19 Stories of Incredible Connection at 30,000 Feet - Atlas Obscura

19 Stories of Incredible Connection at 30,000 Feet

Atlas Obscura readers share their most unforgettable encounters with strangers on airplanes.

Every airplane ride is an opportunity for connection.
Every airplane ride is an opportunity for connection. Illustration by Aida Amer; Airline/Public Domain

One of the mundane horrors of air travel is being trapped just inches (or less) from total strangers. Even in the most spacious of first-class sections, the personal space of every passenger is squished together, creating an invisible Venn diagram of potential awkwardness and irritation. But every so often, this forced intimacy can also lead to powerful moments of connection with total strangers.

Recently, we asked Atlas Obscura readers in our Community forums to tell us their greatest stories of meeting strangers on airplanes, and the responses made us want to fly coach just for the chance to relive them. From chance encounters that turned into lifelong friendships, to strange brushes with celebrity, to quiet connections between two humans at 30,000 feet, your stories were often touching and always incredible.

Read some of our favorite responses below, and if you have your own unforgettable story about meeting a stranger on a plane, tell us about it in the forums and keep the conversation going! The common saying goes that the journey is more important than the destination, but after reading your stories of airline strangers, it’s clear that sometimes, it’s all about the people you meet along the way.


The Upside to Children on Planes

“She was a mother with a baby and a toddler, a little overwhelmed and looking resigned about the looks of trepidation fellow passengers were giving her, since it was a 13-hour flight from the U.S. to Asia and the second of three legs for me—the total always ends up to about a day, give or take. They were technically seated right behind me. Throughout the flight, I would borrow the baby and amuse the toddler, to give her breaks. It was going to be their first time to meet their mother’s side of the family.

This happened over a decade ago and at that time I had gotten the news that my father might pass away, having had a massive stroke, which led to a sudden flight to go back home in a race against time. He ended up surviving but bedridden with a worsening case of Alzheimer’s, no longer able to care for himself or remember us until he passed away eight years later.

The distraction afforded by the mother’s plight distracted me from my own concerns, and I still think of her and her kids. They made me think of the future, that the world doesn’t stop for our pain and that life goes on.

On particularly rough days, when I’m sure I can’t possibly endure, I like to remind myself that my track record for getting through bad days so far is 100%. And that’s pretty good.” — AnyaPH


What If?

“[She] was a South American woman I met in the airport in the mid-1980s when our flight was delayed by bad weather. I’d grabbed a soda and gone into the lounge and found an open seat at a table she was at, and asked if she minded if I sat there. Soon enough we started talking and she turned out to be smart and funny and charming and as the delay got longer as the weather got worse, we got deeper into things and I was surprised (unfairly, I know, but still) to learn that a lovely young woman was in the business of streamlining operations for the meat-packing industry, and so there went three hours, and when we finally boarded we found we were sitting next to one another and the whole thing was delightful and kinda sexy and I got her info and we kept in touch for a short while, but you know the way things go. I lost the paper and we lost touch, and decades go by and to this day I think about her from time to time because I think she was one of those doors you come across in life that make you wonder where you’d be if you opened it.” carouselreversalspra


Love at First Flight

“I met a man on a flight from Lisbon to Vienna (he was going from one conference to another and I had a connecting flight on a vacation). We talked the entire flight, exchanged emails and continued talking until baggage claim. Two days later we met for coffee, and I joined him on his way to the CAT train, where he kissed me. We continued emailing, and after many daily emails, two trips each, back and forth between NYC and Dublin, we got engaged a year after we met.” goldbergship


Everyone Needs a Helping Hand

“I was traveling from a stopover in Iceland back home to Boston, just having spent a birthday week with one of my favorite people in Sweden. I was sad, as the ending of an adventure-filled week was setting in. A nice couple sat next to me, the woman in the middle seat. I noticed her, white-knuckled and praying, already wishing the flight was over, just minutes after we had taken off. We hit some light turbulence an hour or so into the flight, and she went into an almost panic attack, grabbing my hand. We sat that way for the rest of the flight, as she told me about their trip to Iceland and her son who lives in Boston and that she’s from Brazil, near where my sister-in-law grew up.

