before. The plane rumbles, its gears grinding and engines purring in prep for a nine-hour flight. The plane moves towards the runway, and I realize with surprise I have hit the jackpot of overseas flights: the seat next to me is empty.

An empty seat.

I breathe a sigh of relief that probably lasted longer than this nine-hour flight to France itself. The luxury of having the adjacent seat empty is far beyond any first-class benefit can provide. Granted, I’ve never flown first class so, really, what do I know? But then again, there’s the element of surprise that comes with the discovery of the unoccupied seat.

And that tastes just as sweet as any pre-take-off mimosa.

Throughout the flight, the things that were once stuffed under the seat in front of me find themselves on the chair next to me. First, my headphones (because my iPod decided to conveniently freeze up. Perhaps because I am still using an iPod). Second, the stiff airline blanket (because it had tangled itself around my legs and I was fed up with fighting against it). Then, The Stranger by Albert Camus (because Meursalt’s emotional apathy was consuming and I needed a breather from his headspace). Finally, I succumbed to watching Eat Pray Love via Lufthansa’s complimentary movies as I waited for the melatonin to kick in.

But even though I had brought 500 distractions along in order to make the flight more peaceful, nothing brought me as much ease as the empty seat next to mine. No polite hellos, no forced conversations, no combatting against a communication barrier while each party struggles to tell the other where they’re headed and why. Or worse, none of that stiff silence that lasts for nine hours while each passenger tries to ignore the other’s existence.

Nope. Just an empty seat. For an introvert, a blessing.

Nine hours passed and I didn’t sleep a wink. I didn’t have a complimentary glass of wine (or three). I didn’t hold a conversation with any person about anything interesting. My mind flashed back to my last flight abroad — Kristen, a blue-eyed bartender from Austin, and I had stayed up all night, giggling over glasses of wine while discussing W.B. Yates and theories of the universe. While the rest of the plane, including her fiancé seated next to her, slept soundly, open-mouthed, eye masks lazily sliding down their cheeks, she and I had exchanged life stories with each other, sharing our greatest fears and how they had made us great.

There’s something sacred about the conversations that take place on flights. The comfort of opening up to a stranger, the secureness in knowing you may never see them again, the safety you feel while going 550 mph some 35,000 feet above the Atlantic Ocean. A snippet of yourself boiled down into nine hours, given more freely to this person than to most people you interact with daily. At least, in my case.

This is one of the beauties of traveling: immediacy and intimacy.

There’s a certain element of immediacy in traveling, in needing to do exactly what you wish to do as soon as you wish to do it (because that chance can disappear faster than the flight attendant’s smile when you ask for a snack during non-snack times). There’s a certain level of intimacy, of immediate understanding when you stumble upon a person who feels familiar in such an unfamiliar place.

But on this Lufthansa flight #447 to France, there was none of that. The seat next to me was empty, asking me to fare my own way through these next six months. Immediate intimacy was not found; the empty seat next to me asked me to find it within myself, to spill my books and headphones over into that seat and fill it with my own self rather than search for something else to comfort me. The empty seat next to me asked me to take these nine hours to reflect, or should I say, “pre-flect,” over the journey that lay ahead. These six months in France, although accompanied by a cohort of students all seeking study abroad experiences, although bound to be filled with blissed and blessed memories, although a time for me to grow and expand beyond limitations I don’t even know exist, will be a solitary journey.

A solitary sojourn.

And that is what the empty seat next to me whispered in my ear the entire flight. I found comfort in the space I was gifted with to expand into. I slid my eye mask over my face, leaned back in my aisle seat, and breathed out a sigh that probably lasted longer than my six months in France.

Meet Victoria: Moi? Victoria Renee, California/Baja California native, 24 years old, wildly inspired by the change of thought and perspective on pace traveling brings… no, embraces. I’ve lived in France both as a student and as an ESL teacher. Keep trying to get myself back there. In my down time, I write in more moleskin journals, make crystal jewelry, and ask all my friends for their birth times to draft their natal charts (astrology jargon). Keep up with me on IG!

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