Across the Aisle:
Whatta Guy!
THURSDAY, APRIL 11, 2002 -- Several major airlines say they will soon remove their in-flight phones. Cell phones have apparently made in-flight phones, once a marvel of modern technology, anachronistic and unprofitable.

Me? I'm going to miss the in-flight phones. Not because I ever used them much--too damned expensive and not particularly reliable--but because they've often been an unintentional window on the souls of some of our most colorful fellow flyers.

Like this time several years ago, when I was flying from Chicago to New York...

"Whatta guy," I remember telling myself. I mean, I was really impressed, sitting across the aisle from the man, listening in on his warm and concerned conversation, first with his wife, then with his daughter, then his wife again. In-flight telephones go beyond business needs, I thought then. They're really handy.

"Yeah, honey, I'll be staying at the Hyatt. There's a meeting tonight with the London people. God knows when that'll end. Tomorrow night it's dinner with Jason and his new assistant. No, I don't know where we'll eat..."

We were on a narrow-body from O'Hare and quarters were tight, even in first class. I couldn't help overhearing, even if I hadn't wanted to, although I kept my head buried in Love in the Time of Cholera. He was in his early thirties, bulky with an affluent gut pushing at his white dress shirt and red paisley tie. Brown curly hair and dark-rimmed glasses. Self-assured, he looked and sounded like he smoked cigars. A successful young corporate executive, I speculated, maybe a lawyer.

"Let me talk to the kid again, honey." He laughed. "I bet she looks gorgeous...Hi, gorgeous, I really miss you and your mommy, but I'll be home Wednesday night...Sure, I sure will do that...

A flight attendant came between us with a cart and I missed a few sentences as she began setting up for the dinner service. I did hear him decline the meal and ask for another Scotch.

"Honey, we're going to have a great time this weekend." He was still on the phone with his wife. "It's going to be one great weekend, count on it."

"Whatta guy," I told myself again. Deeply into his family, genuine warmth and sincerity. I realized I was even a little envious. In this era of alienation and rampant divorce, of ongoing hostility in the home, here was a solid citizen, one of the good guys, a man with a heart. It made me feel that it was okay to eavesdrop.

"OK, hon, maybe I'll call later from the hotel. Yeah, if I have a chance. Give the kid a hug and a kiss. You too. Love ya. Good-bye!"

He returned the phone to its cradle and I returned to my book.

About thirty minutes before we were to land at LaGuardia, I noticed my neighbor was placing another call. He asked for a room number, and then...

"Karen? You still there? Not getting edgy? Good. This damned plane is still in the air. We're about an hour late. Why don't you come down to the hotel? Yeah, the lobby, about 8:30. Call me and I'll come down. How do you feel about Japanese? No, I don't feel like room service tonight, I want a real meal. No, no, I've got tickets for the Mets tomorrow night. Of course you're included...we'll talk about it later."

The flight attendant was passing out hot towels and I heard him say: "Yeah, yeah, love you too. See you later."

Whatta guy, I thought. And what an idiot I am. You are a real sophisticated frequent flyer, I told myself. I also realized I was smiling, slightly, at nothing in particular, since I was smiling at myself.

A few minutes before we landed, my neighbor began a conversation with one of the flight attendants--about where she lived, how long she'd been flying, where she was based, whether she was staying overnight in New York.

No, she was working the aircraft back to Chicago, her hometown. The crew was on a quick turnaround.

"That's too bad," he said. "If you'd stayed over, maybe we could have gone out for a bite. I know some real good places. New York's my second home. Maybe we can do it in Chicago some time..."

I wondered where he would have parked Karen had the flight attendant been scheduled to spend the night in New York, or if she'd been based there. I could almost hear that phone call in my mind: Karen, honey, you won't believe this, but we've been diverted to... But not to deplane empty-handed, my neighbor from across the aisle did get the flight attendant's phone number. There's always Chicago...

And, like I told you up front: Whatta Guy!