Hoffman's Houston
in-flight save

Fast-acting flight attendant rescues Ken Hoffman from airline agony

Fast-acting flight attendant rescues Ken Hoffman from airline agony

Hoffman was the recipient of a critical in-flight rescue.  Photo by Getty Images

We all have our share of airline horror stories. Here’s one that started as a nightmare but ended happily ever after, thanks to a United flight attendant who saved the day.

I spent last week in Nice, France, my favorite city to visit in the world. The lasagna at La Favola in Old Town alone is worth the trip. It’s huge and delicious and burnt around the edges — wow! I order it every time, and I don’t even like lasagna. Also, the pizza and people watching at New York, New York brasserie on the main drag (Alee de la Liberte Charles de Gaulle) in Cannes are Top 10 worldwide. (The wifi password is “IloveNewYork” in the outdoor dining area.)

I’m not loyal to any particular airline for my Nice soirees (I speak fluent tourist French, as you can tell). When I see a cheap airfare, I go. Just like that. This time, I flew Air Canada going. And I intended to fly Lufthansa coming home.

I had never flown Air Canada to Nice before. The first leg is three hours to Montreal, a two-hour layover, then seven hours non-stop to Nice. Usually, I have a layover in Paris, where the airport is crazy. The Air Canada route is easier and less stressful.

Aisle fall apart in the middle
My return was supposed to be Nice to Munich, then connect to Houston on Lufthansa. But, here’s the thing: I must have an aisle seat. I have selective claustrophobia. If I’m in a window or middle seat, I get the willies, bordering on full-on panic disorder. It’s really an awful, sweating, shaking experience. So when I make a plane reservation, I always request an aisle seat, often paying extra.

Last week, I had every detail set in stone, an aisle seat on all four legs of my trip. I called both Air Canada and Lufthansa the day before I left to make sure. The flight to Nice on Air Canada was smooth sailing. The food selection in the Montreal airport is excellent.

Coming home, not so much. I was supposed to depart Nice at 8:40 am. However, when I woke up and checked my email, at 2:30 am: “Your flight has been cancelled. We are working on a solution and will contact you. Love, Luthansa.” (I’m kidding about the last part.)

Now what? Another email said I was now booked on a United flight from Frankfort to Houston, leaving a few hours later. No problem there. I went back to bed. My new flight information contained a reserved seat assignment, no “see gate agent” or anything like that. I assumed …

As usual, “assumed” bit me on my rear end. When I boarded the United flight, and found my seat, oh no, I’m in the middle. I can’t do this! I paid for an aisle seat. Now Lufthansa canceled my flight in the dead of night, foisted me off on another airline, and I’m in a middle seat.  The plane, like most planes these days, was packed.

Think fast, act sick
I know, I’ll fake sick and get off this plane. Not to brag, but I mastered the art of fake sick in high school. I wound up dropping Latin III because I faked sicked for too many quizzes. I’m also an expert at fake sleep and fake on the phone. I flagged down a flight attendant and told her, “I have a middle seat. I paid for an aisle seat. If I have to sit in this middle seat, I need to leave the plane. I feel a stroke coming on.”

Of course, I could get off the plane, go up to the counter and try to switch flights. Airlines are very reasonable, charging only $600,000 to change a reservation.

I’m not that alone in middle seat trauma. I found a survey by 3M that says a majority of Americans would rather go on a blind date than sit in the middle seat on a full flight. Fifty percent said they would rather leave the plane and take the next available flight. Twenty percent said they would stay overnight at an airport hotel for an aisle seat the next day. I told the flight attendant, “I will walk home to Houston if I have to, just get me out of this middle seat.”

Did you know that U.S. regulations say passengers aren’t allowed to stand in the back of the plane by the galley anymore? I’ve done that a few times, and I offered to do it again. No dice.

Rescued at 5,000 feet
She said, “Stand here [by the toilet] and let me see what I can do.” I told her, “I’ll sit on the toilet the whole flight — if that’s okay.”

I had my carry-on next to me, ready to leave the plane, when the flight attendant said, “Here, I have an aisle seat for you.”

Before I could ask, “How?” she turned and left. I went back to Row 47 and sat sweetly in my aisle seat, which beats a mother’s womb for security and comfort.

When we landed, I looked for the flight attendant, but in the bustle couldn’t find her. She was like the Lone Ranger … I never got the chance to thank her.