She kept asking if it was okay if she held my hand, that it was helping her get through the flight. Her husband was grateful. And so was I, in a way, as it helped me get out of my own head about leaving Sweden and Iceland going home and back to the real world the next day… I’m not sure whose flight was improved more, hers or mine.” lwoodruff


ILLUSTRATION BY AIDA AMER; AIRLINE/PUBLIC DOMAIN

False Alarm

“I was living in Louisville, Kentucky, working as a graphic designer at the newspaper, and flying home to visit family in Colorado. I was seated next to a Jean-Claude Van Damme look-alike who was a sportscaster for the Swiss National TV station, flying to Salt Lake City to cover the Olympics. He was very excited to see the Rockies on the last leg of his flight from DIA to SLC.

At one point, I told him that I thought we were getting close to Denver, and that he may be able to see the Rockies in the distance. But as we looked below us at the ground, it looked like eastern Colorado was covered with a glittering blanket of snow. I kept commenting things like ‘Wow! There must have been a huge snowstorm that covered everything so thoroughly! I can’t even see any trees!’ Eastern Colorado is pretty barren, but usually you can see a few roads, at least. As we got closer and closer to the snow, I wondered why nobody else seemed nervous.

Eventually, it looked like we were about to crash land right into this crystalline ground covering. I had this poor newscaster (and myself!) SO convinced that what we were looking at was, in fact, snow-covered ground, that we held hands and squeezed our eyes shut as the plane touched it. When we emerged on the bottom side of the smoothest cloud bank I have ever seen, we let go of each other’s hands, laughed hysterically, and enjoyed watching the brown farmland of eastern Colorado roll beneath the plane as we landed uneventfully.

I have never felt so stupid in my life.” DBurk78


A Picture Perfect Friendship

“So I met this woman Carla, and she and I had such a similar background that we talked for the whole three-hour flight. We stayed in contact and then we didn’t talk for a few years until I got engaged and messaged her, and she agreed to photograph my wedding. Before the wedding I flew out to Kansas, where she lived, so we could do my bridal photos and my engagement photos. She became my best friend and she shot the wedding and my Indian reception seven months later. She is one of the most amazing women I have ever met and she gave me something I never expected, and that was photos where she captured my beauty and showed me I was beautiful. I will forever treasure our relationship, photos, and the part she played in my wedding (she was basically a family member by the time the wedding rolled around). She was also involved in shooting the announcement of my pregnancy, and she is just so amazing. I will forever thank God for placing me in the seat next to her.” nicolechanna89


Hope in the Aisle Seat

“Last June, on a six-hour flight from New York, I had the honor of sitting next to Deborah Greenberg, the widow of civil rights legend, Jack Greenberg, one of the attorneys who argued the landmark Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court case, and who would later represent Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. after his arrest in Alabama. We talked for a long time about the ailing state of our nation, and I asked her what Jack would have thought of our current president (Jack died right before 45 was sworn in), and how he’d feel about the fragile state of our democracy. She said, ‘Jack would’ve thought we’d bounce back,’ and she flashed me a hopeful smile. Deborah, now in her 80s, and herself an accomplished civil rights attorney, was charming, perky and quick-witted. She downplayed her own accomplishments (even though she’s met a few presidents and argued before the Supreme Court), and lovingly reminisced about her husband’s decades-long work with the NAACP, and revealed that he was only 27-years-old when he had the honor of working with Thurgood Marshall on our nation’s most monumental civil rights case, which she simply referred to as ‘Brown.’ So tonight, when you go to bed, just remember: we’re gonna bounce back. Because we’re a resilient nation, and there are still heroes out there ready to fight for equality and justice.” katesmelia


