It is my hope that the story below can help move the conversation forward on how airlines can improve their seating policies to help resolve a problem that frequently causes the perfect storm for harassment of women in the air.
Female and Flying Alone
I sat alone at the gate of my Southwest flight with my headset on, watching a movie on my phone. I was returning home from a family reunion and had a 4 hour flight ahead of me.
I hoped to spend most of that time sleeping. I needed to get up early the next morning to make the kids’ lunches, and with the 3 hour time change and a very late arrival, I knew I would be a complete zombie without a long nap in the air.
Sadly, I realized that there was more than a good chance that I wouldn’t get a wink.
Why wouldn’t I be able to nap on a long flight?
Many women who have flown alone on a long flight know the answer … because you get targeted.
Yes, targeted … by creepy men, sometimes attractive sometimes unattractive, sometimes old, sometimes young. Creepy comes in all shapes and sizes, but they are all disturbing to sit next to on a long flight … especially if you are a woman traveling alone.
I purposely dress as inconspicuously as possible when I fly solo to help avoid this problem.
To this end, my preferred travel get-up is baggy sweatpants, oversized hoodie, and no makeup.
The closer I can get to a “I just mowed the lawn” look, the better.
Unfortunately, none of this seems to work as well as I would like especially when flying Southwest, the worst airline of all for getting targeted.
Let me explain.
Southwest Airlines is the Worst for Solo Women
Southwest’s boarding policy works very much in the favor of male stalker types.
You see, when you check in for a Southwest flight, you get assigned a boarding zone. When your zone is called, you choose your own seat on a first come basis.
Creepy men know this system well and use it to harass women. They know that if they board in the last group, they can choose to sit next to a woman that they have already scouted in the gate waiting area.
Other airlines avoid this problem by randomly assigning seats at check-in for those who don’t buy them in advance.
The jackpot for creeps flying Southwest is a woman flying alone and seated next to a window (although I’ve occasionally had issues sitting in an aisle seat too).
The middle seats are the last ones to go on a Southwest flight, which in my experience, are almost always sold out or even oversold. Gate attendants frequently announce this over the loudspeaker before boarding which creepy guys take as their cue to scout a potential set of targets.
So, if a woman flying alone has boarded in either Zone A or B, the chances of her sitting in a window or aisle seat with the middle seat open is very high.
Enter stalkers who board in Zone C filling up the last remaining middle seats.
Once a creepy guy sits down in the middle seat, a solo female at the window has nowhere else to go. All the other seats are already taken, and her goose is cooked. She has to sit near this creep potentially for HOURS. An overseas flight would be unbearable.
See what I mean about not having the freedom to take a simple nap if you are a female flying alone particularly on Southwest?
If you think I’m nuts just google the stories about women in a window seat having issues with creeps in the middle seat doing perverse things during the flight.
Of course, that’s the worst case scenario.
A best case scenario is a creep who won’t leave you alone and asks invasive, personal questions.
This is what happened to me on the flight out to the family reunion. I boarded in Zone B and took a window seat as far to the front of the plane as I could, hoping being near a flight attendant station would deter any creeps from sitting next to me.
A dude took the middle seat and even though I kept my headset on and tried to watch movies, he kept leaning over into my space, pestering me about why I was traveling alone, who I would be meeting at the airport, and the name of my hotel. He even tried to buy me alcoholic beverages.
It was a very uncomfortable 4 hours to say the least. Being plastered against the side of the plane to stay as far away from his leaning over into my space nearly put my back and neck out too.
Waiting at the gate for my flight back home, I promised myself I was not going to have an experience like that again.
The trouble is, I didn’t know how to avoid it from happening given that the Southwest Airlines boarding policy rigs the system against women flying alone. It’s virtually impossible in my experience to get a window or an aisle seat AND avoiding a creep sitting next to you. Even buying your seat so you board first doesn’t avoid the problem.
Turning the situation around in my head, I realized my best option was to board with Zone C (even though I was Zone B) and choose a seat next to other women or children. Couples are fine too, but there is less chance of that boarding with Zone C.
If the flight had been shorter, I would have definitely pursued that strategy.
However, I really needed to sleep for several hours. In that case, a window seat was ideal so I wouldn’t be disturbed if my seatmates needed to go to the bathroom or stretch their legs.
So there I sat at the gate, headphones on watching a movie, trying to figure out how I was going to get a decent seat and avoid weirdos too.
And then the targeting began.
Each time I looked up from my phone, I noticed a man of about 40 staring at me. He had a beard and looked like a muscle builder.
