idea exchange at 31,000 feet (and the death of the perfect stranger)

Cabin_ii Maybe its just the anthropologist in me, but I am often beset by the sensation that I am surrounded by people who would be interesting to talk to. 

Now I can. is a new service that allows me to discover who is sharing my flight to LA and to arrange, by mutual agreement, to sit together.   

What a great idea.  People here in Connecticut are dead set against exchange of most kinds.  Products, no.  Ideas, Lord no.  Capital, ok.  So my opportunity to meet and chat with new people, to do the anthropology of everyday life, is limited to airports and the places they take me. 

I always strike up conversations with the person next me, and the results are often wonderful.  Coming back from San Antonio, I found myself sitting beside a University administrator who writes historical romances and a guy who was just coming to New York to run an ad agency.  I mean, really, you can’t hope to do better than that.

But often the pickings are not so good, as when you get stuck by someone who is stupid and noisy about it.  On the way out, I resorted to my laptop and to my astonishment, the person to be just kept talking.  I thought getting out your computer was a universal lingo for "fuck off and leave me alone."  Apparently not. 

Then I got to thinking: this is an exchange waiting to happen.  I mean, we could make this an exchange system dominated by the free gift.  If I’ve got something useful to tell you, I give it to you, consulting for free.  But we could earn and store value with Airtroductions and spend this value to get to certain conversations we most want. 

Naturally, it won’t be long before hotels start up systems of this kind.  Often, we just want to eat in our hotel rooms but sometimes a free evening is a great opportunity to make contact with someone sensationally interesting and useful.  And there is a better than average chance that in a large (& especially a grand) hotel, there is someone we would find sensationally interesting and useful.  (You can see that this is where the exchange might come in here.)

The society of strangers is one of the signatures of industrial society and one of the pleasures of modernism.  We don’t know who they are.  We don’t want to know who they are.  Those strangers are merely so many walk-ons for the drama of our own lives.  (What, for instance, would Paris be without them?  And so well casted!) 

Only some of us belong to networks that constantly introduce us to really interesting people (and more networks).  Which is to say, that the new technologies must help us make contact more efficiently than before. And anything’s better than, "are you going to eat that dessert, or could I have it?" 

10 thoughts on “idea exchange at 31,000 feet (and the death of the perfect stranger)

  1. Steve Portigal

    You’re kinder to the service than I was

    AirTroductions is something I don’t quite get. How can this possibly survive? You can try to meet a new person online based on your travel plans; then arrange to sit together. Maybe they should just call it or something. Let’s combine the hair-pulling ennui of a long flight with the tedium/fear blend of a blind date! It must be the Web 2.0!!!

    I’d be very curious to hear from people who have tried this or would try this; my bias is very personal and I know there’s more stories out there than mine.

  2. Steve Portigal

    Great piece in the NYT today about impending cell phone usage on phones and how it’s the last peaceful place there is…and how that peacefulness and freedom from interruptions can make it very productive time.

    This is an oft-discussed issue but the NYT piece is good.

    And I wouldn’t be a good link-whore if I didn’t mention my own FreshMeat on the topic of mobile-phone-on-planes

  3. Grant

    Steve, you just have higher standards, I expect. I’ll talk to anyone. Except people who are stupid or cruel. (So, like, no sociologists.) Just kidding. Really, if it’s a dating service, it’s probably not a great idea. But otherwise, its brilliant. I am going to Denver shortly. We shall see! Thanks, Grant

  4. Peter McB.

    I’ve long thought that single business travelers could do with some symbol or artefact (a small flag maybe?), which they could put on their table in hotel restaurants to indicate they’d be happy to be joined by others for a meal. Of course, many hotel bars serve food at the bar, and this is often a way to meet people, if you like sitting on a stool or high-chair to eat, and being surrounded by the noise of the bar.

  5. Peter


    Thank you for the nice words. The site, as you correctly point out, is not a dating service, but rather a way for people to escape the psychological hell of sitting next to someone they don’t know for extended periods of time. Look at it this way: Sit in the middle seat, surrounded on either side by people you don’t know, and it’s incredibly uncomfortable, correct? Sit in the middle seat next to one person you don’t know, but another person you do, and it’s no longer a middle seat! You’re shifted at a 15-degree angle the entire flight, talking to your new friend. There’s no “weirdness” about having to look straight forward for hours on end because you’re “too close” on either side. Watch how people interact with people they know – they naturally get closer, naturally turn in to them – that’s the promise of AirTroductions – making the flight better, easier, less stressful – if a date or some business comes out of it for the flying parties involved, all the better. And apparently, connections are being made – people only pay when they find someone on the flight they want to talk to – and people are paying.

    Thanks again for the comments.



  6. Decklin Foster

    People here in Connecticut are dead set against exchange of most kinds. Products, no. Ideas, Lord no. Capital, ok.

    *snicker* Ain’t it the truth.

  7. Grant

    Peter, a flag is a good idea but I would rather have advance warning about who I am inviting to table. (I have a strict “no knuckle-head” policy.) And come to that, it’s funny how bad the clothing code is at communicating finer information. Thanks, Grant

    Peter, spoken like a true child of Irving Goffman and exactly right. A lot of air travel is, for my money, much too much like kidnap. But even small interactions add value like crazy. I expect one of the airlines will someday pay you a bundle and buy you out. This is a big value add. I hope, incidentally, you are getting coverage in the airline magazines. It’s nice to think of people on a plane and ignoring the person beside them reading a story about people on a plane not ignoring the person sitting beside them. Thanks, and bon voyage. It’s a great idea. Grant

    Decklin, you poor bastard, so your’re a Connecticutian (real word?), too! Grant

  8. Peter


    One thing to keep in mind re: advance warning – You need what, two hours to get through security? That’s your first meeting with your potential seatmate. If there’s a connection, switch the seat. If not, no harm, no foul.




  9. Grant

    Peter, no, exactly, this is one of your marketing questions, I guess. Do you emphasize the “in air” opportunity or the “airport” one. The former is more vivid and has to be your first move. But it does provoke that “what if this person is a kook” anxiety. In which case, the latter is a good companion proposition. Anyhow, good luck, this is a great idea. Best, Grant

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