For Victor

“Five or six years ago, as I sat at an airport gate in New Hampshire, I noticed the woman sitting next to me was with a little boy who was getting ready to fly alone. She was his aunt, as it turned out, and she was accompanying him to board his flight at the gate—but he was returning home alone to Louisville after a summer in New England (our plane was making two stops, Baltimore, then Louisville). I began chatting with them at the gate, and offered to help him while on the plane if he needed it, since he would be flying by himself. She was very appreciative of that. As it turned out, he was the sweetest, most delightful, clever little boy. His name was Victor. He boarded first, but saved me a seat (on Southwest there are no assigned seats). So I sat next to Victor when I got on board and he told me it was his first time flying alone. He was so excited but also a little nervous and I explained to him the things that would happen when we took off and landed. Victor told me his mom died while traveling, which really struck me. I didn’t want him to be scared about traveling. Thirty minutes into the flight, Victor was leaning on my shoulder and we were looking at pictures in the magazine together. He was so sweet and cute, and I was sad to leave him when I got off the plane in Baltimore! Victor hugged me and made me write down his dad’s phone number so I could call and talk to the two of them sometime. I knew I probably wouldn’t actually call, but I wrote his dad a brief note just saying it was a pleasure to fly with his son, and signed my name. Who knows, maybe one day when I’m an 85-year-old woman on a plane alone, Victor will be randomly seated next to me and talk to me throughout the flight.” sarahweisberg


The Nebraska Connection

“Back in 1999, I flew to Ireland to do some studying and touring. I was a middle-aged farmgirl from the Sandhills of Nebraska, and this was my first time on ANY airplane. So traveling by jet over the Atlantic to a foreign country was almost overwhelming.

The young British man sitting next to me was friendly and struck up a conversation with me. I knew he was flying from the States, so I asked what he did while in the U.S. He said he and some mates went to Texas and worked on wheat harvesting crews that harvested fields of wheat for farmers, from Texas to North Dakota, then back down to Texas. I was very familiar with the harvest crews, traveling in long caravans of tractors, combines, trucks, and travel trailers going from wheat farm to wheat farm.

I asked him if his crew went through Nebraska. Yes. What towns did he go through? He could only remember a couple, Alliance, Hemingford, and Chadron. I told him I was born in Chadron, and my daughter lived in Alliance! We got to talking about it, and it turned out he’d had drinks at a bar in Alliance with her and some of her friends, and he told me some of their names. What are the odds of sitting next to a Brit, in a jet, halfway across the Atlantic, who just happened to have shared drinks with your daughter in a small town in the middle of nowhere in Nebraska?” joanski56


Illustration by Aida Amer; Jean Beaufort/Public Domain; Roger Wollenberg/DoD; Petrs./Public Domain

Ali & The Kid

“En route to a Puerto Vallarta vacation, our young family was waiting at the South Bend airport when I recognized Muhammad Ali sitting down the way. It was well known in the area that, for years ‘The Greatest’ lived in relative seclusion on a riverfront farm in Buchanan, Michigan, about 15 miles away. My five-year-old son was too shy, but my gregarious three-year-old daughter accompanied me to meet the champ. We approached the entourage—his wife, Yolanda, three children and his longtime bodyguard and personal photographer—stopping at a respectful distance. Without hesitation, he stood and walked right to us, shaking hands and shakily asking my daughter for a high-five. It was a real thrill for me.

We board a tiny commuter plane for the 35 minute puddle-jump over Lake Michigan to the Mexico connection at Midway Airport. Ali and company then board, and he and Yolanda sit behind my daughter and me. In flight, she keeps looking between the seats, laughing. Ali is playing peek-a-boo.

The next morning, the kids are watching TV in the bedroom when I hear my daughter yelling, ‘High-five! High-five!’ In the bedroom, my daughter is jumping on the bed and Ali’s lighting the Olympic torch in Atlanta. He was front page news in all the papers, and we kept that picture on our fridge for probably 10 years. To this day, we refer to the The Greatest as ‘High-Five.’” raymondlowey1


Nuclear Reactions

“I boarded a two-hour flight home once after an amazing trip that had me feeling radiant. I was sitting next to a much older man and don’t know how he got to talking but he started telling me all these stories about the nuclear facility where he worked. He told me about burying nuclear waste in old salt mines and the wire cage elevators and turning on a black light flashlight to scare off scorpions. He told me about a rabbit activating the security system for the whole building. How they had snipers on the roof so he never locked his car. He was a wonderful storyteller, and as he talked he was so lively and no longer looked old. I thought about asking to hang out at the arrival airport but then realized the Feds might track me down during his next background check, and instead just said goodbye.” lightrailcoyote


Chance Mamita

“I was going to the Dominican Republic from the U.S. for the first time by myself. I normally always went with family or friends and I was so nervous. I sat by an older Dominican woman in the waiting area and began to speak with her and found myself telling her how nervous I was because I didn’t have friends in the city I was traveling to this time. She ended up taking me under her wing.

