Sick on a Plane and Stuck in the Middle Seat

Moments before boarding the plane for the last leg heading home, I felt that queasy belly badness that lets you know that food poisoning is taking over your body and you’re going to be sick on a plane. My flight was about to take me to one of Dante’s 9 circles of hell. Circle number 3, where gluttons hang out, assailed by hail, and made to lie in freezing, slushy ice without a hockey stick.

An hour earlier, Brian and I’d passed the best part of a three hour layover enjoying a great meal. Was I about to pay for that minor gluttony in an airport restaurant? Oh, yeah. I dashed for the nearest women’s toilet in Phoenix Sky Harbor airport.

Brian hovered outside the entrance, one eye on our departure gate, one on his watch and the other on my pasty face as I emerged with that unmistakable look of a traveler who regrets their food choices. (And yes, I know that adds up to Brian having three eyes. Technically he has only two, but he’s a seasoned traveler and a bang-up husband so I’m giving him extra credit.)

sick on a plane

Right: the guy who will hold his wife’s hair back while she’s sick.
Left: the woman with hair in her face.

He hustled me onto the plane with that calm composure he gets when I need him to take the lead because I’ve fallen apart or lost my lunch and am about to be sick on a plane. [Note: this deal works both ways. I pick up the slack when he’s lost his shit or is close to comatose with fever on a train from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur. For example.]

For years I’ve been a frequent traveler–short haul and long haul–via plane, boat, train, and bicycle-taxi. Something in my DNA went haywire when egg met sperm causing me to be prone to motion sickness. My susceptibility to turning green in transit is my Achille’s heel. Despite this chink in my traveler’s armor, I keep packing a bag to go traveling, including living on boats for most of two decades. I carry motion-sickness meds. I take them prior to a flight to avoid being sick on a plane. But throw food-borne belly humbug into the nauseous mix and things go exceedingly worse than usual.

sick on a plane

This particular flight found Brian and I seated relatively close to the front of the plane and near one another but not together. I suspected this arrangement might be problematic. You know the sense of relief you get after you’ve vomited—the feeling of unconditional gratitude you have simply to not be nauseous anymore? Yeah well, that feeling had already passed. I was cursing myself and the entire Phoenix airport, while mentally counting the steps to the plane’s forward toilet.

The problem: I was in the middle seat with strangers on each side. If (when?) I got sick on the plane, dashing past my seatmate to run up the aisle might get complicated.

The good news: Brian had the aisle seat in the same row, but across from me.

The solution? Brian politely requested the guy in the aisle seat next to me trade seats with him. Then Brian could move into my middle seat and I’d take Brian’s new aisle position, putting me reassuringly nearer to my inevitable second home for the trip.

New problem: The guy next to me refused to move across the aisle.

What??? Why the hell not? We weren’t asking him to move into the dreaded middle seat, just to please sit across the aisle. Who refuses to change seats for a woman with gastroenteritis, so that her husband can sit next to her? Let me show you who does that:

sick on a plane

A to-scale drawing of the seating arrangement

Brian gave the guy his meanest stony-face look, then leaned across and quietly asked if I’d be okay. I shrugged and breathed vigorously through my nose. When I’m feeling nauseous, it helps to keep my mind occupied, which I accomplished by locating the airsick bag. The asshat next to me crossed his arms and stared straight ahead.

Here’s a truth about me: I really don’t like confrontation. Particularly with strangers, I go quiet rather than argue. In my mind though, I’m not quiet; I’m having entire conversations in which I prevail with witty banter and cracking good logic.

First, (to my credit) I entertained the idea that this guy was afraid to fly and always sat in 10C, his lucky seat. I swiped a glance at him. He didn’t appear nervous, he looked smug. I switched my mental discussion to judgy-mode, skewering this guy with snappy dialogue, letting him know he was airplane seat-mate scum. I’m fairly certain this guy was a mind reader because he started breathing through his nose too, which might have been a mistake, considering I’d vomited just before boarding.

The threat of losing control of your gastrointestinal system and being sick on a plane is excellent for focusing your thoughts and distilling them down to one crystalline thought: how do I get from here to the nearest toilet as quickly and easily as possible? That laser focus gave me an idea to force the issue. In a move against my better nature, I decided to go passive-aggressive on my seatmate’s nastiness.

First, I nudged the guy’s elbow off the shared armrest as I rummaged through the seat pocket in front of him.

