Welcome to AFARguments, a new series where we go head to head about divisive travel issues.
There are those of us for whom flying means the joy of gazing out the window, absorbing the scenery, and contemplating life, and those of us for whom said open window means a disruptive bright light that detracts from a calm, darkened cabin experience. After 14 years of traveling together and dozens of flights (at least 50 they estimate), AFAR cofounders Joe Diaz and Greg Sullivan quickly learned they were on opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to the window shade. To get to the core of the matter, AFAR news editor Michelle Baran moderated a (heated) Slack debate between the two about the true purpose of the airplane window shade.
Michelle Baran: OK, so Joe, I hear that you like to keep the airplane window open. Can you explain? Why do you do this, and is it during the entire flight?
Joe Diaz: Have you ever seen someone put a blindfold on before getting on a Ferris wheel or once they reach the observation deck of the Empire State Building? I just paid a lot of money for this flight and the movies from 2007 just don’t cut it. Looking out the window at 30,000 feet puts me in a creative headspace. I lose sense of time. I think big and without obstruction. I’m able to literally see what connects us all, which is a nice reminder when I get back on the ground where sometimes we have difficulty seeing those connections. Watching the sun rise as you finish your journey across the pond is an inspiring way to start your day.
MB: I love that! Have never thought of it that way.
Greg Sullivan: Wow, that was beautiful. Did you answer the question?
JD: Give Greg peanuts and a movie, he’ll be fine.
GS: In other words, damn the people next to me, I want to look out the window. . . . Yes, I get the appeal of looking out the window. But if you are on a long-haul flight, you should be cognizant of others. On a long-haul flight, I like to try to figure out how to maximize my sleep and arrive in as good of shape as possible.
MB: How often do you look out the window, Greg?
GS: Rarely, because I’m an aisle person. I like the flexibility to get up when I want or need, which at my age is more often than I like to admit. Honestly, on long-haul flights when you are over the ocean, [there’s] not that much to see.
JD: That’s fair. But if it’s dark outside, it’s dark inside.
MB: What about when it’s light outside and they’re trying to make it dark inside? Greg, have you flown with Joe during a scenario such as this?
GS: Thanks for asking, yes. We were flying from SFO to Haneda. We were on a new United Dreamliner and the flight attendant set the windows on dark, taking away Joe’s choice to have the window “open.” He was not pleased.
JD: If there is something to see, then I’ll slowly open it. Or half open it and peek out. And when it’s sleep time like somewhere over the Atlantic, I do close it. Having the window open or closed is not an all or nothing affair. If we are flying over a huge cloud layer during the day and people are trying to watch movies next to me, I’ll close it.
MB: Greg, if it were up to you, would you be just as fine if there were no windows at all?
GS: I have to admit, I like to look out the window when we are on the ground to see [our] status. But at the end of the day, yes, I think I would be OK without windows. I try to get in a zone when I travel—from when I leave the house to whenever I arrive at my destination. I try to check out of the real world; listen to music, read a book, let time go and not let anything bother me. Even the guy who won’t shut his window.
MB: In the above example Joe got “shut down” by the flight attendant who darkened his window, and he said that if everyone on the flight has closed their windows, he would also close his. Greg, have you been on a flight with him when he didn’t close his window and there was no override option?
GS: Yes, I have been on a flight where lights are off, all the windows are closed, and there is one little crack of light coming from Joe’s window.
MB: Joe, what’s your response to Greg’s having witnessed your keeping the window open when all others are closed?
JD: My general policy is this: If there is something to gaze towards, then I’ll gaze. Consideration of others plays a role, but it’s not 100 percent of the equation. My biggest pet peeve is when we’re taxiing, taking off, and on approach and the window is closed.
MB: Ah, so if you’re not in the window seat, you would also prefer for it to be open in those scenarios?
JD: For sure, because even if I’m on the aisle, I can still look out the window. I actually can look out of two windows on both sides of aircraft.
MB: Have you ever flown with Greg when he had the window seat?
JD: No, he usually gives me window. Or we aren’t sitting together because he’ll fly up front and I’ll fly in the back.
MB: Gives it to you? Despite how much he hates how you use it?
GS: I love the aisle more than I love control of the window. . . . I’d be much more of a fan of open windows if it were raining outside. It is the light that I’m against, not the outside view.
MB: And the light bothers you because you’re trying to watch something?
GS: It is more the direct sunlight thing. . . . I’m just a bit light averse. I don’t like sharp light. It is disquieting. I’m looking for peace on a flight. And I’m happy reading my book.
MB: You could argue a reading light is as disturbing as window light?
GS: That is a very good question. It has seemed to become so. Five or more years ago there would be quite a few book lights on. Now, there are basically none. . . . I’m really trying to do my reading on an old-fashioned book now. The light is brighter to read a printed book, but seems better than screen time. . . . I [also do] bring eyeshades (sleep masks) on flights.
MB: Don’t [sleep masks] basically resolve the window issue?
JD: Mic drop.
GS: Ha! No, remember my goal is peace and tranquility. That doesn’t mean I want to be blind the whole flight.
JD: Close your eyes and look within.
MB: Last question for Joe: For any and all on the flight who might be bothered by your raised window shade, what say you? Too bad?
JD: Honestly, I’ve never had that issue. I try to be aware of the people around me. If I can tell it’s bothering someone, I’ll close it partially, depending on the view, or I’ll invite them to look out with me.
GS: Unless it is me.
JD: Window watching can be a shared experience that brings people together.
MB: Wait, you’ve invited strangers to look out your window? Like let them kind of crawl up into your seat space?
JD: Of course! It’s like, “Hey, we’re flying over the Grand Canyon! You should have a look.”
MB: Wow. And poor Greg now has people crawling over him to catch the view.
JD: He’s up front with his eyeshades on. He didn’t even know it happened.
GS: Oh yeah, people are dying to look out the window with Joe.
The Bottom Line
While this AFARgument may not have a clear winner (or does it?), we put this question to a vote and the majority of AFAR staffers are team window-gazers versus team keep the window shade closed (although it was pretty close). But when asked whether those who have a window seat should be obliged to close it when everyone else does, for instance when trying to simulate nighttime during a long-haul flight, or whether having the window seat earns you the right to keep it open no matter what, the vast majority of AFAR staffers said they felt closing the shade was the right way to go.
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