Air travel is torture but can we minimise the pain?
As Helmut Schmidt – the former German chancellor, managing director of Die Zeit and a heavy smoker for many years – can attest, since smoking was banned on airplanes, air travel has become an agony that nobody has managed to transform into pleasure.
The dawn of civil aviation gave no hints of such bleak developments. German Zeppelins took to the skies during the 1920s and 1930s with luxurious passenger quarters comparable to the Orient Express. In 1939 Pan Am's transatlantic flights raised the bar even higher: journeys on their Clippers took 12 hours – but what a glorious 12 hours they were! The passengers – folks who could afford to shell out $675 ($10,000 by today's standards) for a round-trip ticket from New York to Southampton – got comfortable seats that transformed into beds; a lounge; a restaurant; four-star service; and a changing room. And they could smoke as much as they wanted.
The post-war years reduced this extravagance, but within reasonable limits. Until the early 1970s flights were an exclusive experience reserved primarily for businessmen. Airlines did everything they could to satisfy their clients' wishes – from ashtrays in the arm rests of every seat to super-ultra-mega-gorgeous stewardesses in super-ultra-mega-miniskirts.
Then the oil crisis came along and spoiled everything. Airlines decided to transport more people for less money, and each passenger's personal space began shrinking as fast as polar ice caps in an Al Gore speech. Non-smokers kicked up a fuss. By the end of the 1980s and early 1990s, cigarettes had disappeared from airplanes. Lufthansa's delightful tradition of giving out Montecristo cigars in Business Class became the stuff of legend – one which smokers would recount as they finally lit up in front of the airport after a long, nicotine-starved flight.
A true tragedy. Even First and Business Class aren't what they used to be. As one friend observed, "the only thing left is the slightly wider seat."
Nevertheless, we, the descendants of brave men who in the era before emancipation would drag a dead mammoth back to the cave each night (or at least parts of a mammoth), can deal with this tragedy. All we need is a little common sense.
1. YOUR IDEAL SEAT
It goes without saying that when you take long-haul flights you splurge for Business Class. However, life is full of little surprises, and for this reason you should be prepared for the horror of Economy Class. You can reduce your agony by following these simple rules:
2. CHECK IN EARLY
The front of the plane always offers a smoother ride than the rear, and seats are assigned from front to back. So it's a good idea to take advantage of the early-bird-gets-the-worm rule. If the airline allows you to choose your seat in advance, do so. If not, get to the airport early enough to be among the first to check in.
Ask for a seat in the first few rows, and if they are full, in the exit row, where there's more legroom. Make sure to request a window seat (for the view) or an aisle seat (to stretch out long limbs).
3. "I CHECKED IN LATE. WHAT SHOULD I DO?"
The important thing is not to panic. Did you know that most flight-related heart attacks befall people worried that they'll miss their flight? Don't become another statistic, but try an old urban legend – or rather an airport legend – known as the Family in a Row. I've even heard stewardesses discussing it.
Ask the agent checking you in whether there's a row in which the window and aisle seats are occupied by a man and a woman with the same last name – for example, S. Karashoshov and L. Karashoshova. If so, ask for the empty seat between them. The idea is that, most likely, S. Karashoshov and L. Karashoshova are husband and wife. If you ask them, they probably won't mind sitting next to each other, leaving you with either the window or the aisle seat.
Usually you can count on the Karashoshovs to behave in just this way. However, a friend of mine had the bad luck of getting stuck between a couple going through the most vicious phase of a divorce. He sat between them the whole way from Istanbul to Bangkok, serving as a buffer for their mutual venom.
4. BOARD LATE
Let' s imagine that despite all your machinations you've ended up with a seat way back near the loos. Don't lose your cool. Stand in front of the gate until they call your name with that hint of impatience suggesting that the plane will take off without you. Now is the time for you to take action.
When you board, everyone else is already settled in their seats, making it easy for you to pick out a free spot that looks more comfy than yours.
In fact, it's always best to board late. That way you avoid the stampede in front of the gate and you don't have to wait for everyone else to put away their luggage or be jostled in the narrow aisle. And you gain a few more precious, seatbelt-free minutes.
Of course, airlines are masters at ruining even the best-laid plans. For example, Bulgaria Air once waited for everyone to board a flight from Sofia to Rome, put on their seatbelts and listen to the safety instructions. Then the plane stood unmoving on the runway for the next hour. We sat there buckled up thinking about two things – cigarettes and the mothers of everyone responsible for the muddle.
5. HAND LUGGAGE
It' s always a pain in the neck – especially if, like me, you carry a MacBook in one bag and a Nikon with three different lenses in the other (no one is paying me for the product placement, but I had to mention the brands...).
However, hand luggage has become an even bigger problem after the supposed terrorist attacks on flights from London to the
United States during the summer of 2006. Fortunately, the worst stage – when the quantity of liquid in your hand luggage was measured with an eye dropper and your bag's dimensions were scrutinised with a tape measure – is now over.
Nevertheless, some airports still stick to the one-passenger-one-bag rule, while others have abandoned it in a fit of generosity. The best way to avoid unpleasant surprises is to check in advance the policy of the airport you're flying out of.
Of course, during layovers it's hard to resist picking up a few things from the duty-free store: a bottle of Absolut or Bowmore, one of Kenzo's new scents or a pair of Ray Bans. Buy them, but keep in mind the fact that you have only two hands.
