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

Sunday, August 30, 2015

High fliers

Don’t envy them; they really aren’t having a good time at all

There was a time when I actually used to enjoy air travel, especially long-haul sectors. I would pack a good book, the kind that brooked no distractions, and read my way across the ocean. Or else I would catch up on my movie-watching, seeing as many as three films back to back. And I would eat and drink everything in sight, because somehow calories didn’t seem to count when you were 30,000 feet above sea level.

Those days are long gone. Now, travelling by air, even if it is the relatively short haul between Delhi and Mumbai, seems like a chore. I have to psych myself up to face the ordeal the night before as I pack my suitcase for what seems like the millionth time. And these days, I’ve taken to laying bets on how long before I lose my temper as I navigate my way to the plane through the airport (my best-ever timing is 4.5 minutes).

So, I can never understand people who go on about the glamour of air travel; honestly, haven’t they ever used an airline loo? Thus, it was with a sense of deep relief that I read an article in The Economist – ironically, on an airplane – which detailed the work of researchers at the University of Surrey (Britain) and Linnaeus University (Sweden) who recently published a study about the ‘darker side of hypermobility’.

Among the many dangers that frequent travellers face, according to this study, was jet lag (which can lead to speeding ageing and increase the risk of heart attacks and strokes), deep-vein thrombosis, and increased exposure to radiation. Frequent travel also results in social isolation, taking its toll on relationships with family and friends. And, of course, those who spend a lot of time on airplanes don’t spend a lot of time in the gym, or eat healthy for that matter.

But while there is no denying any of the above, it doesn’t really cover all the things that I truly detest about air travel. So here, in no particular order of importance, is all the stuff that I loathe about flying.

First off, there’s the getting there. Unlike the rest of the world, where you can walk into an airport unchallenged, in India we encounter our first hurdle at the airport gate, which is manned by a security guy. This man will inspect your ticket in a leisurely fashion, then turn to your photo-id, which he will peer at suspiciously and then stare at your face before turning back to the photo-id, puzzlement writ large on his face. Then, just as the line behind you is getting restive, he will shrug resignedly and wave you in, and move on to the next person in the queue to repeat the same charade.

Next step: check-in. Here the queues will be even longer, and you will have to keep a sharp eye out for those trying to sneak in ahead by placing their luggage trolleys near the check-in desk. When you finally get to the desk, you will discover that the window seat you asked for specifically is no longer available. And no, the aisles are full up. It’s the middle seat, take it or leave it.

By now, you’re probably hovering on the brink of a meltdown. But you keep a tight rein on your temper, knowing that it is going to be tested even further at the next stage of your progress: the security check.

Here, you faithfully remove your shoes, belt, bracelet, watch, necklace, computer, ipad, and place them in a tray. And then you wait behind the harried family of four who seem to have two items of luggage per person and no clear understanding of how this security thing works. So, of course, they haven’t removed any electronic items. One of them is trying to sneak a water bottle through, while the other has many mysterious containers of food, which have to be put through the X-ray machine twice.

Finally, it’s your turn. You push everything on and walk through to the nice lady waiting to run a wand all over you. She swishes it over your torso, where it begins to beep alarmingly. She looks up at you inquiringly. “Er, underwire,” you say sheepishly. She looks blankly at you. Then, putting the wand aside, she gives you a thorough frisking that could double as a full-body massage. Charming.

You go through finally to pick up your bag. But it has been placed on one side, with a security officer looming menacingly over it. “You have lighter inside,” she says angrily. No, you say, that’s impossible; I don’t smoke. “You have lighter,” she repeats, more menacingly. Please open and check, you respond. She rummages through it for ages and then triumphantly brandishes a…lipstick.

You may think the worse is over once you are in your seat, but you would be wrong. If you have the window seat, the charmless guy in the aisle seat will refuse to get up if you need to go to the loo. So, you will have to slide past him, taking care not to brush against his paunch. If you have the aisle, they will put a child with the weakest bladder next to you, so there is zero chance of catching a snooze. It could be worse of course (and it often is); the child could be in the seat behind you, kicking it rhythmically for hours on end.

Now imagine going through this routine every week/fortnight for the next ten years. Doesn’t seem like much fun, does it?


Paramvir Singh said...

Hahaha! Agree on every count! And to add to that, modern airlines' leg space keeps getting smaller and smaller, and the person in front wants to keep reclining her/his seat more and more. So much that you can't even open a book.

Airline food has become nauseous of late. and on some occasions I was unlucky enough to get the last seat row, with the stink from the toilet ruining my trip.

I would drive in my car if I could.

khel Sahitya Kendra said...

very good post thanks a lot

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Neelabh Bahadur said...

Hi Seema,

I am a fairly frequent readers of your columns in HT Brunch & enjoy them. Just a suggestion for frequent air travel -

Keep calm, ignore & read a Kindle !