Air travel

Something went wrong somewhere along the line. Fifteen years ago, if

someone told you that they’d never been on an aeroplane, you’d be a little

surprised, a little sorry for them; but at the same time, you’d also feel

a little bit superior. Nowadays, such statements elicit the kind of envy

normally reserved for Manhattanites with rent-controlled apartments.

It’s standard to blame the sorry state of modern air travel on the airlines,

those huge faceless corporations who seem determined to make our lives

as miserable and expensive as possible. Delays, cancellations, reroutings

via Pittsburgh: everybody has a story of airline incompetence. America

has no problem electing oilmen such as the Bushes to the presidency; it

will even elect Dick Cheney, whose company did millions of dollars’ worth

of business with the evil SLORC regime in Burma. But there’ll be a lesbian

atheist in the White House before anybody votes for a major airline executive.

My issue, however, is not with the airlines, useless though they are.

My issue is with the passengers.

I suppose that I shouldn’t be surprised. After all, nearly all tourists

flew to their holiday destination, and we all know how exasperating tourists

can be. But the behaviour of people in airports is astonishing all the


It all begins at check-in, which inevitably comprises a queue which has

doubled back on itself so many times that even finding the end of it can

take a quarter of an hour. Standing in these queues is something of an

exercise in zen: the only way to prevent yourself from going spare is

to remind yourself that now you’re in it, you’re not going to miss your

flight, and that really, you wouldn’t be all that much better off sitting

in the departure lounge.

There’s also an art to finding reading material for queues. You have

to stay relatively alert to your surroundings: keeping an eye on your

luggage, jumping forwards in that weird leap-stop-leap-stop way that airport

queues always move, cruising your fellow passengers for someone thin,

young and good-looking whom you wouldn’t mind being seated next to. So

no experimental novels or university textbooks.

Also, space considerations generally preclude the perusal of a broadsheet

newspaper, which would otherwise be ideal. There are those people who

can read the Financial Times cover to cover without ever fully unfolding

it, but the ability to do so requires a minimum four-year apprenticeship

on the 7:04 Connex Southeastern service from Penge to Victoria, and there

are very few with that degree of dedication.

What’s needed is something easy to read one-handed, which rules out most

paperbacks. Weekly magazines are ideal: the New Yorker if it’s available,

otherwise whatever comes to hand. It should be engrossing enough that

your attention isn’t drawn back, like a moth to a flame, to the Arab chap

with enough luggage to furnish Buckingham Palace who seems to have been

in negotiations with the check-in clerk for long enough to have hammered

out a final peace treaty in the middle east.

More inexplicable, however, is the perfectly normal-seeming American

guy at the desk next-door, who wandered up with his passport and ticket

half an hour ago and hasn’t moved since. He’s slightly podgy, though far

from obese, with dyed-brown hair, brown shoes, a pair of slacks his wife

bought him seven or eight years ago on sale at Macy’s, a poly-cotton white

shirt, and his favourite houndstooth sports jacket.

But this innocuous-seeming man is rapidly becoming a hate figure on the

order of Saddam Hussein or Katherine Harris.

What is he doing there, at the check-in counter? What improbable occurrence

has caused his immovability? Has he forgotten his ticket? Has he suddenly

decided at the last minute that really he would rather go to Timbuktu?

Did he truthfully answer all those questions about whether he packed his

baggage himself?

Nothing seems to make any sense, no one can think of any possible reason

why this guy should have been holding up the queue for so long. But the

attendants are still attending him, and hell would freeze over before

any of them made eye contact with the rest of the queue: despite the fact

that we’re directly in front of them, their ability to not look at us

would make a Parisian waiter proud.

And then you finally get to the front of the queue. The whole ordeal

has taken so long that all your fantasies of being able to sit in an exit

aisle have long since been forgotten: right now you just wish for something

vaguely near the front, so that the so-called deplaning doesn’t take longer

than the flight itself.

It’s only a matter of time, I’m convinced, until the airlines, so impressed

with their ability to get the word ‘deplane’ into the English language,

are going to start replacing ‘board’ with ’emplane’. “Ladies and gentlemen,

we will be emplaning in five minutes; would any passengers with small

children or Gold or Platinum cardholders please present themselves at

the gate for pre-boarding.”

That one always puzzles me: why would a gold or platinum cardholder want

to spend any more time on the plane than is absolutely necessary? Especially

the ones in economy class: what possible advantage can there be to boarding

before everybody else?

