The lady in the aisle seat

Jean Kennedy Smith with journalist and author Tim Pat Coogan in 1998. RollingNews.ie photo.

By Ray O'Hanlon

I was happy. I had landed an aisle seat up front in economy and close to the bathrooms.

These were busy times for Aer Lingus. The Irish economy was becoming a global story and the airline was packing them in on transatlantic flights.

It wasn't always that way. I well remembered the 1980s.

On one flight from New York to Dublin, on a Boeing 747, I had been delighted when I was told that I would be moved up to the front of the aircraft. Great, I thought, lots more legroom and the delights of Business Class service.

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Only it wasn't Business Class at all. There were so few passenger on the flight that the cabin crew had moved people up to the front so as to be able to deal with the meager numbers in one area. Or something like that.

Business Class service had been, well, put on ice in my new quarters.

But I did have more leg room. Indeed, an entire row to stretch out on.

It was different now. Not a spare seat to be had so the aisle one was welcome, though I do enjoy staring out of planes at 35,000 feet.

But you can't have it all. There was another passenger to my left in the two-seat row on this Airbus.

There were also two passengers in the row immediately ahead.

And, before we were told to prepare for take off one of them, the one in the aisle seat, stood up and began to arrange her cushion and blanket.

It was Ambassador Jean Kennedy Smith.

She looked at me and smiled. I smiled back.

She wouldn't have known me and she wasn't going to. I might argue that reporters are never off duty and must be prepared for every opportunity that comes their way, but there is something sacred about sharing a a flight, or being at neighboring tables in a restaurant (all pre-Covid of course).

Though I have to admit that one of the funniest stories I ever read was penned by the incomparable Maeve Binchy. She spent an entire Atlantic flight studying two American corporate executives beside her and the resulting column was hilarious.

But JKS was different. I would leave her to herself for her long flight back to America.

And then the cabin crew member pulled open the curtain for take off and stood stock still.

I knew what had happened. She, too, had recognized the sister of one president, and the ambassador of another.

It would take a fair few adjectives to fully describe the look on the cabin crew member's face. But shock and horror would definitely be among them.

For a moment she said nothing. And then there was a torrent of words that amounted to an abject apology in multiple, varied, sentences.

So I went full reporter, which means listening, looking, and taking it all in. You can throw in the bemused smile as well.

When the sputtering apologies had finally run out of steam our thoroughly befuddled cabin crew member said she was going to go see what could be done.

In all of this, JKS, had said virtually nothing. And she certainly had uttered no complaint. At the end of the exchange she did say something to the effect of "that would be nice."

She was not averse to getting bumped up to Business Class.

Fair enough, I thought. She played a significant role in bringing peace to Ireland. She more than deserves a little champers in her orange juice.

I awaited developments. After a few minutes the cabin crew member returned, now looking thoroughly flustered. There was not a seat to be had up front.

Now, there are some who would have let rip at this point. But Jean Kennedy Smith went all diplomatic instead, working to ease her host's clear discomfort with quiet, soothing words.

There was no problem at all and she was happy with her aisle seat.

I was happy too, with my aisle seat, and my having witnessed the gracious response of a gracious woman to a snafu of transatlantic proportions.

Well, maybe not quite. Still, though...

I have never written this account before. But Jean Kennedy Smith has left us now so I felt it was time, finally, to go full reporter on it.

Besides, some stories just get better with time.