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Shutting Out The Chatty Fellow Flier

By Keith L. Alexander
Tuesday, October 5, 2004; Page E01

As she settled into her aisle seat preparing for a three-hour flight from Orange County, Calif., to Chicago on United Airlines last month, Joy Denman only wanted to get lost in the pages of her book.

But the man in the window seat had other plans. He was a Sunday school teacher and wanted to find out where the Georgetown history teacher stood in her spiritual beliefs.

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For the first hour of the flight, Denman's seatmate grilled her on her knowledge of the Bible and Mormons and spent some time proselytizing his beliefs.

When a flight attendant offered headphones for a Harry Potter movie, Denman snatched them up and got a break from her persistent seatmate. But when the movie ended, the man in the window seat -- who hadn't watched the film -- wanted to discuss what he perceived to be the demonic symbols in Harry Potter.

"Please God," Denman said to herself, "get me out of this."

As soon as the plane landed in Chicago, Denman ducked into the airport's ladies room.

After a hectic business trip, many travelers want to flop aboard their flight to relax, read or catch a quick nap. But often their plans are foiled by a chatty seatmate who doesn't seem to recognize -- or chooses to ignore -- their nonverbal cues asking for some solitude. Some frequent fliers have developed strategies to beat back annoying conversationalists -- from the nearly rude and direct to the subtle and sometimes effective.

Attorney Hollie Reedy of Columbus said her husband, Rocko, a rock-and-roll production manager who has worked for U2 and Journey, throws a blanket over his head and tells the flight attendant in earshot of his seatmate that he'll be sleeping during the flight and is not to be disturbed -- even during meal service. "That gets the message across clearly," she said.

Robert Salmon of Chevy Chase sends a different kind of message. Whenever he flies on Southwest Airlines, Salmon dons on a surgical mask in the boarding area. It's not that he has a breathing disorder or an infectious disease. Since Southwest has an open-seating policy, Salmon uses the mask to discourage people from sitting next to him. And if someone does wind up beside him, he said the mask pretty much ensures the traveler won't start chatting away.

"It's very effective. I don't have to make any excuses about why I don't want to talk, people just stay away," said Salmon, a housing constructor.

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