Pinned to my seat by Strongman for a 12 hour FRA-SFO flight

The North America Strongman Master’s National Championships are being held in the Las Vegas Convention Center today. These are the kind of people who can carry the beer keg down the stairs and across the yard for you when you can’t roll the sucker.

I met an international strongman on my trip back from Norway two days ago. Passengers waiting to board the FRA-SFO flight gawked at his impressive size. He was huge at some inches over six feet and each thigh posting a tape measure size larger than the waistlines of most of the German women waiting to board the flight.

It took a long time to board the 747-400 aircraft. The flight was oversold and United offered $800 for passengers willing to fly the next day, and a Frankfurt Airport hotel room for the night included.

The final travel joy of spending $541 for my San Francisco – Oslo roundtrip ticket with $260 for expenses to live and travel in Norway for two weeks would have been to get back $800 making my total trip cost $1.00 for two weeks in one of the world’s most expensive countries. The 200,000+ Choice Privileges hotel points I redeemed to stay 13 nights in Nordic Choice Hotels were paid for well over a year ago.

The only reason I did not jump on the offer was the BoardingArea BAcon 2  Conference starting today in Las Vegas for the weekend. I already had my nonrefundable Allegiant Airlines ticket from Monterey and losing that would be $180 value to deduct from the $800 United voucher.

And I would need another airline ticket to Las Vegas – on a Friday. Deduct that value from the $800 voucher.

So, I passed on a flight bump compensation. Instead I was flight pinned.

On the plane I found my F seat. It was an F in more ways than one. On a 747-400 the economy class configuration is 3-4-3. F is a middle seat in the middle section and 41F is the section next to the 747-400 aircraft’s food galley. There was a lot of ice crushing action happening.

All the seats continued to fill as the plane loaded and the time of flight departure approached. There were arguments as passengers arrived to find other passengers already occupied the same assigned seats. Gate agents hustled adeptly through the passengers and luggage blocking the aisles to try and accommodate all the passengers already on the aircraft, several apparently with no seat as the pilot called for the doors of the aircraft to be closed and flight attendants to ready for departure. Flight attendants rearranged luggage to make space for the couple of women still arguing over their seats being occupied by other passengers. One flight attendant ushered an older German woman back to the front of the aircraft assuring her she would have an even better seat. Business Class, I wondered? The younger German woman hurled some final angry words in German at the man in her assigned seat as she was ushered to the back cabin section of the aircraft.

All the while there was one vacant seat in my section of the plane that people were eyeing for its seat location on the aisle. I was certain I could slide my ass over before any other passenger could sit down beside me.

All of a sudden a wall of yellow appeared as the bright European Strongman Team Championships t-shirt on Strongman filled the aisle. He had apparently been standing in the back of the 747 until take-off. His massive body squeezed into the row space between the seats to claim his aisle seat. He wedged his hips into the narrow economy space. I felt the seat divider move half an inch closer to me. His chest was wider than the space of the economy seat and his left shoulder pinned me back against my seat.

When I boarded the flight, I had reached up and turned the air vent on full blast for my seat. The Indian woman seated next to me dressed in a sari wrapped her head in a scarf. One of the two skinny young German women in front of me who had been waving their hands in the cool air stream asked if she could turn off my air since it was chilling their heads. I shook my head no and told her to push the vent all the way back away from them. I needed cold air, especially after several hours in the warm Frankfurt Airport on a 78F degree September afternoon. I was in shorts and a t-shirt and still hot on the plane. The German women donned hoodies later in the flight to block the air flow from their heads.

As the flight lifted off the ground I had 98.6F degrees of Strongman’s body mass pinned against my right shoulder. I was hot and getting hotter as his body temperature heated my shoulder and chest.

In all fairness to Strongman, he was probably more uncomfortable than me. He was wedged into the seat and could not shift the lower half of his body in any way. Dinner was a challenge to eat performing only the slightest movements using my left hand to cut and fork the gravy-covered chicken and vegetables to my mouth. I was amazed I ate the entire meal without spilling any gravy on my shirt. The skinny German boyfriend of the skinny German lady in front of me stood up after the meal pointing out the gravy on his white t-shirt.

Strongman extricated himself from the seat after dinner. The arm rest came up with him. I used the opportunity to plug in the headphones for in flight entertainment. The headphones did not work.

I had slept only four hours my last night in Oslo and I was tired. This was the time to practice meditation and think about the stillness one can achieve in life with strong mental concentration. I kept thinking about the dreadlock zen masters I had seen on the streets in Oslo the day before. This was the time to perform my own version of ‘zen and the art of stillness’.

Zen and the art of stillness

I interlaced my arms, leaned back in my seat and accepted the shoulder pin of Strongman. I let his body heat flow through me and out of me. Amazingly, I passed out and slept for four hours on the plane. When I woke up I felt refreshed despite the right side of my t-shirt being wet with sweat. That horrid stink smell of an international flight in economy class assaulted my nose.

