Lessons from the plane seat incident

Wole Soyinka and Airline Passenger

The social media has been set on fire by the trending debate about the incident that happened on a New York bound flight where a gentleman demanded that an elder statesman should vacate his allotted seat by the window and return to his (the statesman`s) aisle seat.

Ordinarily, I would not have joined in the discussion because a lot have been said with people arguing for and against the appropriateness or otherwise of the action.

However, I observed that majority of the discussant have taken the whole scenario out of context and I am constrained to critically review same from a unique angle as has been my tradition by bringing the positives and the shortcomings to the fore to encourage the readers (especially the upcoming generations) on the former and discourage or guide them against the later.


Meanwhile, I wish to crave the indulgence of the parties to the saga and to extend my profound respect to their fundamental human rights of respect for the dignity of their persons and the freedom of expression as enshrined in Sections 34(1) and 39(1) respectively of the 1999 Nigerian constitution.

Looking closely at the numerous submissions, the first thing that readily comes to my mind is the fear that revolves around the kind of legacies our elites are building up to leave for future generations. I am greatly troubled by the fact that we are easily divided along parochially biased lines on issues regardless of the magnitude of its weightiness or trivialness.

An issue that ordinarily should have been used to educate ourselves and give our children moral instructions has been bastardized by sentiments as usual. For crying out loud, this is our country and we should always be thinking of what are the next steps to take or what are the next things to do that will make life more meaningful for all of us. If we think good and always do well towards one another, this country will be developed beyond human comprehension to become the pride of Africa. From the incident in question, you will agree with me that it bothers on law and morality.

We will understand it better with the right answers to the following questions;
(1). Does the gentleman have a right to his allotted seat or not?
(2). Should he have asked the statesman to vacate the seat or not?
(3). What manner of approach did he adopt in asking the statesman to vacate the seat?
(4). What does it matter if he had opted to take the other seat?

In response to the first question, the gentleman has right to his allotted seat (subject to change by the flight operators for unforeseen circumstances or for safety reasons).


The response to the second question is based on morality and is dependent on the conviction, intention (reasons) and judgment of the seat allottee (so, it is his arbitrary decision to make); though, it was expected that (by our culture which promotes respect for elders), he should have allowed the statesman to have his way because of his status.

In response to the third question and in fairness to the gentleman, there was no place where it was mentioned that he made the demand rudely, disrespectfully or inappropriately and; in response to the fourth question, it would not have mattered for him to settle for the other seat on the face of it; but, it is wrong and would have mattered without the prior knowledge and notification of the flight operators.

Ordinarily, people take it for granted because it happens frequently unquestioned and without any issue; but, in the case of any eventuality or accident traced to that particular seat; the original allottee will be held accountable. There are cases where people sell their allotted seat as a result of unforeseen circumstances but it will be an infringement on the part of the operators if their record is not promptly annotated to reflect the change before the flight (I stand to be corrected). In some cases, the seats of those who missed the flights are left vacant and people usually interchange same on the face of it; but, that does not make it right or lawful.

Consequently, you will agree with me that the gentleman has not really done anything wrong in the true sense of it; more so, when he hinged his action to the fact that he is on autism spectrum and needed the view from the window to keep him from getting sick on the plane. He used his judgment and discretion to the best of his ability and his decision should be respected. However, the bone of contention here revolves around the personality of the elderly person in question who happens to be the Nobel laureate, our erudite Professor Wole Soyinka.


Personally, I can say it unequivocally, that the professor is a man of honour that deserves honour and respect from our generation and generations to come. He is a statesman to the core who has fought many battles against human rights abuses and misgovernance in our clime. He has carved a niche for himself and has written his name in gold that nobody or incident can take away from him. He has lived within his means and had not used his positions frivolously and dubiously otherwise, it would not have been too much for him to be flying in his private jet; and, this could be the reason Tonye Cole was moved to react on the incident in the first place.

From available information, the Nobel laureate did not give a hoot which could have killed the incident naturally; but, it is also very good that people noticed and brought same to the fore.

However, rather than using it as a good avenue to creating positive awareness; our elites have turned it to causing disaffection on social media as usual by the manner in which it is being dissected. We ought to have asked ourselves pertinent questions such as, “would we have expected the gentleman to react the same way or differently if it were to be an unknown and unpopular elder? Would our reactions and condemnation of his decision still be the same or otherwise if the person in question is unknown and unpopular? How would we have reacted if the parties involved have switched positions? etc. and allow our honest answers to prick our conscience and act as guiding principles on how we should react to issues of national concern.


I can only advise that we should always do unto others what we expect them to do unto us; and that is why I cannot agree more with Mo Abudu`s assertion that the gentleman would definitely get what he deserves. There is nothing sinister about it; what it simply connotes is that at his own ripe age and after so much accomplishments, he will also experience what will make him to truly comprehend and appreciates the appropriateness or otherwise of his decision or judgment on this incident.

From the aforementioned, it would have gladdened my heart if tens of other allottees of the window seats had offered their seats to satisfy the need of our elder statesman (or to the gentleman so that he can allow the Prof to remain on his preferred seat (albeit, with the consent of the operators as earlier noted).

In the same vein, the crew members should have also stepped up their customer service skills by ensuring that they got a willing window seat allottee to swap seats with the professor or the gentleman as the case may be in this circumstance.

Despite the fact that he did not make a prior request for same as at the time of booking, it is not out of place to grant him such privileged (I can only overlook this shortcoming because the elder statesman did not even give a hoot about the whole issue). Anyways, the deeds have been done and cannot be reversed. All we can do is to use the lessons therein to guide our sense of judgments to situations and issues in the nearest future.

One very important lesson that should be taken is the level of humility displayed by the elder statesman as depicted in his mail in circulation.

The incorruptible statesman did not exchange a word with the gentleman beyond inviting him to take his allotted seat. If this attribute is imbibed by the citizenry in all endeavours, it will pave ways for peaceful co-existence in the country.


The gentleman`s submission that the statesman said “he would have also done the same”, he was more embarrassed by the undue attention; he thinks that Nigerian youths need to stand up more for themselves etc also calls for concern in view of the fact that the professor said he did not make such comments.

The question is where did all these emanate from? This shows that information flies on the media and one needs to be double sure of the veracity in order not to be misled into making judgment and misinforming others.

Furthermore, social media activists and propagandists, should also learn and be guided by objectivism in their analyses of issues to avert causing disaffections or creating mutual suspicion in the polity.

Finally and most importantly, government should steadily keep in touch with our statesmen in order to ensure that they are constantly accorded all deserved entitlements and accolades. They should be honoured and rewarded appropriately during their lifetime so that the upcoming generations would also be encouraged to toe their line of patriotism and selflessness in the service of the nation.

Please note that the views shared above are with profound respect to all the parties involved.

Oise-Oghaede, a Public Policy Analyst/Commentator wrote from Suru-Lere, Lagos.

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