But the sheep in the departure lounge always rush the gate whenever the

plane starts boarding. Some of them even run there when the announcement

is made, just so they can get onto the plane as quickly as possible. This

is one part of airport behaviour I can never understand. They’ve just

been standing in the check-in queue for half an hour: why on earth would

they want to stand in a boarding queue as well?

My favourite passenger is the polite middle-aged lady who goes up to

the desk during pre-boarding, and is politely turned away, as it is explained

to her that she is neither a passenger with small children nor a gold

or platinum card holder.

That’s OK, she doesn’t take it personally, she stands there next to the

desk watching people file in, and then steps up again when rows 35 and

upwards are announced.

I’m sorry, the check-in woman says one more time, we’re only boarding

rows 35 and upwards at this time, and our passenger once more steps back

and watches as dozens of her fellow passengers get onto the plane before

her. It’s obviously unfair: she got the front of the queue before them,

but they get onto the plane first!

Eventually the sheep have boarded; you unfold yourself from the plastic

seat and half-stretch, half-walk to the gate. It’s going to be your last

opportunity for a while to breathe stale airport air; for the next few

hours, it’s stale airplane air or nothing. You suddenly wonder whether

you should have bought that fifteen-year-old postcard of the airport runway

after all, but then shake your head and remind yourself that really it’s

only funny in the artificial environment of an airport.

Of course, your seat is way up near the back. And the cutie you saw in

the check-in line is way up near the front. And you’re next to the Sea


The Sea Monster is polymorphic: it takes a different shape each time,

but it’s always next to you, squeezed into a seat way too small for it,

overflowing into what’s laughably considered your personal space. You

are accosted by blubbery arms halfway into your seat, the rank smell of

stale curry failing to mask the fetid smell of undeodorised armpits and

sweat-drenched sneakers. Worst of all, though, is the psychological torment

of the knowledge that it is going to talk about its job, its children

and its fear of flying for the entire flight.

You cast a panicked eye about the cabin, hoping against hope that a stewardess

might take pity on you and relocate you between the axe murderer in 38A

and the nursing mother in 38C.

But it’s not to be, and you have an uninterruptedly miserable flight

all the way to “thank you for flying Marquis de Sade Airways, we hope

you enjoyed your flight, and look forward to disembowelling you further

on future journeys.”

They used to say that the shortest known interval of time was that between

a New York City light turning green and the cabby behind you honking his

horn. Whether it’s something to do with Guiliani I don’t know, but scientists

now believe that in fact the unit of time shorter than which nothing can

be measured is that between the fasten-your-seatbelts sign being turned

off and an entire planeload of travellers jumping up into the aisles to

start rummaging around in the overhead lockers for their Samsonite carry-on


Of course, this alacrity on the part of the passengers doesn’t last long.

The couple in front of you are the sort of people who vote for Pat Buchanan

by mistake. Perfectly benign when confined to Palm Beach golf courses,

they slowly make their way, side by side, up the corridors and down the

escalators, their luggage completely precluding any possible overtaking


By the time the three of you get to immigration, an entire 747’s worth

of passengers has just managed to file in front of you from Jamaica, each

one of whom needs at least 20 minutes to be admitted to the country.

The really big annoyance isn’t the Jamaicans, however. Nor is it the

locals who happily waltz through immigration with a jaunty wave of the

right-coloured passport. The one thing which drives you over the edge,

the straw which finally breaks the camel’s back, is the idiot behind you

in the queue who insists on standing about eight millimeters behind you.

You try standing in front of your hand baggage. You try sighing very

loudly as you look over your shoulder. You try letting about two yards

open up between you and the person in front, just to prove that no one’s

going to butt in. None of it works: this arsehole behind you is going

to make sure that you can feel his breath on the back of your neck for

the next hour that you’re in this queue.

And that, your honour, is how I end up before this court. I plead provocation

and justification.

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7 Responses to Air travel

  1. tim says:

    Great, I guess disembark has two more letters than deplane!

    Tim (30 Trafalgar Road)

  2. Erika says:

    Have a better trip this Christmas!

  3. Victoria says:

    Your critique is hilarious! I found you in a google search for a phrase and had to stay and enjoy. :>

  4. eric says:

    damn Felix, you funny! you did forget about the guy who pisses all over the floor of the lav, no mention of the ‘bistro bags’ or other excuses for food, don’t forget the too perky flight attendant, or the person behind you who insists on vioently jerking your seat back to stand up and pace every ten minutes.

  5. thanks for the such a useful entry…


    albert pinto

  6. thanks for the such a useful entry…


    albert pinto

  7. thanks for the such a nice entry…


    albert pinto

Comments are closed.