When we arrived to the DR, she waited for me outside the plane and guided me through the airport and told me that I was going with her (her grandson and daughter were coming to pick her up at the airport) and that they would drive me to my hotel. I know you’re not supposed to trust strangers, but there was something about this woman that was comforting. As soon as I got in the car her daughter handed me a mug of coffee and some cookies for the ride.

They dropped me off at my hotel and the next day I got a call from her to check in with me. It’s been two-and-a-half years now and we still talk every single day via Whatsapp, and I have even gone to stay in her family home in the DR. I now call her my ‘mamita’ (little mother) and she calls me her niece when she introduces me to others. Thanks to that random conversation she has become a part of my life.” MissEffieLou


Winner Gets Bagels

“I was flying from New York City back home and seated next to a middle-aged businessman in a suit and tie, the polar opposite of who I was at the time (an artist in my mid-20s with black spiky hair and an attitude). After some polite chit-chat, our flight hit some significant turbulence, and he spilled his drink on his tie. He was very flustered. I ended up hanging the tie up in my window in an attempt to dry it, and the flight attendants initiated a cabin-wide trivia game to distract the passengers. He and I bonded and ended up winning the grand prize: New York bagels. I never questioned where they came from. His tie never dried, but he seemed far less concerned with it by the time we landed. Most fun I’ve ever had on a flight.” Jeanine


Fields of Green

“Flying from Houston to Seattle, I struck up a conversation with a fellow that was obviously VERY happy. He started telling me about his wife, who had opened a cookie shop in their home town using her grandmother’s recipes. The day before they had sold their first franchise for Mrs. Field’s Cookies (named after her grandmother). Obviously that went well.” redcurls100


Undercover Superstar

“About 15 years ago I was returning from an assignment in Switzerland on the always marvelous Swiss Air, this time in first class as business had been sold out. It was my first only and only time in this special lap of luxury, where I found myself seated directly next to the only other person in First. I immediately offered to move across the aisle… after all, there was plenty of room. ‘Please don’t,’ he said.

Looking directly at me, he asked, ‘You don’t know who I am?’ No, I admitted. ‘Sepp Trütsch.’ Still nothing. ‘What a very Swiss name,’ is the best I could offer. ‘I am the Swiss Johnny Carson, and the fact that you haven’t recognized me is why I asked to share your company. It’s so rare that I can enjoy someone’s simple presence, people become stagestruck and awkward, as I can show you later.’

In fact, I had noticed a pile of epaulets, one stacked atop the next, on the shoulders of his shirt. ‘They tear these off me. Really. Come, I’ll show you what I mean.’ Herr Trütsch was acting as tour leader for a group of women going on a special trip to New York and we were about to enter coach to visit them.

Fortunately, airplane etiquette decreed a modicum of restraint—no one tried to remove any epaulets—but the minute we parted the curtain his adoring fans swarmed, swooped, and stampeded until we took our leave.

“See? What did I tell you? Now do you understand why it’s been such a pleasure to share your company?” Listening to his stories and having him listen with evident interest to mine was a once-in-a-lifetime finale to my first major European assignment. — susgaert


Illustration by Aida Amer; Nick Youngson/Alpha Stock Images/CC BY-SA 3.0; AIRLINE/PUBLIC DOMAIN

God Was His Co-Pilot

“Several years ago I was traveling to a location to teach. Among other things, as a paramedic, I instruct emergency medical dispatch courses to 9-1-1 dispatchers. I took my seat on the plane and began one of my favorite hobbies, people-watching. Looking at the remaining passengers boarding the plane. An impressive-looking gentleman came on board. Black fur hat, floor-length black robe, long grey beard, and a beautiful carved wood cross on a neck chain. As I thought how cool it would be if he sat next to me, he did. We smiled and said hello to each other. After he was settled in, I commented how beautiful the wooden cross was that he was wearing. That started our conversation which lasted most of the flight. I told him of my many years in emergency services and the places I had traveled. And I told him of my passion for documenting and photographing old historic cemeteries. He then told me the fascinating story of his life as a Russian Orthodox priest. He told me of his years in Russia as a young boy, always wanting to be a priest. He told me of his years of training and becoming a priest in his hometown. After several years, he had advanced in the priesthood and was on his way to open a new church and become the parish priest in the city we were traveling to. During his years as a priest he had studied many languages including English, which was very good, but still with a wonderful Eastern European accent. The plane landed, we stood up, and he looked at the paramedic patch on my jacket and said, ‘I felt a little safer with you on this flight.’ I looked at him and the cross and said, ‘I felt safer on this flight because you were on it, too.’” dhabben


