My wife and I just returned from a trip to Boston. On the flight home, we took our seats as usual: she at the window and me in the middle. It was a peaceful journey, save for the rather chatty woman across the aisle. But then, as we began our descent into Denver, behold an uncomfortable moment. A glare of sunlight through my wife’s window struck Chatty Woman in the eyes, who immediately turned and snapped, “CLOSE THAT WINDOW!” I just smiled from the middle seat and assured her the glare would move on momentarily (which it did). Chatty Woman gave me a stare and a huff, and turned away. Gee, nice to meet you too.
I’ve touched on the dynamics – er, politics – of airplane passenger seats before, in Flight of the Humble Bee (a taste of first-class), and Center Peace (life in the middle seat), but I always thought window-seat dwellers were far enough to the left or right to escape judgment. No longer. In fact, more than ever the spotlight shifts to them.
Let’s review the powers held by the different seats on the plane. The aisle seat, some would argue, commands the most power because a) the occupant controls the freedom of all others on his/her side of the row, b) the occupant has the easiest access to everyone else and everything else on the plane, and c) the occupant can lean or leg into the aisle as he/she pleases (a power move in itself, albeit a weak one).
The middle seat [or in larger planes, middle seats. To you, the occupant of the middle seat in a row of 5+, you have my utmost sympathy] has powers inversely proportional to the aisle and window seat occupants. That is, the more empathetic your seatmates with your middle-seatedness, the more likely you’ll get perks (i.e. the use of both armrests, requests to the flight attendants, the window shade setting to your preference).
Speaking of the shade, that my friends, is the power-play of the window seat. Whether the shade is up, down, or somewhere in the middle is entirely up to the occupant (or occasionally directed by the flight attendants). Once upon a time the window shade was a minor prop; only down when the shared overhead movie screens (or sleeping passengers) demanded dark. Today? Every mobile phone, tablet, reading device, laptop, and in-seat movie screen is photophobic. Light sensitivity abounds.
Here’s the change in dynamic you’re not aware of. The passenger in the window seat is not the person he/she once was. Before, people chose the window seat to enjoy the high-skies views, or more importantly, to keep their geographic bearings or avoid the claustrophobia of a closed-up cabin. Today, people choose the window seat to control the shade, for optimal lighting of all those handheld devices.
To further complicate the matter we have the Boeing 787 airplane, which replaced the window shade with electrified gel sandwiched between panes of glass. The gel darkens or lightens depending on the amount of applied current. Cool tech, but also a compromise of power for the window seat occupant. The flight attendants (as they deem necessary), can darken all of the windows during sleeping hours or movie time or even hot days. Might want to check the type of aircraft before you board your next flight.
I suspect if “CLOSE THAT WINDOW!” persists, the airlines might jump at another opportunity for profit. Someday you’ll find yourself choosing a seat in the “light” or “dark” section of the plane, with a fee placed on one or both types of seats. Not a fan. Then again, if the airlines would sequester crying babies, cell-phone talkers and other audibles into a soundproofed section, I’ll be the first one on-board.