Flying Spirit With Mr. Skyes
Story and photos by Dave Seminara

Flying on a budget airline during a pandemic can lead to multiple levels of uneasiness...for some anyway.

Spirit Airlines
Creative Commons © Caballero1967

"Where's my seat at?" asked a wiry man in a baseball cap making his way toward us. We were sitting on a Spirit Airlines flight at Tampa International Airport and my wife thought that the middle seat next to her was going to be empty until this confused traveler turned up, a few minutes after everyone else had boarded the flight. A flight attendant checked his ticket and directed him to the seat next to my wife—the only empty seat on the plane. The man said very loudly for all to hear, "I GET TO SIT NEXT TO THE TWO MOST BEAUTIFUL WOMEN ON THE WHOLE FLIGHT!"

I'm a pathological traveler. And so, while the pandemic grounded me for a time, there was no question that I'd be back on the road and up in the air before long. But my affinity for travel has never included flying. For me, travel represents freedom, while air travel is about confinement, hectoring, pat-downs, claustrophobia, and food that isn't fit for dogs. Flights are my penance for incurable wanderlust. The suffering comes before the sublime.

No, I wasn't excited to be at Tampa International Airport for a Spirit Airlines flight to Cleveland. Aside from my customary aversion to flying, there was COVID-19 to worry about. I take three immunity-suppressing medications for a pair of autoimmune diseases I have, so my chances of catching the dreaded virus and being severely impacted by it are better than average. These concerns kept me grounded for several months, but in early October when my dad, who is 88, had some health problems, I decided I was going to Buffalo to visit him and my mom.

In some quarters, travelers have become pariahs, being shunned, questioned and shamed since the pandemic started. The question I'm often asked upon entering buildings—"Have you traveled out of state in the last ten days?" —always seems to come with more than a hint of suspicion, even though most states and countries have lower infection rates than Florida, where I live. We weren't sure if we were even welcome in New York state, where I was born and raised, given the travel restrictions it has had in place on some (at last count) 41 states. We planned to get Covid tests before our trip in any case, but I wondered how we were supposed to quarantine while there for only a long weekend?

When I told my wife that I wanted to take her and our two sons, who are 13 and 11, to Buffalo for a long weekend, I reassured her and myself that we'd find a direct flight on one of the airlines pledging to keep middle seats open. But alas, we soon discovered that in October, none of the direct flights to Buffalo from the Gulf coast of Florida were still operating.

And so, there we were traveling instead to somewhat nearby Cleveland, and not on a kind and gentle, "we're-keeping-middle-seats-open" type airline, but on the "we're-selling-every-seat-whether-you-like-it-or-not" Spirit Airlines. The good news was that our tickets had set us back just $50 each round-trip. The bad news was that there was a very flirtatious man sitting next to my wife, who had agreed to take her chances in the row in front of us due to my health issues.

USA traveling story

Getting Social on a Cramped Airplane

He introduced himself as Mr. Sykes. It was apparently his first time on a plane and he was in an excitable mood. I didn't mind Mr. Sykes talking to my wife—but he kept leaning over to within inches of her face each time he spoke. They had masks on, but still.

After a few minutes of polite conversation among my wife, Mr. Sykes, and the window-seat woman, my wife put her earbuds back in to listen to her audiobook. "What are you listening to?" Mr. Sykes asked. "Can I have one of them earphones so I can listen too?"

This was really too much—even I don't share earbuds with my wife— but I bit my tongue. Mr. Sykes persisted in his efforts to chat up my wife and the window-seat woman, essentially telling them his life story. He said that he was homeless and had been sent to prison for 35 days for some unspecified crime. During such time, his girlfriend started sleeping on some other man's front porch, or so she claimed. Mr. Sykes was furious. They had been together for 23 years and had two children together—one living with an aunt and another living with a grandmother, as they were both homeless. To add insult to injury, Mr. Sykes' woman got Hepatitis C from her new paramour.

I heard "prison" and "Hepatitis C" and thought about my poor parents and how we were probably going to give them Covid or perhaps something else. I reckoned that I should have had my immuno-suppressed ass in my wife's aisle seat. Too late, I reckoned, but I kept eavesdropping.

"After I got out of prison, I had nowhere to live, so I was homeless again," he continued. "My brother up in Cleveland, he offered to buy me the plane ticket, take me in, get me straightened up. He'll be there, he said he'll be right at the gate for me."

bad flight travel story
© Thomas Swick

Then Mr. Sykes leaned in very close to my wife—much too close for my comfort—to tell her something else, and I decided in a split-second that I had had enough.

Confrontation in Tight Spaces 

"Excuse me," I said, tapping Mr. Sykes on the shoulder. "You need to keep your distance from my wife. You're getting way too close."

