You are on a flight, the airplane is full, and the passengers on your left and right are strangers. Who are they? Where are they from? Why are they on this flight? Do you want to start a conversation? Or not?

Instead, you take the in-flight magazine from the seat-back in front of you, thumb through it, and there's a short story -- about a passenger on a flight, sitting next to a stranger. The two of them start to talk and ...

The short-story series "Row 22, Seats A&B" series began in July 1997 when "A Schedule to Keep" appeared in "Hemispheres," United Air Lines' in-flight magazine. The series' premise was simple: two different people, maybe they know each other, maybe they don't, on a flight to a different place. It could be a love story, a spy story, a thriller, anything, but, by the writer's choice, every story must be compelling, and beneath every storyline there must be a solid theme: trust, love, loss, how a life can be wasted, how the fates might offer a second chance -- or might not.

The series' characters have been as varied as any passenger list: a student returning home after completing his Rhodes scholarship, a thriller writer, a Russian general who was a spy for the United States, a hospital spokesman, an actor, a cellist, a Welsh singer, a professional golfer, a restaurateur, a Wall Street businessman, and an old woman returning to her childhood home in Vermont -- along with a dozen other lives.

To keep United's most-frequent fliers looking forward to the next "Row 22" story, it was crucial that each story differ in plot, theme, atmosphere, and cast of characters, so that no reader would ever feel that the series was just plowing the same field over and over.

The "Row 22" stories have had a total readership of more than 30 million people. One story became part of the orientation for the incoming class at Yale Medical School, another story was used in a course at Ohio University, and a third at Northwestern University. On a more personal level, one reader wrote that the "Row 22" series is a bigger reason than "being a Premier Exec and the mileage rewards" in his choice of airlines; a male reader admitted that a Row 22 story caused him to cry during the flight; and, four years after one story's publication, a reader wrote to say how it had changed his life. The story "My Father's Gift," set against the background of World War I and immigration to the United States, elicited several e-mails asking whether it was fiction or non-fiction, and has been used in several schools.

To a great degree, the "Row 22" stories followed the advice of two writers: Stephen King and John D. McDonald.

King, adapting a quote from Tom Wolfe, said that he liked reading the books of James M. Cain (author of "The Postman Always Rings Twice" and "Double Indemnity") because "Getting into a novel by Cain is like getting into some kid's souped-up hot rod. Before you get your right leg in the passenger door, you're already a mile down the road."

McDonald, author of the Travis McGee books and an excellent storyteller, once explained what he expected to find in a well-told tale.

"First, there has to be a strong sense of story. I want to be intrigued by wondering what is going to happen next. I want the people that I read about to be in difficulties - emotional, moral, spiritual, whatever, and I want to live with them while they're finding their way out of these difficulties.
"Second, I want the writer to make me suspend my disbelief; I want to be in some other place and scene of the writer's devising. Next, I want him to have a bit of magic in his prose style, a bit of unobtrusive poetry. I want to have words and phrases really sing. And I like an attitude of wryness that's blended with realism and a sense of inevitability.

"I think that writing - good writing - should be like listening to music, where you pick out the themes, you see what the composer is doing with those themes, and then, just when you think you have him properly analyzed and his methods identified, he will put in a little quirk, a little twist, that will be so unexpected that you read it with a sense of joy because of its aptness. So, I want story, wit, music, wryness, color, and a sense of reality in what I read, and I try to get it in what I write."

That was the blueprint for "Row 22, Seats A&B."