A slow descent to hell

Cramped seating, culinary complaints and clapping for a landing. Becky Cook hates planes.

Flying has undoubtedly made our lives a lot simpler. You can pack your bags, book a flight and be there in a day. While it has made the world seem smaller and more accessible, it has also introduced a swathe of potential annoyances to our travelling experience. There is not only the disturbing possibility that you could be making Richard Branson or Michael O’Leary even richer, but the whole experience is an obstacle course of lengthy lines, sullen adults, blubbering babies and cramped seating which will combine to test your resilience, character and sense of humour. Taking this into account, I was surprised to find that customer satisfaction is somehow on the rise for the fifth consecutive year, according to the J.D Power 2017 North America Airline Satisfaction Study. It measured the satisfaction of travellers at a high of 756 points out of 1000. Yet when the topic of international air travel arises, it only ever seems to elicit grumbles and horror stories. It was only last summer that a United Airlines passenger was violently dragged off a plane after refusing to give up his seat, sparking a media firestorm for the airline. The passenger, Dr. David Dao, sustained a concussion, broke his nose and lost teeth in the process of being flung out.

It is a far cry from the time when air travel was a privilege and a luxury. The current exercise in discomfort feels akin to conveying cattle; this is only being made worse by the increase in air passenger misbehaviour. Perhaps, in-flight inebriation is becoming a somewhat understandable way to ease the affliction of flying. I can’t help but dread walking through the airport’s sliding doors, longing for the comparable tranquillity of a train ride. The cinematic wonders of Brief Encounter and Before Sunrise would hardly have worked on a Ryanair flight to Ibiza. If there are two things that airlines are expertly capable of, they are getting you where to need to go and making you miserable on the way.

I distinctly remember the unabated joy with which I used to look forward to going home to England for the summer holidays. It wasn’t the destination that I anticipated, but the journey itself. Flying, now widely considered a slow descent to hell, was something myself and my younger siblings all relished. Hours of lounging with newish films and food brought to you by saccharine sweet flight attendants. Suffice to say I have since morphed into the embittered archetypal flyer than makes up the majority of the populace. The destination is now the only reason I can endure the chronic discomfort of the journey: enjoyment became inurement. What was the source of my epiphany? One long and arduous journey home to Shanghai for Christmas.

My sister Katie and I were travelling with Scandinavian Airlines for what was
our inaugural and conclusive flight with the commercial airline. Our Mum had left booking the flight too late and had to scrape the proverbial barrel. At check-in, we saw the SAS logo and felt reassured: we were in good hands. However, it turned out that, in this case, those who dare do not win. We went through the obligatory dehumanising security check. You should only have to wait in such mammoth queues for a rollercoaster ride or film tickets, not for an order to take off your watch and a once over from a burly woman with a truncheon in her belt. At this point you are forced to accept the fact that the airport will fleece you as you wind through a maze of duty-free shops, complete with various shop assistants spraying you unsolicited with some tween popstar’s new fragrance. In this case it was having to pay an astronomical sum for a bottle of water which, considering the price, should have been water distilled from the fountain of youth, filtered through sheets of gold and infused with Densuke watermelon.

We made it onto the plane; a dystopian place where all people are large and all seats are small. Airlines are increasingly enthusiastic to shovel as many passengers into their aluminium tubes as possible, a move which has to account for the astonishing shrinking act the plane seat has performed in recent years, shifting from nine abreast to ten. Once the clamouring for locker space had died down, we were left to our own devices for two hours while the ineffably useless pilot acted contrite over the fact that Air Traffic Control was facing a cataclysmic crash of their systems. At one stage, the air hostesses considered a mass disembark. Sense boarded and that was abandoned. We eventually pulled away from our gate and lethargically made our way to the runway for a take-off that was three hours overdue. The short flight was spent in a cloud of heavily salted savouries and a good book. By the time we were drawing close to Copenhagen Airport our giddiness at having finished another stressful term at Wellington had dulled and irritation was leaking into its place. We were pretty sure we had missed our connection.

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Our first visit to Scandinavia got off to a literal shaky start. The aforementioned pilot of questionable ability announced this cracker over the intercom: “Ladies and gentlemen, the storm on the ground is very bad but I will try my best to land the plane”. I shall omit the expletives which were the sole words that could express our utter disbelief at the situation. I comforted myself with the knowledge that when a plane is about to crash the crew turn down the cabin pressure, so everyone is unconscious when it makes its final touchdown. Incredulity abounded, but despite the fierce turbulence, which was probably exacerbated by the pilot’s sweaty grip on the ludicrously named joystick, we touched the tarmac with all engines functioning and a consistent life count.