A Bakery to Remember

“On our flight to the Virgin Islands for a family vacation, my mom sat next to a woman who lived on the island of St. Thomas. She was very kind and outgoing, and spent a good amount of time talking with my mom. As they were talking, the woman mentioned that she loved to cook and owned a bakery. When she asked my mom where we were staying, my mom told her about the family-run hotel we had discovered online. The woman told us that it was a nice place, and not too far from her bakery! Although we would be spending most of our time on the island of St. John, my mom promised we would visit her bakery during our last few days on St. Thomas.

After a lovely few days on St. John, we took a boat back to St. Thomas to spend a day or two on the island. Our last night there, we pulled up the address the woman had written down and walked around the neighborhood to find her bakery. Although we had walked through that area earlier, our path to the place took us down some residential side streets that we hadn’t been on before. When we got to the address, we found it to be a small house that fit in with the rest of the neighborhood. When we walked up to the door, we knocked and found the woman inside. She was so excited to see us! The place was her own home, but she ran a bakery out of her front room. On the wall were pictures of her family, and she pointed out her children that she had mentioned to my mom on the plane. I honestly can’t remember if we paid for it or if the woman insisted we take it for free, but she gave us one of her specialty ‘rainbow cakes’ to take with us. Each layer was a different color, and it was delicious! It was such a nice experience, and I wish I remembered the woman’s name. I hope she’s doing well and still making delicious cakes!” beckt


The Kindness of Scottish Newlyweds

“My mother had just passed away. I was on the last of my many flights to Phoenix from Los Angeles, and I was a mess. A couple from Scotland sat next to me. They were supposed to be on their way to Vegas. American Airlines screwed up their flight. They were upset, but the man, Jim, and I connected instantly. Though I only understood about 1/3 of what was said because of that thick lovely accent, we started talking non-stop. We laughed a much-needed laugh for an hour and a half. I think my mom sent them. At the end we swapped information and a few weeks later, they sent me a picture of their wedding in Vegas. Adorable.

About a month after that, Jim sent me an email that said they received some flight coupons they received from American Airlines and wanted me to have them. They sent me $600 worth of flight coupons.

What did I do with these you may ask? I immediately got a flight to go visit them in Scotland. I left a year later, the day my mom passed and flew home on her birthday. The Scots and I are now very close friends and I will be taking a second trip this year to see them again. My advice to people: take your earbuds out and have a conversation. You never know what amazing people can come into your life.” thesunbag


Friends of Inconvenience

“My husband and I were on our way from Austin to New Orleans, where we planned to get married. There was bad weather in the area, and we had to land in San Antonio. Then they sent us to Houston. If we didn’t make it to New Orleans on Friday, we wouldn’t be able to get the marriage license in time to get married Saturday, which was Halloween. We decided to rent a car and drive from Houston. While we were sitting in the airport, I noticed two young ladies from England, who were on our flight, and also trying to get to New Orleans. We decided to ask them if they would like to share a rental car with us. They said yes, so we started driving, unfortunately right along with the storm. Eventually, we were tired, and the storm was pretty bad, so we stopped and shared a hotel room, got a few hours sleep, then had breakfast. We realized it was getting too late to make it all the way to New Orleans and get our marriage license, so we stopped in Lafayette to get the paperwork. Then we drove the rest of the way to New Orleans. We kept in touch for the weekend by text and Facebook. I always hoped the four of us would meet again, but a few years ago, one of the girls passed away. I might actually get a chance to meet her mother in Scotland this fall. Every year on our anniversary, I think of the girls and message the surviving one, in memory of our shared adventure. <3” leahkorn