Saturday, 19 July 2008

Travel Trauma - Flying (Part Three)

Yet another trip to Johannesburg and yet more travel trauma. To be fair it wasn’t that bad this time. However, all of the elements of a long haul flight that I despise were as insufferable as ever.

When you board the metal sausage, more commonly known as an aircraft, and you are like most people booked into economy class, or as I prefer to call it, “cattle class”, you are struck by several things.

At first, you are greeted by the cabin crew. Now this isn’t a bad thing because the vast majority of them are very attractive females. However, I feel their apparent euphoria at greeting three hundred passengers, none of whom really want to board, is sometimes a little false. Their mouths are smiling but their eyes are totally bored and frustrated. After all, they have to look after these people for the next ten to twelve hours. And given some of the passengers they have to deal with I do feel sorry for them.

When I get to my seat, which is usually an aisle seat so that I have the freedom to get up and walk around whenever I choose, I pray that the seat or seats next to me are empty. Why? So that I can spread out and if incredibly lucky, lie down for the duration of the flight and sleep. Sadly that happens once every other blue moon and I find the seat next to me occupied. Of course this is something I don’t mind if I am with my wonderful lady partner. Otherwise I have to sit next to and sleep next to a total stranger for the next ten or so hours in a seat that barely fits my width.

Before you jump to the obvious conclusion, that my middle-aged spread is rather large and still growing, I can tell you that I am not fat. I am average in every way; height, length and breadth so in theory these seats are designed for a person exactly like me. Wrong! They are designed for the lower end of the statistical distribution. I squeeze in and immediately appraise the person next to me (as I know they are appraising me).

A lot of the time I’ve been lucky to sit next to a normal person on the aircraft. However some have been strange or demanded my attention for most of the flight. Let me give you some examples:

One guy I was unfortunate to sit next to had, I think, been expecting to travel business class but found himself with the rest of the cattle. He was appallingly rude to the cabin crew. He complained about the wine, told a stewardess that her service techniques were unacceptable, demanded, again via the stewardess, that the gentleman in front sit with his seat in the upright position for the entire flight and was generally obnoxious. He was a man who expected the best but had been forced to endure what the rest of us had to suffer. The one time he spoke to me I ignored him in case I said something I regretted. However, I did make my feelings clear by taking the opposite stance when he had a pop at the cabin crew. For every complaint, I offered praise. When he said something was crap, I said it was fine. He was an arrogant tosser of the highest order.

Another time I was sitting next to a man who I felt really sorry for. He was a good six inches taller than me and also extremely well built (I’m being very kind here). He was in a state of total discomfort for the entire flight and I offered to exchange seats so that he could sit next to the aisle and spread his legs a little. He refused my offer. When the meal came, I had to wait for him to finish because his elbows were everywhere. Incredibly he did manage to fall asleep but sadly for me, he leaned right over towards me and snored like a lion with a sore throat and catarrh. I didn’t get a wink of sleep.

On one flight from Hong Kong I found myself next to a sweet old lady whom I initially thought was harmless. She was slightly nervous and we exchanged one or two pleasantries before the flight taxied to the runway. I don’t mind talking to the person next to me but when I want to stop conversing I expect that person to respect my wishes and basically shut the hell up. This old lady refused to shut up even when the entertainment started. I hinted to her that I didn’t want to talk by putting my headphones on and watching a film. Did she take the hint? Absolutely not! She spoke to me constantly at just the right volume to invade the movie soundtrack. Frustrated, I gave up on the film and succumbed to her wishes (basically because I’m a wonderful chap and not the kind of anarchistic rebel my heart desires me to be). She told me her life story for the entire duration of the flight apart from maybe one or two hours when she dozed off. It was obvious that she hadn’t flown long haul for many, many years and was very nervous. Furthermore she was returning back to England after several decades in Australia to celebrate her brother’s eightieth birthday. When we landed back in Manchester, I had had virtually no sleep and was almost drugged with insomnia. My mind had barely enough energy to allow me walk. It was then that I discovered that she was a special needs passenger requiring a wheelchair and that she had about a thousand tons of luggage. What could I do? As I have said, I’m a kind chap and volunteered to assist her. With the help of a member of ground staff, I lifted her into a wheelchair and then wheeled her to baggage reclaim via passport control and ended up collecting all of her luggage from the belt and wheeling her through customs. When we arrived at the greeting point there was a veritable army of relatives waiting for her who screamed in delight as I pushed her through. Tears flowed and she introduced me to her daughter as “a toy boy she had picked up on the flight”. There were hugs all round and dazed, I found myself being hugged by all manner of strangers.

The fact that you have to try to sleep in these awful seats can be a source of embarrassment too. The reason I choose an aisle seat is so that I can get up without disturbing anybody. Other people do not share this viewpoint though. I have been prodded, clambered over, shouted at and fallen upon. Its worse when you have children next to you because they insist on getting up at every opportunity. Even when you are sitting next to a nice young lady, it can be awkward. On an earlier trip to South Africa I awoke to find myself staring at a rather attractive young lady who was fast asleep and whose face was literally three inches away from mine. Thankfully she didn’t wake up herself.

One of the major irritations is the fact that you cannot sleep unless you are extremely tired. There is no room for legs if you are as tall as I am. I cannot lie on my side because I end up smashing my knees on the seat in front or one of the arm rests and I can’t stretch my legs into the aisle because people kick me, stamp on my feet or trip over them. The noise of the aircraft is intrusive. Being a light sleeper this causes me additional trauma and restrict my sleep even further. That said, there are those annoying people you see who can sleep anywhere and anytime. I’ve sat next to a man who started sleeping almost as soon as the aircraft took off and I swear he never woke up for twelve hours. He didn’t even move and spent the entire journey snoring softly. I envied him and wanted to wake him up out of pure envious vindictiveness.

So what was this latest flight like? Well I was sitting in the aisle seat next to two American teenagers whose parents had wisely chosen to sit on the row behind. The boy, about fourteen, would not shut up and even annoyed his sister, who was about sixteen. In the end, his father gave him a sleeping pill so I managed to have some peace. The person in front of me pushed her seat back to its limit, restricting my leg room to a bare minimum. I smashed my knees several times and was kicked by passers-by twice. But I did sleep, mainly thanks to a set of noise reduction headphones I bought for my mp3 player. I suppose I should be grateful for small mercies.

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