Story last updated at 6/10/2009 - 1:35 pm
While waiting to board our plane back to Juneau after attending a college friend's wedding in California last weekend, my friend and I scanned the waiting area for familiar faces. At first glance, we didn't see any, and grew concerned.
All these strangers! Were we flying at an odd time? (I admit, if we had known in advance about the weather, it would have seemed a bit silly to leave for California during the warmest weather Juneau has had in years.)
Then, as we finally got in line to board, I spotted my neighbors joining the line behind us. Once on board, I saw a few familiar faces. All was right in the world.
There's a fairly well-known probability problem called "the birthday problem" - if you get together a group of randomly selected people, what is the probability that at least one pair in the group shares the same birthday? In a group of at least 23, there is more than a 50 percent probability that there's at least one pair of people in your group who have the same birthday. By the time you have more than 57 people, the probability surpasses 99 percent. (Try it at work or in your classroom!)
When I fly back to Juneau from Sea-Tac, I usually think of the birthday problem. It seems like a good jumping-off point for what I'll call the "Sea-Tac problem": If you are waiting to board your plane to Juneau at Sea-Tac, what is the probability that you will see someone you know?
I don't know the answer, and there are all kinds of issues if you try to actually calculate probabilities in this case (what does it mean to "know" someone? How random is the selection of airline passengers?) - but I can't remember the last time I flew either in or our of Juneau without at least recognizing someone else on the plane.
For me, it's the first sign that I'm home, even before our plane takes off. At most airport gates in big cities, people talk to only their traveling companions. Waiting at a gate in L.A. or Chicago is not usually a heart-warming experience.
But as soon as I spot a familiar face at Sea-Tac, I feel glad to be heading home, where you can feel confident that the odds are good that wherever you get a large enough group of people together, you'll see someone you know.
Katie Spielberger is the managing editor of the Capital City Weekly. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org