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Part One of Our Travel Series!
Next Week: London for Singletons!

Friendly Skies:
Hooking Up at 35,000 Feet

or, How to Get Yourself into an Upright and Locked Position

by Lori Gottlieb

I never listen to my mother when it comes to the notion of dating, but she was right about one thing: "You always find it when you're not looking." I once tried that strategy to find an earring in my apartment, and I'm still waiting for it appear... but recently I did find myself on an early-morning flight, dressed "comfortably" (read: devoid of style), and minding my own business when -- Ta da! -- I met a guy.

As it turns out, air travel can be an unexpectedly effective way to meet potential dates. At airports, of course, you're surrounded by people from all over the world, not just your own city (where you've probably exhausted the same ol' bars, coffeehouses, clubs, and party scenes). Next time you're on the "people mover," look around: amidst all the touristas and family units, there's a whole new crop of Singletons to check out. But before you prepare for landing a co-pilot, you should know that dating is a little different at 35,000 feet.

On the ground, the first date is rife with need-to-entertain-him/her angst: Do I invite him over for a drink before dinner, or can I just meet him at the restaurant? Do we hug when we greet each other at the door? Should I take her to the movies or the beach or a museum or a romantic dinner? Yikes! Suddenly, dating anywhere else starts to sound good.

Preparing for Cross-Check...

The game begins in earnest with your seat assignment. In my case, this was a good thing: when I arrived at my seat, there happened to be a really hot guy in the one next to mine.

Sadly, that won't always be the case. Across the aisle, for instance, there was a not-so-hot-guy-with-a-look-of-abject-horniness-on-his-face, and I could have ended up seated next to him. For five hours! Imagine yourself stuck at the XYZ Bar next to this guy and NOT being able to ditch him by saying, "Excuse me, I have to go the bathroom," and then high-tailing it out of there. You can only kill so much time in the galley before the attendants get terse.

Fortunately, the guy next to me (whom I'll call Dave) turned out to be not only hot, but also witty, smart, and creative to boot. And because we were on a plane, there was none of that first-date awkwardness. We could talk about anything. In fact, I learned more about Dave's life and past relationships between San Francisco and New York than I'd learned about the last guy I'd dated over the course of four months.

Would You Prefer a Window or a Lap?

Since your seating assignment doesn't always work out so well, let me give you some tips on weeding out the losers:

Loser: Reads Playboy, Stuff, Maxim, any other adolescent frat boy rag.
Winner: Reads The New Yorker, Rolling Stone, Harper's, Fortune.

Loser: Eats mystery meat on tray. Possibly even enjoys it.
Winner: Pokes at mystery meat with revulsion like a normal person.

Loser: Orders a bunch of drinks and gets trashed. On an 8:00 a.m. flight.
Winner: Makes a witty champagne toast, then shares milk and cookies with you.

Loser: Uses the pick-up line, "So, are you a member of the mile-high club?"
Winner: Uses any other pick-up line!

So... Are You Deplaning in Marrakesh?

Let's face it, activity options are limited while trapped in a metal tube (however suggestively shaped it may be). Once you've made visual contact with a prospective co-passenger, you have the advantage that virtually anything is better than an in-flight magazine.

And of course, if you're brave like that, you can reinvent yourself any way you want. You can give yourself a new name (Esmerelda/Balthazar), or a new place of residence (Anchorage/Lake Como), or even a new career (NASCAR driver/CIA director). And it won't matter because it's not like at home where you might run into a friend who'll shout across the bar, "Hey, Lori!" forcing you to pretend you have no idea who she's talking to.

Here's your chance to live out an exotic fantasy in which the following words might actually pass your lips: "So, that was after our second White House gala and before our plane almost went down in Nicaragua."

On the flip side, of course, you can also be as revealing as you want, because if you decide never to see this person again, you won't have to. Statistically speaking, you're probably safe telling this person all about your crazy parents and your vexing siblings. (At some point, of course, it stops being a faux date and becomes faux therapy, but you could still do worse.)

Fly Me to the Moon...

With those basic guidelines in place, we can admit that the true beauty of plane dates, is that there's absolutely zero pressure to impress. The games, the misunderstandings -- they all seem to disappear with a little altitude. Once the right person is on your radar, so do our inhibitions. What might have passed for a cheesy pick-up line at a Macy Gray concert seemed hilarious next to the dissonant din of humming motor engines.

Which leads me to share my hypothesis regarding the physiological impact that flying has on the psyche: being in the air can cause Airplane Nostalgia Syndrome (ANS). A classic case is the last guy I dated, who used to call me from airplanes and leave the following messages: I miss you; I can't wait to see you; I wish you were here. Once on the ground, however (a mere six hours later!), he'd call and say, "I don't know why, but I think I'm ambivalent about you." Huh?!

So whether it's the engines' effect, the oxygen they're pumping in, or the lack of blood flow to the brain from sitting so long, being in the air frees us from our inhibitions and anxieties. In other words, it allows us to become more like our true selves -- less prone to self-consciousness about our vulnerable feelings, or over-analysis of our behaviors.

If you still aren't buying my ANS theory, take this simple test. On the ground, would you:

...pop open a box of Ear Planes and unabashedly stuff the dorky-looking blue spiral plugs into your ears, not caring that you closely resemble somebody's grandma and/or a character from "Star Wars"?

...make no excuse whatsoever for a hideous, shredded, plaid fabric suitcase that you've had since the Seventies? I repeat: the Seventies. (Think disco, feathered hair, and The Brady Bunch.)

...not care that you haven't showered and are wearing the most unflattering gray flannel shirt in your entire wardrobe? In fact, not even notice until hours later when you get to your hotel and are shocked by your reflection in the lobby's mirror?

...have no qualms about sharing your most intimate, private thoughts, even if they make you seem completely psychotic?

Of course not! You'd be freaking out! Which is why the first time Dave and I got together on the ground, to take his black Lab Thelonius (canine pseudonym) for a run in the park back in San Francisco, we acted like we were on a, um, date. Which is to say, we were so busy trying to act charming and "do something fun" that we forgot to have, um, fun.

But the key was to have gotten the date in the first place. Flying, rather than just a dehydrating way to get from Point A to Point B, is another opportunity to make the most of your single life.

One final piece of advice: don't settle for your seatmate if you're unsatisfied. Like the guy I was stuck next to on the way back from New York, who insisted on talking to me even after I put headphones on. Scope out any available seats and locate your call button the minute you get on board. Then, in a pinch, you can ask the flight attendant about switching seats. (Think of this as your own personal "emergency exit.")

At worst, you may have to sit in the very last row next to the bathrooms. But who knows? You might also unexpectedly end up next to a winner back there.

And, like Mom said, "You always find it when you're not looking."

Lori Gottlieb is going to Maui with a guy she met on a plane. They have reserved adjacent seat assignments. Her new book, "STICK FIGURE: A Diary of My Former Self," an LA Times bestseller, has been optioned for film by Martin Scorsese.

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