I hate flying

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Aeroplane, refuelling at Stansted
(With -- few -- apologies to Go)

I hate flying.

Just to get this straight, I'm not scared of flying. I am not afraid that the aeroplane I'm on will fly into a mountain because of pilot error, or explode without warning in flight due to inadequate cable insulation, or prang into another aeroplane on the ground due to an ATC fuckup. I'm not afraid that a psychopath will decide that bombing a commercial flight will strike a blow for whichever political ideology they'd vote for if they lived in a democracy, or that a digital signal processor on some US Navy ship will decide that a Boeing is an F-14 and knock it out of the sky while the captain is on the loo. Sorry, head.

I don't, in fact, find flying frightening at all. I figure that once you get into the aeroplane, you're pretty much at the mercy of the pilot, the cabin crew, Boeing and al Qu'aeda, and there's not much point in worrying. I'd choose a backward-facing seat if there was one -- I do on the train, and sit in the middle carriage, too -- and it's nice to get an emergency exit seat if you can. Mainly for the legroom. I don't harbour any delusions: either of surviving a crash in which, typically, all of the passenger seats will come unstuck from the floor and pile up at the front of the cabin; or -- even if they don't -- of being able to act any more competently and heroically than any other passenger when push, so to speak, comes to shove.

While it's nice to imagine that, in the event that you are trapped in an aeroplane which is plummetting from the sky in 1970s-disaster-movie style, you would remain calm and display appropriate sang-froid whilst all around are screaming, praying and making unauthorised mobile phone calls, in the final analysis it doesn't much matter, and even if I do get to find out, I'm unlikely to be able to report my behaviour. (Actually, I'm not sure that calm and sang-froid are the appropriate responses to any 1970s-related problems you might be encountering. That said, I was born in the 1970s, so I suppose that all of my problems are 1970s-related, as long as you take a sufficiently doctrinaire view of causality. I like to imagine that I display calmness and sang-froid in everyday life but it may be that I'm just pissing off those around me. Arguably the fact that I write things like this suggests that I'm not succeeding, one way or the other. Enough philosophy, I don't like it anyway.)

No, what I don't like about flying is the discomfort and tackiness of it. The premise that to get from place to godawful place you have to sit crammed in a little metal tube staring out of a tiny -- thankfully rounded-cornered -- window. And worse, you have to deal with at least two airports, and if you're unlucky, more than that. Is there anywhere in life as bad as an airport? Well, let's not kid ourselves, there are prisons and hospitals and morgues and concentration camps and Blackpool and Kentucky Fried Chicken. But most of those you don't have to experience simply to go on holiday. Airports are like train stations, except that in an airport you can't say `sod it' and get a taxi to your destination, and you get hassled by the security people all the time....

The nominal purpose of airport security is to protect us, the fee-paying passengers, from them, the psychopaths who want to blow up aeroplanes, or hijack them and fly them to somewhere nice, or hijack them and fly them into buildings. The real purpose of airport security is to make us feel as if something is being done to prevent bad stuff from happening to us. If airport security was actually about security, they would spend more effort on stopping the baggage handlers from stealing from the luggage. I guess there's at least some hope that poorly-constructed bombs might detonate prematurely when they're being tossed around by the ground crew.

Typical airport security precautions include:

This last one is fucking stupid. Firstly, it makes it quite hard to eat airport food, which is often tougher -- and sometimes sharper -- than the cutlery. Secondly, it's not even clear what class of security problem this is supposed to solve. Is it to stop the hijacker who forgot to bring his knife? Or the hijacker who, muttering darkly, has his knife or firearm confiscated by the ever-vigilant security people but is nevertheless let on to the flight and therefore needs to re-arm in Duty Free? (I am reminded of the scene in Airplane II in which a lunatic purchases a bomb in Duty Free before boarding his flight[2].) Neither of these seems a very likely scenario.

Duty Free itself is awful. As a resident of a modern western country -- i.e. one where smoking near nonsmokers takes its proper place in the pantheon of awful sins, unless you're in a pub -- it is rare to see quite so many cigarettes gathered together in one place. Fair enough; it's better that these people buy their drugs in the airport than on the street corner. What I really don't understand is why anyone buys consumer electronics in the airport. It's overpriced, it's crap, you're probably not going to be allowed to use it on the 'plane, and if it goes wrong are you really going to take it back to whichever benighted hellhole you happened to be flying from when you suddenly felt a deep-seated urge to buy an electric razor or a shortwave radio or a hand-held bloody computer? And the bookshops-- it's said that the majority of people in Britain buy only one book a year, at the airport bookshop, just before they catch the aeroplane to go on holiday. It shows. The only virtue of this arrangement is that most of these books get left in the Costa del Sol or Ibiza or wherever it is they are taken, so that the process results in a net drain on the amount of bad literature in the UK; while this doubtless gives foreigners a poor impression of Britain, it's probably a minor factor compared to football hooliganism, the legacy of the British Empire, and Tony Blair's tireless urge to do (himself) good by blundering about the place sticking his nose in places where it doesn't belong and occasionally licking George W. Bush's arse.

