The perils of economy long-haul flights: how rubber chicken, narrow seats, lousy in-flight entertainment and limitless alcohol are an airline plot to force us to upgrade to business.
Financial Times, 10 July 2004
It’s 4 a.m. over the Indian Ocean. Should I say something? I don’t like to cause a scene. But the platitudes are driving me insane.
“Fighting for peace is like fucking for virginity,” the passenger behind me roars. “That’s what we used to say.”
“War is always causing suffering,” the Norwegian teenager replies. He’s standing in the gangway. His interlocutor, a German filled with drink, is in the seat behind mine.
“Fighting for peace is like fucking for virginity! Ha!”
Sometimes, flying is comfortable. Photo – Leigh Turner
That’s it. I turn around and ask the German, in the most non-confrontational language I can muster, if he could possibly keep the noise down.
“What’s wrong with you?” the peacenik rages. “Are you a policeman? Do you want an argument? Do you want me as an enemy? If so, you are making a dangerous mistake.”
The Norwegian returns to his seat. The German subsides, muttering. Silence falls, interrupted only by the ceaseless coughing of another passenger and the howling of a baby.
There’s a phoney debate raging in the travel industry about business-only airlines for business travellers. Phoney, because it’s obvious to any economy class passenger that the carriers’ real goal is to force every one of us to choose business in the fond belief we’re exercising our free will.
Think that’s paranoid? Here’s the secret list, assembled at great personal cost to me by research in recent months, of how the airlines are plotting to make economy class so ghastly we’ll soon all be begging to fly business.
Limitless alcohol: that German behind me boarded the plane as a bright-eyed, smiley fellow. The first time he raised his voice was when the stewardess suggested he’d had enough to drink.
“It is not good to drink too much alcohol when flying.” She made as if to push her trolley, loaded with a colossal array of spirits, towards the next passenger. “Just one more Cognac,” the German pleaded. The stewardess smiled and sloshed Martell into his glass.
The airlines say they have responsible alcohol service policies. Right. Their policies are responsible for turning coach-class cabins into hotbeds of alcohol-fuelled air rage.
Rubber chicken: as a veteran of dozens of Aeroflot domestic flights in the early 1990s, I know a thing or two about rubber chicken. But lately, the dreaded bouncing birds have been turning up on the menus of some quite respectable airlines. Even for breakfast. When the alternative is a turkey-meat sausage, it’s clear the agenda is to serve up food only the hungriest passengers can steel themselves to eat.
One well-known airline announced recently it was setting up a “Congress” of no less than 12 celebrity chefs to advise them on their menus. A congress of chefs. Like, no-one knows what too many cooks are famous for.
Narrow seats: this will transform the most equable neighbour into an intrusive, sharp-elbowed oaf. And woe betide you if they’re any more corpulent than an anorexic stick-insect.
On a recent 12-hour flight, I sat next to a fat man. Let’s be fair: he was perfectly friendly, and by no means so overweight as to stand out in a crowded pub. But his girth, combined with the pitifully narrow seats, meant that his generously-proportioned forearms either had to be in the laps of the adjacent passengers, or raised above his head. In the latter position, which he somehow managed to maintain for hours at a time, his armpits were inches from the nostrils of his neighbours.
Wedged into his seat, he spent 12 hours fidgeting forwards and backwards and shifting from side to side, rocking an entire row with him.
At 3am, tormented by discomfort, he rolled up his T-shirt to reveal a tight white beach ball of distended flesh. The pressure of the seat-arms on his midriff affected his respiration. Every breath was a laboured wheeze, like a dying cowboy. Every few minutes a wet cough, inadequately harvested, spattered me with spittle at point-blank range. This happened except when he fell asleep, and began to snore. The fact that none of this was his fault didn’t help me enjoy my journey.
Lousy in-flight movies: it’s tough, sitting still for 12 hours. Boredom can make anyone fractious. Especially children. That’s why in-flight entertainment programmes include hundreds of movies of no possible interest to anyone, least of all children. That’s why airlines leave movies running with the sound off during key plot revelations, while the pilot makes a three-language announcement about weather conditions, the distribution of landing cards and the location of transit desks in airports at which we’re not arriving for hours.
On one recent flight they cut the feature off half-way through and closed the system down for four hours during the night. They then left the curtain to business class tantalisingly open, so that tormented economy class passengers could see their pampered counterparts in the forward lounge toying with sleek lap-top personal DVD players.
The airlines calculate that none of these measures individually will leave them vulnerable to legal action or refund claims. But taken together, their impact is powerful. Once passengers have been plied with alcohol, stuffed with stodge, pummelled by their neighbours and bored literally to tears, the cost of an upgrade will start to seem a small price to pay.
There’s been a blissful silence from the row behind me for ten minutes now. I can feel myself nodding off. “I’m so sorry!” A hand on my shoulder, shaking me. “I didn’t mean to disturb you! The Norwegian boy kept asking questions.” It’s the German passenger, full now of remorse. I tell him it’s OK. I just want to rest. Silence falls. Sleep is on its way.
Suddenly the hand is on my shoulder again. “I’m really, really sorry!”