I casually scratched my head with my left hand so that my wedding ring was clearly visible.
Still the staring continued. It must have happened 10 times before Zone A started boarding.
Not sure what I was going to do, I boarded with Zone B. The thought of a middle seat on such a long flight was not appealing, so I decided to chance it and hope the feeling that I was being targeted was misplaced.
“Maybe I’m wrong” I thought.
I boarded the plane and selected a window seat near the wing. There was an older lady sitting in the aisle seat already.
As I placed my backpack down on the seat, I had an idea.
I decided to go to the bathroom for a few minutes before the flight took off. This would give Zone C time to board. That way, I could preserve my window seat, but the creepy guy staring at me wouldn’t know where I was sitting and hopefully choose another middle seat.
I mentioned to the lady in the aisle seat of my row that I was going to the bathroom and to please watch my stuff. I placed my backpack on the window seat and took off for the bathroom in the back of the plane.
When I came out of the bathroom a few minutes later, I noticed that the second to the last row had a window seat available with a married couple in the other two seats.
As I began walking back to my own seat, I saw to my great dismay that the creepy guy was sitting in the middle seat next to mine!
“He must have recognized my backpack”, I thought anxiously to myself. I tie a bandana around the handle so that it is easily recognized.
“I CANNOT sit next to this creepy dude for four hours,” I thought.
“Should I ask the flight attendant to move me?” I wondered. I had no reason to ask to be moved other than feeling tremendously uncomfortable and anxious.
In an instant that seemed like forever, I decided what to do.
Heart pounding, I walked back to the row where the married couple was sitting to see if the window seat next to them was available. They said it was, and I asked if they could please save it for me.
Then, I made my way down the aisle to my row and quietly told the elderly woman in the aisle seat that I was moving.
“Was it something I said?” she asked worriedly.
I smiled and assured her that I just preferred another seat further back.
With the skin crawling on the back of my neck, I leaned over the creepy guy, who honestly looked completely stunned, grabbed my backpack and quickly made my way to the back of the plane.
I have to tell you, I slept so soundly on that flight! It was such a relief to be in a seat where I felt safe and free from the threat of harassment.
Airlines Need to Do Something About Women’s Safety on Airplanes
This story would be worthless if it didn’t further the conversation about what women traveling solo have to deal with on an ongoing basis.
I almost didn’t post it since it veers so much from what I normally write about. However, I am fortunate to have a platform, so if I can use it to prevent others from being harassed with this story, then that is important!
Most men have no concept about these types of situations. Even my husband was incredulous when I told him after I got home. The thought of feeling unsafe in an airplane seat or almost anywhere literally never crosses his mind. He didn’t understand why after flying solo regularly for over three decades, I’m suddenly having issues with creeps on planes. He had a point there.
Once I explained that we needed to figure out a way for our daughter to fly safely alone, he seemed to understand better.
The college where she wants to attend would require her to fly Southwest both ways. The thought of her flying alone on that airline terrifies me.
I am truly hoping that this story can help Southwest rethink its boarding policy which causes a tremendous amount of anxiety to solo women (I’ve talked to others who have observed the same thing … they just thought they were the only one).
While online seat selection combined with random seat assignments at check-in seem to greatly reduce the problem, I’ve still had plenty of uncomfortable encounters on other airlines as well.
Southwest just seems to be the worst because stalkers are able to choose their targets more easily, there are three seats on each side of the plane (two seats doesn’t seem to cause as much of an issue), and the planes are almost always sold out.
Create Women’s Only Rows
While the answer to this problem has the potential to spawn a host of other issues, it shouldn’t deter us from trying anyway.
One suggestion would be to consider safety zones consisting of a few rows of seats for those who are flying alone and/or feel vulnerable. Unaccompanied minors should be seated in such an area for sure.
Another option is to create a policy whereby those who are uncomfortable with the person sitting next to them after Zone C boards can ask a flight attendant to move to another seat, no questions asked. I know this would delay take-off a bit, but it would probably eliminate numerous potential problems too.
Policies which don’t regularly overbook flights and avoid packing them in like cattle would go a long way too.
Have you experienced harassment on a plane before? Does it seem to you that the situation is far worse today than it used to be? If so, why do you think that is?
Sarah Pope has been a Health and Nutrition Educator since 2002. Her work is dedicated to helping families effectively incorporate the principles of ancestral diets within the modern household. She is a sought after lecturer around the world for conferences, summits, and podcasts.
Her work has been covered by major media including USA Today, ABC, NBC, and many others.