So, eventually, after surviving Duty Free for however long it takes for the airline to find its aeroplane[3], put the luggage on it, find the crew and figure out how to get people on board the aeroplane in -- let's not kid ourselves -- a not very efficient manner, you find yourself on board. This is when your troubles really begin. Here you are, trapped in a tiny seat with no leg room hurtling through the sky (or, for the first hour or so, trundling around the airport) with only a book, or, if you are unlucky, a copy of the International Herald Tribune, for company. The thing you should be afraid of now is not that the aeroplane will crash into something or explode. Death in aeroplane accidents typically comes swiftly. No, what you should be afraid of now is that the person sitting next to you will try to strike up some inane conversation with you -- this is especially bad if they are from the United States and start with ``So, how much did you earn last year?'' -- and suddenly you'll find yourself trapped, belted into a seat and stuck next to some blithering idiot for the entire duration of the flight.

At this point the airline will make some token effort to reassure you that flying is completely safe. It's crashing that's dangerous, but they try to make out that that's safe too. This is particularly irritating. The operation of a life-jacket is explained -- has any significant number of people ever survived an air crash into water? I think not. Perhaps they didn't remember to pull the toggles on their life jackets or forgot that they could top them up by blowing through the little tube. We are told to stow our luggage in the over-head lockers so that in the event of a crash it will fall out and fly about the cabin knocking peoples' heads off. The brace position is explained. The one thing that we are not told -- and which is, apparently, the only piece of advice which will genuinely do you any good in an emergency -- is to count the number of rows of seats between you and the nearest exit. The point is that when the aeroplane catches fire, the cabin will fill with smoke and at that point no amount of expensive cabin-floor strip lighting is going to help you find the exits. At the same time as counting the rows, you should probably try to assess which of the other passengers you should go around and which you will be able to elbow out of the way. Although the chances of needing to use this information in anger (more likely panic) are vanishingly small, imagining harm visited upon your fellow-passengers may help while away the time whilst you wait for the aeroplane to take off.

So, anyway, eventually the pilot finds the runway and you take off. Wheee! Right, that's the fun bit over. Now you are subjected to the twin horrors of airline food and `in-flight entertainment'. The food is best not discussed. I'll pause only to note that once, on a Sabena flight I was given, for breakfast, a frozen bread roll and a piece of cold broccoli. I Am Not Making This Up. I hope that I am not maligning any old and proud culinary tradition by asserting that, so far as breakfast goes, this is total bollocks. (Needless to say, the plastic cutlery made little impression on the bread roll. And this was pre-September-11th; perhaps those plucky Belgians knew something we didn't....) It's not like I'm expecting a seven-course feast. A piece of toast and a cup of coffee is probably as much as I'd actually want for breakfast on a typical flight. Can it really be too much to ask for bread products served at a temperature above freezing?

(Oh, and a free tip to hijackers-- don't bother with the plastic cutlery. The sharpest things on the aeroplane are probably the edges of those nasty foil containers they put the food in.)

And then we come to `in-flight entertainment'. Or, rather, we don't. The last thing I want to do on a flight is to watch old episodes of Friends or -- for national airlines -- programming about how great their country of origin is. Alternatively they might show you a moving map display of where the aeroplane is, which is depressing to watch. It's sad that 800km/h seems so slow. Alternatively, you can just listen to piped music on the headphones provided (which typically use some completely random connector in an effort to stop you from using a pair of headphones which is actually any good). This typically gives you the choice between the worst sort of elevator-music jazz and three songs from the mid-1990s on an endless loop. This is why I fill most of my luggage with books.

I suppose if my legs were a little shorter I could just curl up in a ball and wait for it all to stop. Perhaps the pilots get a better deal. Well, they get a room to themselves, at least.

What a pity that air travel ever became affordable. If only we still had to travel around on ocean liners, which, so far as I can establish, closely resembled hotels. Now, hotels are plenty bad themselves, but at least you got your own cabin. And so what if it took six weeks to get anywhere. It's not like you were going to do anything useful with that time anyway. Alternatively, just stay at home. There's Starbucks here, just like there is there, wherever `there' is.

(I suppose that the alternative is airships. I wonder what the safety lectures they gave on those were like, given that they genuinely did fall out of the sky with approximately a one in four chance. Plus they were full of Nazis and -- if the films and Neville Shute Norway are to be believed -- the sort of upper-class English idiots who gave the 1930s a bad name. The killer point, of course, is that we live on a planet with a turbulent atmosphere. Which is a bit of a problem for an airship.)

Though I have never been subjected to the ludicrous procedure -- much commented upon by Dave Barry -- of having to switch on my laptop computer to prove that it is not a bomb.
While looking that up, I discovered that one of the slogans for the original Airplane was
What's slower than a speeding bullet, and able to hit tall buildings at a single bound?
-- it's not in bad taste, it was in 1980.
A little while ago I flew from Derry to Stansted on Ryan Air. The flight was delayed, and from time to time there were announcements on the Tannoy explaining that this was due to `technical problems', of a nature which was not described. However, in the departure lounge there was a television, which showed a news report. Apparently, one of Ryan Air's other aeroplanes had caught fire at Stansted airport and this was delaying all other flights. Hence the delay. I suppose `technical problems' does sound better than `one of our aeroplanes caught fire and your 'plane is delayed; don't panic and remember the bar is open.'

Copyright (c) 2002 Chris Lightfoot. All rights reserved.