When I was a teenager on a flight to Nairobi I sat next to a pretty Kenyan girl the same age as me. We got talking. Out of the blue at 36,000 feet she slipped me a scrap of paper on which was scrawled, ‘I LOVE YOU.’ ‘That’s nice,’ I said. I did nothing about it. On another flight back to school in England we got delayed in Zurich, where an attractive older female passenger bummed a cigarette off me. When we reached London she took me back to her posh London flat. ‘Aha,’ I thought. She quite literally showed me her engravings, things got steamy and yet at the crucial moment I bailed. Today I naturally regret turning down such opportunities for casual sex.
As an adult I found myself taking an altogether different sort of flight. En route to Congo the passenger in 34B was a desperate man forced by bankruptcy into smuggling precious stones and metals. Kinshasa’s airport in those days teemed with bandits in uniform, and the week before they had robbed my fellow traveller of $30,000 in gold dust. Now he was returning with a briefcase stuffed with borrowed money and pure fear in his eyes. Another time I sat next to a Somali guerrilla fighter known as Ahmed the ‘Plunderer’. Entering rebel territory, the engine developed a technical problem and the pilot turned back. ‘When this happens,’ the guerrilla said, ‘do not be disappointed. Give thanks to Allah.’ A month later the Plunderer made the same trip without me and soon after landing he was gunned down. My closest shave was on a Boeing 737 that crashed in Addis Ababa. As the portside wing ripped off and we ploughed off the runway, I recall the Sudanese man on the other side of the aisle pointing out of the porthole and screaming at me, ‘It is burning! We are burning!’
I survived scrapes like that but in the next chapter of life found myself clinging to my girlfriend Claire’s hand in pure terror on take-off for what were supposed to be holiday destinations. Alcohol, valiums, DF-118s, I had become so nervous I needed to be practically unconscious if I was to endure any sort of flying. And I almost always had Claire next to me. Next followed marriage and babies, when the fear left me entirely because I had our daughter and son to worry about instead. On half-empty planes our children yelled so much when they could not equalise the pressure in their ears that seats cleared for rows around us. It was great. We rarely had to sit next to anybody, we could stretch out and so we enjoyed plenty of sleep.
Now the children are at school. After my air-crash experience, Claire and I never travel on the same plane. We are too broke or too busy to go on holidays. If we do take time off as a family we tend to drive.
This brings me to my point. At the age of 43, I am in a job I enjoy hugely that involves flying all over the world. I am burning tens of thousands of gallons of aviation gas a year. My frequent-flyer programme is about to go platinum. And who do I sit next to? Fat, rude people. The blonde babes are all three rows away. Not next to me. I barely hear screaming children since I know so well what the parents are going through and I wear earplugs. Fascinating fellow travellers — they have vanished. The conversations you can hold in the forced intimacy of a long-haul flight that make you feel you really know and like the person until the second you land — that’s gone. No. I get fat, rude people.
These days my fellow passengers are so fat that folds of their flesh invade my economy-class seat. They are so fat that I am unable to open my tray for the inflight meal. And they do things like read over my shoulder when I am trying to write on my laptop (balanced on their jellied folds of stomach). None of them talks to me. They scarf up the airline food and some of them also eat extra snacks that they have brought along. I find myself getting cornered in the middle or window seat next to really obese characters who can hardly move if I want to visit the loo and roll their eyes when they have to do it. What’s going on? What happens next in my flying life?
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