Then I said (loudly), “Hey, you don’t mind if I take your airsick bag, do you? I don’t think just one is going to do it.” The guy pulled as far away as he could while still belted in, curling a lip like he might throw up.

airsick bag; sick on a plane

Do not be embarrassed by this…

The woman on the other side of me, in the window seat, pressed the call button above her, whispering, “I need a drink.” Then she searched the seat back pocket in front of her and handed me a third airsick bag. “Good luck.”

“Hoo-boy, I’m going to need it!” I replied, fanning myself with the in-flight magazine. Every passenger within earshot swiveled to take in the scene.

Passive-aggression didn’t take long; aisle seat guy gave up. He unsnapped his seatbelt and rocketed into the aisle.

“Take my seat,” he snarled at Brian, who’d already unlatched his own seatbelt, ready to make the move. A moment later, I had an aisle seat. I was elated for a minute. Until I had to sprint up the aisle to the forward toilet.

The flight attendant stopped by to pat my shoulder and hand me a neatly folded plastic trash bag as an emergency back-up vomit receptacle. She also assured the woman by the window that she’d get her drink order momentarily.

The rest of our two-and-a-half hour flight went just about as you’d expect it to: disagreeably. I used 4 airsick bags (Brian had snagged one from his original seat) plus the trash bag; I made use of the plane’s forward toilet more than is recommended, and vomited once more from the open car door on the ride home.

Lessons learned from being sick on a plane:

#1. I have been sick twice on planes in the past few years within an hour of eating a meal in an airport. (I’m looking at you, Phoenix and Atlanta.) Curiously, when I snack on a scrumptious bag of Chicago mix (half carmel corn/half cheese corn), accompanied by a bottle of Coke Zero mixed with Irish whiskey (I’m looking at you, Chicago) rather than eat “real” food, I have never once felt nauseous on the plane.  So much for trying to eat healthier.

#2. Passive-aggressive tactics work, which I hate. I rarely use those tricks because they leave everyone feeling pissed off. Except this time. This time only the nasty guy got pissed off, but he got over it pretty quickly when he saw for himself that sitting across the aisle from me was far better than being asked to hold my hair back.

Travel is enlightening, don’t you agree?

Barbara Gabriel

Writer. Day Stealer. Chronic Traveler. Raised along Highway 61 in Minnesota, I ran away to sea & messed about in boats. I curse like a sailor and love travel, food, most people, and a well-fitting pair of boots. I try to combine those any chance I can.


  1. Just reading about your sickness made me feel bad. I can’t imagine being in that situation although I’ve had some pretty bad ones on airplanes and on cruise ships. I’m so glad Brian was able to sit beside you and get you an aisle seat. It is absolutely necessary to use passive/aggressive tactics in this kind of situation and I’m glad you did.

  2. Kristin Kissell

    Love the artwork. And, news to me- I did not know you had travel sickness. Good for you pushing through it and staying on the go.

    • I’ve suffered motion sickness since I was a little kid. I blame it on having older sisters who NEVER let me have a window seat in the car. Thanks for appreciating my art. Turns out real artists want to get paid.

  3. I know you didn’t like going the passive-aggressive route, here. But I REALLY, really feel like you triumphed. I hope that guy is a hypochondriac who spent the next month worried he caught something from you. Dick. Also, you are hilarious and fascinating, and this made me laugh out loud: “(And yes, I know that adds up to Brian having three eyes. Technically he has only two, but he’s a seasoned traveler and a bang-up husband so I’m giving him extra credit.)”

  4. Wow, Barbara! What an experience. Hope you are feeling better. Love your humor even with the most horrific experiences. Like you , I am a travel bug. But, I find with every trip my patience for the travel part gets shorter for every trip. Have to keep an eye on the destination to get through it. While I have never been that sick on a plane, I do get the roller coaster feeling on long flights. I have had migraines and simply wanted to lay myself down flat anywhere and cradle my poor head. But, not going to happen on a crowded plane. Thanks for sharing your experience. It makes me feel normal, anyway, and that anyone is vulnerable to motion sickness and can inconvenience people in the process. Maybe that guy who was next to you will get sick sometime on an airplane and understand what you were going through. Or probably not.

    • Oh, Angela! I get tension headaches if I can’t move around occasionally, so I completely understand your migraine issue on flights. Hurray for you for pursuing your travel passion despite the downsides.

  5. Oh, and I love your illustration! Lol! Maybe another hidden talent emerging?

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