Every single day, there are roughly 50,000 non-military airplanes that take off and land. A statistically insignificant number will crash. That seems pretty impressive, but it's probably not. You're far more likely to die on the way to the airport. You should take solace in this fact unless you're one of the poor souls who finds themselves in the unenviable middle airplane seat. It's really not that big a deal if you're traveling with your spouse or a family member. But if you're stuck in the middle between a pro wrestler and the creator of Funyuns, you're in for a predictably miserable experience. Consider the direct JFK > LAX flight. Ouch.
As I see it, here's the breakdown...
About 50% of the people who board an airplane do not want to wish to engage in conversation. Most are willing to feed you an obligatory "hello," but then generally dissolve into their iPad, book/magazine or use the vomit bag to construct some kind of origami-frog.
Another 25% will make brief, polite conversation from here and there. This is the category I generally fall into. I speak when spoken to. If someone has a mundane weather observation, I'll gladly provide input. But it's usually concise.
Then there's another 10% who want to yap incessantly. Annoying but generally harmless. They'll try to engage you from the start. But if you stand your ground, they will usually take the hint.
And it has been my experience that about 10% of the time, you're seated next to some moron who just can't shut the fuck up. This is consistent with societal norms. One time I was flying from Columbus to Phoenix, and I had the misfortune of sitting next to a large man who relentlessly impaled my tympanic membrane with discussion of his ostrich farm. The lean quality of the meat, the friendly disposition of ostriches, the overall upswing in ostrich popularity, celebrities who've been to his ostrich farm (I vaguely recall Eric Estrada having visited), ostrich mating habits, anything ostrich-related was on the table. And the guy didn't even live in Phoenix. The asshole lived in Tuscon. He had no shame whatsoever. Completely unaware of his role as an unacceptable life form. And suffice to say, this type of passenger almost always has chronic halitosis.
The last 5% are the people who have no business associating with humanity in general. Ahh, the subhumans who lack the ability to communicate due to a variety of issues. Extreme paranoia requiring near lethal dosages of maximum strength Xanax, the unbearable notion of going the next 4 hours without a cigarette, fear of the plane crashing, fear of close proximity to others, maybe they never have boarded an airplane until this fateful day (meeting that new love in Vegas after a sordid, 48 hour, hot and heavy internet romance), etc.
So what's my point? At 41 years of age, I'm guessing I've boarded an actual airplane about 183 times. I'd estimate that's a little above normal, but I'm obviously not in the category of Air Force, the executive business traveler, flight attendant or someone who travels extensively. I'd say I've gotten stuck in the middle seat about 15% of the time. And as I alluded to early, if you're in between two individuals of ample girth, that spells Uncomfortable with a capital "U." I'm not homophobic, but I try my best to avoid male thigh-on-thigh contact. Yes... I am complaining. But I realize it's not like being waterboarded or sliding down a razor banister. Back to my main point - if one or both armrests are unavailable, there's going to be some discomfort.
So earlier, I defined the various types of airplane traveler personalities. I did this for a reason. There's not much I can do about "thigh and leg spatial violations." But if you happen to get stuck in the middle seat, there needs to be a socially, universally acceptable way to ask for occasional use of the armrest. So the question becomes, how and when is the best way to broach the subject. Here's what I would suggest...
As the flight attendant goes through the routine safety procedures, he/she will come to the point where they explain oxygen mask protocol. During this instant is your best chance. As the flight attendant's arms are outstretched, glance up and say the following. "Wow, looks like she has plenty of arm room. I am sooo jealous!" Then, immediately follow it up with a "lighthearted" apology - something along the lines of "Ohh, I can't believe I just said that. I'm so sorry."
If either of the individuals seated next to you has any conscience (about 85%), they will acknowledge your dilemma. Some will offer up the armrest immediately. At this point, I would suggest responding with "Ohh, I won't need it for the whole flight. Just from time to time so my arms and upper torso don't go numb." Follow this up with just a hint of nervous, skittish laughter. So there you have it. I believe this to be the best solution (as it relates to constructive timing and reasonable etiquette) to the dreaded middle airplane seat, armrest problem.
Since I'm the only known person on the planet likely to have put this in writing, I must make the following demand. My middle seat solution cannot be used on flights with a duration of less than 1 hour 26 minutes. That's in-the-air flying time. That seems like a reasonable limitation. And just for the record, I have never flown first class. So my observations all come from a coach perspective. That would make a killer question for Mitt Romney, the man who likes to make $10,000 bets. "Governor, have you ever sat in the middle seat?" If he pauses and has to think about it (for more than just 2 seconds), it makes him look like an elitist. If he responds, "Yes. I have sat in the middle from time to time," it would likely be viewed as an outright lie. Either way, it makes him look like a douchebag since virtually all his flight experiences have been on a private plane or at the very least, commercial first class (in which case the armrest argument is rendered mute). Just the mere mention of having to sit in the middle... it's almost as bad as the "how many times a day do you beat your wife" question. Someone should try it. Hell, it could sink his campaign.