Monday, June 05, 2006

Leaving on a jetplane

What's your vector, Victor?

Like most of you I imagine, I was keenly reading Al Gore's tips on how to be Greener last week, and was unsurprised that Flying less was on his list - second only to RETAKE WHITEHOUSE, I think. Like most jetsetting politicians, Gore flies around regularly, to promote his flying less agenda - which he squares with his conscience by offsetting emissions by giving money to pygmies, or something. I was thinking about this in the departure lounge of Heathrow's Terminal 1, and wondering whether I should do something about it. As regular DUaB readers will know (and I'm working on the secret handshake), I fly quite a lot - like my knee-breaking three 12hr flights in four days last year (Tokyo>Sydney>Seoul>London).

I'm just old enough to remember when flying was fun - before these days of terrorism and planetary collapse. When flight attendants were stewardesses, and pilots gave you a jaunty salute as they went into the cockpit. Or maybe that was just Airplane and it never really happened. Going on holiday was made even better by the excitement of getting on a plane, it made you feel more special than being stuck in traffic on the M6 in the rain, anyway. Now the flight has ceased to be part of the enjoyable start of the holiday and has become something to be endured and suffered through - the holiday only starts when you get out of the airport at the other end.

Not that I've had any bad flying incidents to make me this jaded - and I even survived an emergency landing after a plane I was on developed a fault with the undercarriage. We were diverted from Cardiff to Nottingham East Midlands, and I remember looking out of the windows at the fire engines pelting to the runway thinking it was pretty cool - until realising they were pelting there for us. It was all a precaution, of course. Oh, and I was on a flight to the Canary Islands when a fight broke out - but again that was before these days of 'endangering the aircraft' and shoe bombs and the like, so the cabin staff prised them apart (it was a husband and wife). They were arrested by the Guardia Civil when we landed, however.

So I'm always expressly charming to cabin staff, as it's a horrible job I would not want - having to be nice and polite to people for hours at a stretch. If they can't, they get sent to work for Northwestern Airlines, I think. On a Boston-bound flight water started pouring out of the bulkhead onto our seats, and after minutes of button pushing, one of them sauntered down to us and curtly asked us what the problem was. "Oh, it always does that" she said. "It will be worse when we land", before wandering off to get us a pile of paper napkins to wedge in the hole.

When you get there it can be bad too - I once got all the way to Sydney before the airport announced my name over the PA system to say my luggage had been left in Edinburgh. I had to wait three days for it to be expressed over, with only the clothes I was wearing to my name. I only had one pair of socks - those long anti-DVT ones - so I built up a few years worth of immunity before my stuff arrived. Also I really object to being photographed and fingerprinted in the US like a criminal - but what can you do? Show any kind of dissent and it's off to Guantanamo. Customs officials over there are the worst I've encountered too - in Australia they are always cheerful, Tokyo extremely polite, but I've been grilled in the States by men who seemingly do it just because they can. I guess that serves me right for arriving on a night-flight from Amsterdam. I'm just glad I don't have an Arabic name.

Anyway, despite all that my experiences haven't been entirely bad or I'd never leave the country. If you want a fun airline atmosphere, take a Friday night flight to Dublin. The one I was on a few years ago was like a night out in a bar combined with the last day of school - I think only the pilots were sober (or at least I hope so). Another great memory - and also alcohol related - was on a Malaysian Airlines plane from Kuala Lumpur to Sydney (I've been asked this before, but Malaysian are without doubt the best airline I've ever flown with). It was the first time Edd or I had been over the Equator - ironic considering where he now lives - and the steward, who was a burly bloke called Raheem with a curly moustache, somehow found out, or guessed, and gave us a free beer and an ice-cream to celebrate. We had no idea what time it was, but enjoyed the treats as we watched the tiny plane symbol on the guidance map blink over the white line dividing the hemispheres...