As soon as I said it, I felt rotten. I'm not the type to shun people—in fact, I would ordinarily enjoy having the opportunity to partake in or eavesdrop on a conversation with an interesting character like Mr. Sykes. But these were no ordinary times, and, as soon as I said it, I had a nightmare vision that Mr. Sykes would react poorly, someone would pull their phone out and I'd be part of a viral video seen by millions of Americans.

Luckily for me, Mr. Sykes was in no mood to quarrel. "Okay, okay man, no problem," he said. I wasn't sure if my wife was on my side or his at this point. She has many talents, but brushing people off is not among them. She closed her eyes just after Mr. Sykes told her, "Your husband don't want me talking to you no more." I tapped him on the shoulder again and said, "We're going to visit my parents who are 88 and 85, I just want you to keep a little distance."

After this he turned his attention to the window seat woman.

Time for Another Target

"He doesn't want me talking to his wife," he repeated.

"It's nothing personal," she reassured him. "It's because of Covid! Don't you understand, you keep leaning in too close to her. He just wants to be careful. You're lucky my husband isn't here. He would not be happy."

"Really?" Mr. Sykes asked.

"Really. And he was a very large man. He died a year ago."

Soon enough, the flight attendants announced the beginning of the beverage service and Mr. Sykes' ears perked up when he heard them mention beer and wine. He wanted beer; the problem was that he had only cash and Spirit Airlines accepts only credit cards. "Can you buy me a beer?" Mr. Sykes asked the window-seat woman.

"I'm not buying you a beer!" she said.

"I'm good for it, I've got the money," he insisted.

"I will not buy you beer but I will buy you a soda," she said.

But Mr. Sykes didn't want a soda and their conversation eventually drifted back to his troubles.

"How old are you?" the woman asked.

"I'm 43," he said.

"43, okay then," she said. "I'm going to give you some motherly advice. It's beyond time for you to get your shit together and get your children back."

"Oh, I'm going to, I promise you," said Mr. Sykes. "I'm going to turn my life around."

And with that Mr. Sykes took her left hand in his right and held it tight for the last twenty minutes of the flight. When we landed, Mr. Sykes reminded everyone that he "got to sit next to the two most beautiful women on the whole flight."

Scary Travels on an Uncaring Airline

We had a wonderful visit with my family in Buffalo. No one got sick and I didn't regret going. But the Tampa and Cleveland airports were surprisingly busy. I had been led to believe that almost no one was traveling but there we were—us and lots of other people with places to go and no time or patience to drive. In both airports, we witnessed quarrels between airline personnel and travelers who didn't want to put their masks on. On both flights, there were people who wore their masks around their chins. No one said a word.

cheap flights on full Spirit Air planes

On our way back to Tampa, the flight was packed again. When you offer $50 flights, the seats sell themselves. A family sitting in the row in front of my wife spent nearly the entire two-hour flight eating and drinking and thus did not have masks on. She sat next to a woman who didn't say a word. I was relieved but I also missed the excitement of having Mr. Sykes around. Just a bit.

It occurred to me that part of the collateral damage of the pandemic is how the virus has robbed us one of the principal joys of travel: the carefree and serendipitous encounters with strangers that come with the territory. Nowadays most travelers just keep their heads down and barely make eye contact with strangers, who could have the dreaded virus for all we know. If travelers are now pariahs; our fellow travelers are lepers. As I look back on our first flight, I have Mr. Sykes to thank for one thing. He reminded me of the good old days of travel, when you could collect stories and not just souvenirs and postcards.

Dave Seminara is a writer and former diplomat in Florida. He is the author of the upcoming books Footsteps of Federer: A Fan's Pilgrimage Across 7 Swiss Cantons in 10 Acts and Mad Travelers: A Tale of Wanderlust, Greed & the Quest to Reach the Ends of the Earth (June 2021) 

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A Pilgrimage to Meteora - Dave Seminara
A Lucky Dog Road Trip from Mexico to Maryland - Camille Cusumano
Booms, Busts, and Rebirths on the Erie Canal - Tim Leffel

See other USA travel stories from the archives

Read this article online at: Flying Spirit With Mr. Skyes

Copyright © Perceptive Travel 2021. All rights reserved.

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Books from the Author:

Footsteps of Federer: A Fan's Pilgrimage Across 7 Swiss Cantons in 10 Acts

Buy Footsteps of Federer: A Fan's Pilgrimage Across 7 Swiss Cantons in 10 Acts at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
Amazon UK
Amazon Canada

Breakfast with Polygamists: Dispatches from the Margins of The Americas

Buy Breakfast with Polygamists: Dispatches from the Margins of The Americas at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
Amazon UK
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