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Journalist, Author, Columnist. My Twitter handle: @seemagoswami

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Doors to manual

What’s the worst thing about air travel? Passengers with body odour or full-bodied passengers?

So, now it’s official. A recent survey conducted among frequent fliers has it that the two things people mind most about flying is being seated next to a passenger who is obese or someone with body odour. I’m assuming that it would be worse if you were seated next to an obese person with body odour but the survey is strangely quiet on that score.

Be that as it may, as someone who flies rather frequently as well, I can think of several other things that are just as irritating about air travel.

While I can see that having a malodorous co-passenger could be rather noxious, surely nothing could smell worse than the aroma of airline food. And truth be told, having an overweight person seated next to me isn’t something that would perturb me unduly, so long as they didn’t actually spill over into my seat.

In fact, the obesity of fellow passengers probably wouldn’t matter a jot to anyone at all if airlines had the good sense to deploy decent-sized seats. But no, with every revamp, the seats gets smaller and smaller, the leg space more and more cramped until even normal-sized human beings find airline seats a bit of a tight squeeze. So, you can hardly blame the porky ones for spilling over, can you?

What does get my goat, however, is space hogs of a different kind – the kind of people who encroach on your space without even a semblance of civility.

A month ago, returning from a beach holiday, I placed my straw hat in the overhead locker above my seat, pushed my bag under the seat in front of me and buckled myself in. A few minutes later, a large man bustled up to take his seat across the aisle. He opened the locker above his seat, discovered it was full, shut it with an impatient snort.

He then turned around, opened the locker above my seat, picked up my hat, thrust it on top of the bag next to it so that its crown was completely squashed in, and put his carry-on luggage in the space thus vacated.

Seething, I asked him what he thought he was doing. “I have no space on my side,” he said angrily. “So, what am I supposed to do about it?” I asked, equally belligerently. “You can’t just pick someone’s stuff up and push it around to make space for yourself.”

Hearing an altercation, an air-hostess came up quickly to intervene, and found a space for his bag in the back of the cabin, and my straw hat was proudly restored to its original place. Ah, such are the joys of small victories in the world of air travel!

But more seriously, the neighbours that I really dread on airplanes are not the obese ones but the garrulous types, who will never shut up. On a recent international flight, I was driven near mad by the incessant chatter of two women seated behind me while I tried to grab a bit of shut-eye. But there was no chance of that as the ladies reminisced about their early childhoods, held forth about their husbands and kids, nattered away about the movies they had seen recently, and then discussed threadbare their various ailments in vivid anatomical detail. Shudder!

I used to think that the biggest nightmare was being seated next to someone who kept trying to chat you up. So, where do you live? Bombay or Delhi? Are you travelling on business or for pleasure? Oh, you are a journalist? Which newspaper? Who do you think will win in these elections? Have you met Rahul Gandhi? Isn’t he too handsome?

But at least when it comes to people like these, you can shut them up. And over the years, I have developed a certain amount of expertise in this regard. In the old days, I would sit down in my seat, flip open a book and pretend to be completely engrossed. If anyone was brave enough to attempt any conversation even after these blatant keep-off signs, then a few monosyllabic replies would take care of them.

These days, the I-pod serves much the same purpose. And there’s a further advantage in that once you have plugged the earphones in, you can pretend that you can’t hear whatever idiotic questions your neighbor is lobbing in your direction. So, you don’t even have to bother with replies, monosyllabic or otherwise.

But when it is the passengers seated in front or behind you who are jabbering away loudly throughout the duration of the flight, there really is nothing you can do to shut them up. So, my suggestion would be to keep that I-pod close to hand and crank up the volume.

That should help tune out all other irritants as well: wailing infants, kids running up and down the aisle, the interminable announcements that pilots feel obliged to make at random intervals during the flight, and pesky flight attendants who want you fill out some passenger survey form yet again.

I find that the only way air travel is rendered even vaguely tolerable is when you create a little bubble for yourself – whether it with the help of a book, an I-pod or the in-flight entertainment system – and refuse to vacate it until the pilot announces: “Crew, landing stations, please.”

Now, that’s one announcement even I’m prepared to listen to.

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