Expected or not, airline flights have become a training ground for team work and cooperation.  And “road warriors”, those travel stalwarts who spend much of their business lives in the sky, seem the invisible maestros.

Today I am on United Airlines 966 heading back home to Washington DC from my second stay in as many weeks at the HI-Santa Monica hostel. Both visits were primarily for business, and both times the hostel provided inspiring moments … vibrant and bustling, this time of year with intrepid Australian and Asian travelers.

But this post is mainly about my current venue — the Airbus 320, designed for productivity, not pleasure. With a capacity of 160 passengers, its twenty-eight rows of mainly six seats are split by an aisle just wide enough for skillfully wheeled luggage, or two relatively fit passengers sideways. As an experience, its configuration tests an Outward Bound challenge course.

Road warriors can be identified by their well-traveled luggage, organized methods, and assured demeanor. They have an interest in a timely departure, and appreciate the passenger’s role in making it happen. They are efficient in their own movements, and aware of others’.

Road warriors also know they may well be one flight away from a middle seat — your own tolerable middle seat experience, or the absence of an infringing forward seat, probably means you are enveloped by self-aware road warriors.

Their influence is not always seen, but often felt. During my flight out to Los Angeles last Friday during the business day, our passenger team performed admirably in its boarding exercise. Two days later, on this 6 am Sunday morning flight filled with vacationers, we fell considerably short. Ill-fitting luggage and aisle bottlenecks ruled the morning. The maestros were missing.

As travelers, we step onto an airplane and for a while form a community, defined by its aluminum skin and our mutual interest in arriving safely and punctually.  It’s one of several groups we might temporarily join over an extended trip. (For backpack travelers, the hostel stay tends to be a central affiliation.) Road warriors stand as an example of how a few can shape the experience of many along the way.