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He had a plane to himself after an 18-hour delay. What happened next was a wild ride

Phil Stringer bonded with the crew members on his recent flight from Oklahoma City to Charlotte, N.C. He even plans to visit them in Dallas later this month.
Phil Stringer
Phil Stringer bonded with the crew members on his recent flight from Oklahoma City to Charlotte, N.C. He even plans to visit them in Dallas later this month.

Phil Stringer lived both a traveler's nightmare and dream come true all in one day recently when he waited out an 18-hour flight delay to find himself the only passenger on the plane.

Stringer, 34, is the chief operating officer of a real estate brokerage and also consults with businesses about using AI. He travels frequently for work and, despite the many woes plaguing the airline industry, says his trips have generally gone smoothly — until one Sunday late last month.

His early-morning flight home from Oklahoma City to Charlotte, N.C., was incrementally delayed throughout the course of the day for maintenance reasons, so he set up shop at an airport Starbucks (and, when it closed, a table nearby). When he was finally called to his gate just before midnight, he found it nearly empty.

"I had thought that everyone had boarded and I was late, because no one was there," Stringer told NPR in a Zoom interview. "But [the gate agent] was like, 'No, honey, you're the only one left.' "

It was just Stringer and four flight attendants, whom he says were called back from their hotel for the roughly two-and-a-half-hour flight. He says they collectively decided to make the best of the less-than-ideal circumstances.

They spent the flight cracking jokes, teasing and just chatting with each other, an experience he documented in a now-viral TikTok video.

"We were like, look, we can either be negative about the situation and make a bad situation worse by our attitude, or we can be positive, lighthearted ... and try and make something of this and at least just have fun," Stringer says.

That positive outlook surely came in handy when, after the flight finally landed around 3:30 a.m. local time, Stringer realized his long-checked bag was lost. He found it after about 45 minutes, then drove an hour to Greensboro, stopped home for a quick shower and went to work.

That could have been the end of that. But two things happened.

For one: Stringer and the flight attendants have kept in touch, texting regularly in a group chat about their day-to-day lives and viral fame. He's even bought plane tickets to visit them at their home base in Dallas later this month.

And Stringer's been getting all sorts of calls and supportive messages from people who've seen his TikTok, which has garnered more than 10 million likes. He says he's heard from television producers who want to make episodes about his experience, and even got an invitation to join the celebrity video-sharing platform Cameo.

Stringer had a feeling that the video would take off, but not to the extent that it has. The most moving messages, he adds, are from strangers who say it made them smile even during a hard time and think about how they can incorporate some of that positivity into their own lives.

"People have reached out and thanked me for literally shifting their perspective on their bad situation to where they can smile or they can be kind to another person or pass it on to someone else," Stringer says. "And so that's been really cool to see, and something I didn't really expect with the video."

The economics of single-passenger flights

Stringer hadn't been intent on spending a full day at the airport — he tried to re-book his flight, but figured out it was the only option that would get him home in time for his Monday morning meetings.

He didn't realize how long he would end up waiting, or just how much the airport would clear out in the meantime. When he finally got to the gate, he says, it was a "ghost town."

"I almost felt badly because I was like, 'Man, they're going to fly this whole plane for one person. Like, that's such a waste,' " he says. "And then two minutes later, the whole flight crew walks in and they look and they see that I'm the only person. They're like, 'Are you freaking kidding me?' "

They all wondered why the flight wasn't just canceled.

Stringer says the gate agent offered him a few reasons, including that airlines make more money on the cargo they transport than passengers, and they still have to get their planes to the next destination for takeoff.

"So it seems like they would have flown the plane with or without me," he says.

Other fliers have gotten commercial planes to themselves in recent years, including a woman traveling from New York City to Washington, D.C., in 2018; a Lithuanian man flying to Italy in 2019, a Florida college student on his way back from England last year and a passenger headed from Portugal to Ireland in April.

Stringer says he hasn't heard anything from American Airlines — not when he spent several hours on hold with them from the airport trying unsuccessfully to get a refund, nor in the wake of his story going viral.

"We know it can be frustrating when travel plans get delayed and are thankful for our crew members who went above and beyond to care for Mr. Stringer during his flight," American told NPR in a statement, without responding to specific questions.

The importance of a good attitude

Stringer credits the crew's positivity with turning his tough travel day around.

As soon as the flight attendants saw him at the gate, he says, they began teasing him for single-handedly forcing them back to work in the middle of the night. They joked good-naturedly that he'd be sitting in a middle seat in the back of the plane, with no snacks or drinks.

"And I was like, 'OK, that's fair. That's fine. But let's see how many times I can hit that call light. Like, this is going to be fun,'" he recalls. "And so that kind of built a fun rapport between us before we even boarded."

There are certain announcements the crew had to make, by law, even though they had an audience of one, Stringer says. So he got a personalized safety demo, as well as a special shout-out at the end of every PA announcement: "Yes, Phil, we're only talking to you."

He says they laughed a lot, got to know each other and even tried to find some games — like bingo — to play on the way. They made sure to trade numbers by the end of the flight.

As he sees it, the people who can be positive in a negative situation are the type of people he wants to stay connected with. Stringer calls himself a firm believer that a person's attitude determines their direction in whatever they do.

And he hopes that's one lesson people take from his experience:

"If you're going through a hard time, if you're going through a difficult season in anything — or it could be something as silly as a delayed flight — if you choose to shift your focus to something positive, you can absolutely change the situation just by changing your perspective and your attitude."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.