Then the fun and games really began: we were told to go to the Transit Help desk as we had missed our connection to Shanghai. We disembarked and had only made it off the gangway when Katie turned to me with a face resembling Edvard Munch’s masterpiece. At the best of times my sister is a haphazard, chaotic mess of disorganisation and always
picks opportune moments to express this muddled side of her character. She dropped her bags and, in a deadpan voice, told me she had left her passport on the plane before plunging back into the streaming multitudes getting off the plane. It was only when she returned empty handed that I could fully appreciate her imbecility. Her passport was in the bag she had left with me.

The atmosphere became strained as we sprinted to the Transit desk, and it was intensified by the circuitous queue of the fellow passengers we were confronted with once there. At this stage Katie and I were not on speaking terms, and so stood and silently waited as the line crept forward. Finally at the front, we were told that there were no flights to Shanghai until the following evening, so we would instead be put on one to Beijing in a couple of hours, with a subsequent connection to Shanghai. Too weary to object, we took it lying down and walked to our gate, eventually boarding in abject silence. The incompetence of SAS knew no bounds: our seats were not next to each other. We sat and waited for the vacant space in between us to be filled, hoping it wouldn’t. Luckily one woman walked past us; unluckily a six foot man indicated the seat was his. He was a curious creature, as every time the seatbelt sign lit up he would either not make any move to buckle his or he would actually undo it. This led to the tiring process of the flight attendant having to constantly come back and tell him to fasten his seatbelt.

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I spent the nine hour flight intermittently sleeping and considering how the clichéd screaming child at the front of the cabin was the best birth control out there. A new obstacle was presented by the culinary journey we were subjected to. It is commonly accepted that plane food is largely unappetising; if confronted with the task of choosing your last meal, you’re hardly going to request the miscellaneous rectangle of beige matter you were served 30,000 feet above the Atlantic that one time. It has been found that at high altitudes our nasal passages dry out and the air pressure desensitises our taste buds, accounting for the prolific use of spicy and salty inflight dishes. Gordon Ramsay recently commented to Refinery29 that “There’s no fucking way I eat on planes. I worked for airlines for ten years, so I know where this food’s been and where it goes, and
how long it took before it got on board.” When presented with our gelatinous stew I had many questions. What were the yellow bits? Why was it emanating that smell?
What had a done to deserve it?

We landed on a typical smoggy morning in Beijing and as soon as we rejoined the ground our compulsive seatbelt companion whipped out his phone to obsessively check how many likes he had on his latest inane Instagram post. Katie and I were not particularly sad to part with him. We emerged, in the wrong Chinese city, resembling something that had been dragged through thorny undergrowth; and we still had another flight to go. We went through our domestic security check in a hazy delirium of fatigue, trudging our belongings to yet another gate. “When you fly Scandinavian” Katie monotonously repeated. It seemed they called for everyone but us to board the plane first: First Class, Business Class, families with small children, the elderly, people with pets, people with an arthritic knee, and people with neck rolls. Our fellow forsaken simply hovered, waiting to charge through. We were finally allowed on by the surly attendants only to find that, in typical Chinese flying etiquette, a couple of nonplussed passengers had taken our seats. The onerous process of getting them to move ensued, and we now had the language barrier to reckon with.

The flight was mercifully the shortest, especially considering it was the one most lacking the basic amenities of personal space and clean air. We finally landed in Shanghai – the odyssey was over. We began to look forward to seeing the family, showering and being able to stretch as far as our limbs permitted on a horizontal piece of furniture. When we landed for the third time in two days all the other passengers began clapping furiously. Such an irritating habit should only be permissible in a situation reminiscent of Airplane!, where a passenger has to land the aircraft. Once the round of applause had ceased, everybody was instantly on their feet, searching for space for themselves and their luggage to assume in the aisles. The flight attendants tried in vain to seat everyone again, but the majority of the passengers insisted on standing in the aisles for fifteen minutes while we taxied and waited for the plane door to open. Katie and I sat staring at the mayhem.

You would think, like we did, that this must be the end of our strife. However, just as we had missed a connection, so had our luggage; we left Baggage Claim with no clothes other than the ones on our backs. Katie and I emerged into Pudong Arrivals a shadow of the people who had walked into Heathrow Departures. It seemed we had reverted back to a primal state, consumed with hunger, fatigue and chronic irritation. We found no waiting family members at the arrival gate, so took a seat and waited once more.