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by Abigail Van Buren

DEAR ABBY: I had an unfortunate encounter on an airplane recently, and I'd like to share what I learned.

I was seated in coach, in a window seat, with a woman on the aisle and a middle-aged man in the middle. We chatted briefly about where we had been and our destination. The man was polite and neatly dressed.

After takeoff, I put my seat in a semireclining position so I could nap. The man took out a newspaper and began reading. As he turned the page, his right elbow touched my breast. The first time, I thought since we were in such cramped quarters, it could have been an accident, so I ignored it. When it happened again, I told him in a firm voice not to touch me again -- but he did it a couple more times. Since he had both hands on the newspaper, the lady on the aisle didn't know what was happening. Not until I threatened to smash his ribs with the thick magazine I had rolled up did he stop.

When I mentioned this to the flight attendant, he said I should have called him immediately, and he would have moved me to another seat. I replied that I was not sure what was happening at first, and that we had been told the plane was full. He told me it did not matter -- when in doubt, ask to be moved. They would have found another spot for me.

So, ladies, even if you aren't sure you are sitting next to a sexual predator, call the flight attendant and ask to be moved. I could have lost my cool and bashed that jerk with my magazine. On an airplane, such an act carries a very stiff federal sentence, and I could have been jailed for assault and battery. -- E.T. IN LOS ANGELES

DEAR E.T.: Thank you for a helpful letter. A less assertive individual might have suffered in silence and never found out that the flight attendants could help. Although the majority of us may never have to use the information, it's reassuring to know what to do in a pinch.

DEAR ABBY: As both a businessman and consumer, I find negative signs to be far more offensive than signs that carry positive messages. The attitude signs reflect is often indicative of the attitude of the business as a whole.

In my business, we concentrate on never saying "no" to a customer until all other options have been explored. I publish a telephone directory, and often encounter customers who want preferential treatment in the placement of their ads. I believe it's unfair to give preferential treatment to one customer who is buying the same ad space as someone else. So, we now offer "preferred placement" for a fee. If a customer asks for something as unreasonable as a free ad without reasonable cause, I reply, "I will give you a free ad if you pay for the next three issues in advance."

As a consumer, I am offended by "No shirt, no shoes, no service" signs, and will instead patronize a business with the positive sign, "Shirt and shoes required by state law." I appreciate businesses that say "We accept Visa" instead of "No American Express," or "30-day money-back guarantee with sales receipt" instead of "No returns without receipt."

I wish you had told "Sick of Signs" to put a positive spin on them when it's her turn to make signs. She could even replace the more tattered of the existing signs with positive messages. -- RIC TURLEY, BOULDER, COLO.

DEAR RIC: It's not surprising that your positive philosophy has made your business successful. In this increasingly competitive environment, companies would be wise to take a critical look at what their signs and customer service policies say about them. Both can be very revealing.

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