The setting of the airplane adds meaning and understanding to the story. During the flight, we get to see the first person-to-person interaction Thomas Builds-the-Fire has with someone other than Victor. This interaction seals the lid on any conjectures we had about Thomas's social skills, maturity level and understanding of his Indian ancestry.
Thomas's social skills and maturity are shown greatly when he begins to talk to the beautiful gymnast. Thomas presents himself in a confident manner and isn't shy or afraid. He even starts to throw in a few jokes into the conversation, which makes them chuckle. His maturity level is strongly presented when he tries to mock the gymnast and pull his leg above his head, which of course he failed in doing. Thomas shows his social skills and maturity level during this plane trip help to explain how he is treated on the reservation. The Indians on the reservation threat him as an outside because of his off the wall actions.
His immaturity and his story telling seem to annoy other Indians. These people on the reservation have made him an outcast. Thomas's actions on the plane trip exemplify why they do.
Thomas also seems to have knowledge of his heritage background. His pun on the plane about the Indians being shunned proves this. This seems to be important by the end of the story. At the end, Thomas decides to toss his ashes of Victor's dad in the river, so that Victor's dad will, "rise like a salmon...and find his way home." This is an old Indian way. Indians like to use metaphors using animals and believe in reincarnation. This saying bring an ending to the story and a nice conclusion of the journey the to had took. If one wouldn't recognize that Thomas does...