Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Plane speaking

I'm just back from another transcontinental work trip - Melbourne to Perth to Melbourne in the space of about 36 hours, with a full work day thrown in to make it interesting.  Being encapsulated in a giant tube with a whole lot of other people I wouldn't normally choose to spend time with provides an interesting study of human behaviour.

On the way over, I was flying with Virgin Australia.  I'm not an airline snob - my main requirement is for plane not to fall out of the sky - but the flight is four hours on the way over and the aircraft had no in-flight entertainment of any kind (unless you count playing with the life jackets - more on that later).  I'm fine with that.  I'm an avid reader, so I am quite happy to have the time away from phone calls, email and the internet to indulge one of my favourite things.  It's the other people who are the problem.

As I approached my seat towards the back of the plane, I noticed that the last 4 rows of the aircraft were empty.  I felt a glimmer of optimism - maybe there would be space to spread out and breathe my own recycled air.  It was not to be as two men who looked like brothers approached with their matching set of children - a girl and a boy each.  One set - father, daughter and son - sat in the row behind me and the other set sat across the aisle in the same row.  Thoughts of peace and a comfortable journey were immediately shattered.

I had one of the (young) boys behind me.  He spent the whole trip kicking the back of my seat.  When he wasn't doing this, his sister was squeezing past to visit her long lost cousins sitting across the aisle.  The lack of an in-flight entertainment system in the aircraft was irrelevant to them as they each played on an iPad, screaming about their successes.  The two fathers appeared to be oblivious, or else they had also lost the will to live and were actually hoping I would take matters into my own hands and resolve the whole thing by committing murder as we travelled over the Great Australian Bight. (Is there a term for murder at altitude?)

I tried to be Zen about it, but I failed.  It was FOUR HOURS worth of kicking and prodding.  If they were more systematic, I could have got them to work in the knot in my shoulder.  I coped by listening to Philip Glass music and almost finished reading my novel.

On the way home I flew in a QANTAS airbus which has a marvellous in-flight entertainment system.  Thoughts of finishing reading my book were put to rest when I realised I could watch the rest of Season 5 of "30 Rock".  ( I had seen the first two episodes on an earlier trip over and been noticed for my unrestrained public laughter.)

In the middle bank of four seats I had one of the aisle seats.  At the other end was a VERY large man who complained about everything from the moment he sat down.  Beside me sat a man in his late fifties who reeked of stale alcohol and cigarettes.  The fourth seat, to his left, was vacant.  Before very long, the VERY large man had complained his way into a different seat, leaving me and stale alcohol man with four seats to share between us.  Did stale alcohol man move along one, so we could both have our space?  No, he didn't!  Did stale alcohol man and I compete for sovereignty over the arm rest?  Yes, we did.  If I'm honest, as soon as I realised he wasn't going to move, I started waging a silent war of attrition over the arm rest; the objective being to get him to move along one seat.

My strategy failed. He stayed right where he was, even when we did the elbow slam over dinner.  Then, he fell asleep.  the banter of Liz Lemon and Jack Donaghy was drowned out by his industrial strength snores.  I fell asleep a few minutes from the end of episode nine in the season.  I stirred to consciousness and opened my eyes when I smelt the smell of stale alcohol man.  Our foreheads were nearly touching!  Our drool hadn't yet melded, so that wasn't too bad.

Sleeping in an aircraft is such a weirdly intimate thing.  In the wedged confines of economy class, there's a good chance you'll end up swapping something more than a business card or sachet of sugar with someone. It's a wonder flight attendants don't wake up with post-traumatic stress disorder every time they disembark.  Have you ever looked at your fellow passengers as you walk the aisles?  Heads thrown back, chins rolling down chests, snail trails of slobber oozing from mouths.  When did the aliens move in?  And how about the crazed eye contact a passenger makes when you open the toilet door to exit?

There are many things about air travel that don't bear thinking about.  Some aspects of the safety briefing really get me.  Some of the things they want us to do must just be on the list to get us to do stuff if there is an emergency.  Those oxygen masks aren't real are they?  They look like the lids of aerosol cans that someone has gone to work on with a hot glue gun and a roll of elastic.  And how about the "brace position"?  I love the bit where they say that you should "keep your feet flat on the floor to stop them moving forward"!  If I'm in a plane that's plunging towards the earth, I reckon it's going to take a little bit more than flatness to stop my feet moving forward.  We're all going to be moving forward!  (Sounds like an election slogan.)

Whenever I hear this part of the safety instructions, I smirk inwardly.  I smirk inwardly because outward smirking or worse still, laughing, about airline safety and security can land you in serious legal trouble.  So I keep it to myself.

The other thing that gets me is the instruction to wait until you're outside the plane before inflating your life jacket.  Well, der.  Can you imagine a plane full of over-inflated panicking people trying to fling themselves out the window with a fully inflated life jacket?  I suppose they have to tell us, because somewhere, someone, discovered that no one could get out of their economy class seat or move down the aisle or get out of the plane if they prematurely inflated. Again, I smirk not.

The other thing that I experience on a regular basis is the swipe test for traces of explosives.  Every time I fly, I am randomly selected to have a pimply 19 year old boy, or a 55 year old woman with ample hips, wearing  ill-fitting trousers (everyone's trousers are ill-fitting - it's part of the uniform) wave a wand at me.  I commented once that I was the most randomly tested woman in Australia and the air went chilly.

Wit suppression in public spaces, with a particular focus on airports and in planes themselves, is on my list of things I'm working to develop expertise in.  For now, I just submit.


  1. If you want to avoid the 'random' testing, look harried and surly. They seem to pick people who look like they are relaxed and happy and won't give them a hard time. Not such a good strategy for detecting dangeous folks.
    I have failed the swipe test once, returning from Canberra. Luckily I was a 40ish white woman, and it was all handled smoothly and pleasantly, with no bodily intrusions deemed necessary. The likely explanation was that I had trod in something at the war memorial, they did me again without my shoes, and it was all fine.

  2. The War Memorial is a dangerous place! A hot bed of ... of... stuff you can tread in. Glad you survived.
    I'll try your strategy and look harried and surly next time I fly. Knowing my luck, I'll end up in a head lock with pepper spray - so potent is my surly and harried!