How to claim your armrest


Ever silently battled complete strangers for that shared armrest next to you? Of course you have. THANDO NDABEZITHA is here to tell you how to win


There are two principles from Sun Tzu’s Art of War that are very effective.


In life, the smartest people win. But in the wild – and on the plane – your survival will depend on physical strength. There is no more perfect example to prove this hypothesis than the arm wrestling Olympics that take place in every economy flight around the world.

As you read this, there are between 13 000 and 16 000 flights in the air around the world and in each of these flights, the most ferocious bloodless battles are being fought. People like you and I are attempting to politely elbow a passenger away from an armrest that they genuinely believe is their turf. Some will disembark with cramped biceps and forearms from defending an armrest you genuinely believed was yours. As you go to Luggage Claim, you will be physically tired, not just from the flight, but from the fight you valiantly fought for your right to the armrest.

I’m not sure what it is about that tiny armrest that brings out the pettiness in even the most polite-seeming individuals. Perhaps it’s the emotional baggage that we carry with us as we prepare to travel from one destination to another.

You are feeling disorientated, discombobulated – and possibly disgruntled – after having to lug around and lift heavy baggage; you’ve been asked to share personal information with judgey strangers (who, might I add, look worryingly sceptical when you respond in the negative to “Are you carrying any sharp or dangerous objects?” and in the positive to “Did you pack these bags yourself?”); and then, finally, you’ve been frisked by security guards after having your personal belongings scanned.

Who can blame you for getting a little territorial aboard, right? The last thing you want to discover – after being interrogated, examined, searched and frisked to within an inch of your life – is that your armrest has been expropriated without compensation by the person sitting next to you. At this stage of your journey, your soul is weary, but not as weary as your arm. All your arm literally wants is a resting place. A place where it may find sweet respite from the cares of this world.

Some inventive entrepreneurs have invented clever little gadgets to settle this dispute once and for all. They re nifty, foldable apparatuses that you can place on an armrest to increase space, allowing you and your neighbour a place to rest your arms. You can buy these online or …

You can be a fighter. I strongly lean towards this view. And you don’t have to be physically intimidating for this second option either. I may not be a towering, physical figure who looks like she could dislodge anyone from an armrest with just a flick of her finger; no, instead I am super-passive aggressive and smart.

While the odds may be stacked against us if the battle comes down to inching someone inch-by-painfully-awkward-inch away from an armrest, we win by bluffing. There are two principles from Sun Tzu’s Art of War that are very effective. “The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting,” says Master Tzu. And “All warfare is based on deception” is another of his favourites.

You don’t want to start a brawl over an armrest in the plane, but you can make your neighbour believe that you’re willing to go to extremes to claim what you believe is rightfully yours. Challenge them to an arm-wrestle as soon as you see the commencement of encroachment upon your turf; the person who wins the match gets to use whichever armrest/s they want for the rest of the flight.

My guess is, nine out of 10 people will point-blank refuse to take you on. It’s a reaction driven by fear … the fear of public spectacle and the fear of public humiliation. Either of those – and especially the combination of both – is more than enough of a deterrent to make even the brawniest person acquiesce and grant you the armrest to you for the duration of the flight. Of course, they may also think you’re a little nuts and inch as far away as possible, or be polite and charitable enough to gracious declare it yours from the start.

Whatever way it plays out, that armrest is your.





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