Strongman extricated himself from his seat. I took the opportunity to slide out and refresh in the toilet. As far as I could tell the stink was not coming off me. United economy is so budget class these days that the metal rack in the toilet area of the 747 plane that used to contain moisturizer and mouthwash a decade ago sat empty on the counter.

Many of the passengers on the plane were sleeping, however uncomfortably. The flight attendants were all gathered in the galley together. The fourth film was playing on the 12 hour flight.

I found my way to the back of the plane and obtained a window view out the emergency exit door. I stretched and paced in place and observed the arctic landscape as the plane crossed over western Hudson Bay into the lake dotted tundra of northern Manitoba. So much wilderness in Canada where I gazed at islands in lakes that looked like places few humans, if any, have ever ventured. Perhaps it was over Saskatchewan where the first hints of civilization appeared in the form of roads to mining sites. Then the first signs of towns and farmlands appeared and the farmland turned to forest land, maybe over southern Alberta. Forest changed to arid lands of eastern Montana and southern Idaho.

I returned a couple of times to my seat to find Strongman leaned over sleeping. I did not have the desire to wake him and on a flight where there was space to stand in the back and no turbulence forcing the flight attendants to demand passengers return to their seat, I remained in the back and gazed at North America passing before my eyes below. Having left Frankfurt at 5:25pm with arrival in San Francisco scheduled for 7:50pm, the entire flight was in daylight. Nearly every window shade was closed and the emergency exit door in the rear of the 747 was the only place where one could gaze to the world below. There were few and only brief periods for ten minutes or less when there was cloud cover obscuring the ground.

Ninety minutes to San Francisco I returned to my seat to find Strongman awake and with a fresh pair of headsets I had picked up in the back of the 747, I plugged in the pin to find the sound worked for my seat. The movie Transcendence with Johnny Depp was playing. I had watched it with on demand IFE available on the aircraft for the flight to Oslo two weeks before. Strongman wedged himself back into his seat and his arm rested on my channel and volume controls on the armrest. I listened to Transcendence in French. My high school French from 40 years ago left me lost in translation.

Strongman rested by leaning his head forward on a pillow of the seatback in front of him. This position moved his left shoulder off my right shoulder and also gave me an opportunity to access and change channels and volume. I explored the music channels and found a station with current pop songs. I closed my eyes and chilled out.

Flight attendants brought around a final snack with a cold hard sandwich, potato chips and chocolate. I thought this was a strange food choice considering passengers departing Frankfurt were now approaching 4am in the morning European time. Some fruit and yogurt would have been a fine welcome to San Francisco meal for me.

At touchdown, my seatmate extricated himself and departed the plane for the international visitors line at passport control while I headed for the USA citizens line. I felt okay for the two hour drive back to Monterey. Observing the Oslo masters provided me the incentive to practice ‘Zen and the art of stillness’ as a means of surviving United Airlines international economy class pinned to my seat by Strongman for a 12 hour FRA-SFO flight.

I was home in Monterey by 11pm and 12 hours later back on a flight out of Monterey to Las Vegas for the BAcon2 conference this weekend. I’ll be keeping my eye out for the North America Strongman men and women in town for the NAS Master’s Championships today.

Perhaps I better start practicing more miles accumulation strategies to put my ass in a Business Class seat for long-haul international flights.

I am fond of saying that I’d rather fly economy class and spend a week in nice hotels when redeeming my points and miles.  However, if the opportunity arises again before this week’s economy class 12 hour flight from FRA-SFO fades into distant memory, I’ll strongman my way to be the first volunteer in line to give up my seat for $800. That might be enough credit to almost buy an upgradeable booking code ticket.


Ric Garrido of Monterey, California is writer and owner of Loyalty Traveler.

Loyalty Traveler shares news and views on hotels, hotel loyalty programs and vacation destinations for frequent guests. Check out current hotel loyalty program offers across all the major chains in Loyalty Traveler’s monthly hotel promotions guide.

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About Ric Garrido

Ric Garrido of Monterey, California started Loyalty Traveler in 2006 for traveler education on hotel and air travel, primarily using frequent flyer and frequent guest loyalty programs for bargain travel. Loyalty Traveler joined in 2008.

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  1. Great writing and report! I don’t know whether to laugh or cry over your report. I guess a little of both would be necessary. As your BA counterparts would say, it wasn’t necessary. Flying at the front of the bus is way too easy. However, I get the part of very cheap ticket vs. blowing a lot of miles.

    I know exactly what you went through. I was sitting next to a body builder on ord-sfo and i cant imagine how uncomfortable it must have felt on a 12 hour flight.

    My condolences…

  3. My car was at SFO. I would have needed to get back to SFO when my airline ticket is for LAS-Monterey adding more expense for extra days of parking and getting to my car.

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