While it may be so sweltering outside that you want to shed your very skin to cool off, you should still take a light jacket along on the plane – especially if you're travelling on a Southeast Asian airline. Those folks are obsessed with keeping the air conditioning at –10°C, or 14°F – it's a wonder they're not constantly sick with meningitis or pneumonia. So as not to end your flight with a paralysed facial nerve, it's best to carry something warm yet light along with you.
Once upon a time, back in the golden 1960s, passengers boarded airplanes wearing their finest attire. Now being comfortable trumps fashion. Stay away from overly tight clothing and complicated footwear that may be difficult to take off if airport security demands it or if you would like to enjoy the flight in stocking feet.
I won't insult you by reminding you to wear decent socks: you're not Paul Wolfowitz, after all.
Satisfaction? From the stuff they serve you on board? I sincerely wonder how anyone can survive that kind of treatment for too long. Anyone who takes pleasure in the soggy sandwiches and greasy cakes probably also gets a thrill out of being kicked by a mule.
To avoid being continually disappointed by the quality of airline food and drinks, get used to the idea that they are tools for survival rather than enjoyment. If you can't swallow that thought, fly Emirates, Qatar Airways or another five-star company.
Fortunately, a can of Beck's anywhere is still a can of Beck's, just as Pfanner juices are still Pfanner juices – unless you're flying a Bulgarian airline that serves Kamenitsa beer and Queen's juices. Experts recommend battling the inevitable flight dehydration with mineral water. Nonsense! This is nothing but a lame attempt to reduce the number of people getting snockered on board who are – yes, believe it or not – trying to drown their nicotine cravings with alcohol.
I don't think there's anything wrong with getting drunk on a flight. Quite the contrary, I would even recommend not getting on board until you've had a few rounds. It will help you cope with the nic-fits - and everything else.
9. IN-FLIGHT MAGAZINES
If you're flying with Turkish Airlines, British or Air France (in this order) you've got nothing to worry about. In the seat pocket you'll discover a magnificent, intelligent, well-illustrated and entertaining way to kill at least an hour of your flight.
The seat pockets of some airlines, however, contain cheap publications whose appearance and contents seem like a throwback to 1970s Socialist Bulgaria. Their covers feature female government officials (and why a government official deserves to be on the cover of a magazine unless she is nude is quite another matter), and inside you'll find moth-eaten absurdities like "automotive industry," "shivering with ecstasy," "tasty tidbits for little rascals," "nibble on culinary temptations," "the poet gloriously exclaimed" and – my personal favourite – "a fairy-pageant of lights."
For this reason it's best to bring your own reading material – take a newspaper from the stewardess – they usually have the Financial Times – or bring along a book if you've got a long flight ahead of you.
10. ELECTRONIC GADGETS
A laptop, iPhone, iPod, PlayStation Portable Slim & Lite or Nintendo DS Lite – anything that distracts you from the annoying woman sitting next to you will do the trick. Just make sure the battery life measures up to the length of the flight.
No one will ever tell you this officially, but one of the most relaxing ways of going from point A to point B is through point G of some adventuresome lady. It's worth a try, if only for the satisfaction of knowing you're part of the Mile High Club.
In-flight sex cleanses your consciousness and stimulates thought. In 1912, for example, Lawrence Sperry and an anonymous partner became the first people to engage in aerial hanky-panky. The flight ended in a non-fatal crash and a few lessons learned.
Two years later Sperry patented autopilot. A real man. An American. Too bad that in December 1923 he disappeared in the fog above the English Channel, only to be fished out dead after New Year's.
Sex on an airplane in 2009, however, is trickier than in 1912: you have a captive audience.
Yet where there's a will, there's a way. Take your cues from the situation. Whatever you do, don't rush to the toilets the second the plane reaches cruising altitude, the seatbelt sign goes off and half the plane decides to visit the john. Wait until your fellow passengers are distracted with films, sleep or reading, and then make your move. Quietly, if possible.
12. YOUR SAFETY
Everyone in the business emphasises that civil aviation is the safest means of transport. For example, the American National Safety Council has calculated that your chances of dying in a plane crash are 1 in 5,552. By comparison, your chances of dying in a car accident are 1 in 84 – and that's in the United States, where traffic safety is light-years ahead of the one in Bulgaria.
However, statistics are cold comfort to anyone who watched television on 11 September 2001, read Arthur Hailey's Airport or watched movies like Airplane!, Passenger 57 and Snakes on a Plane. The fear somehow creeps over you. The only thing you can do is take a deep breath and try to convince yourself that everything's alright.
On a flight, however, there's a deadly risk that has nothing to do with Al Qaeda or the plane's mechanics. Long periods of inactivity can have more frightening results than just swollen ankles – they can cause deep vein thrombosis. The risk is minimal, but you should be extra careful if: you've had embolisms; you're over 40; you're overweight, have varicose veins, cancer or genetic blood-clotting abnormalities; or you're a smoker.
13. IF YOU'RE JONESING FOR A CIGARETTE
We're back to smoking. Of course, there's a very easy way of never worrying about nicotine cravings on a flight again – buy your own private jet. In fact, this would solve most of the above-mentioned problems.
But if you're one of those people who worry about increasing your carbon footprint by burning all that jet fuel, you've probably long since opted against such a purchase. Now you're left with the choice of either quitting smoking (highly unlikely), making a donation to Germany's Alexander Schoppmann, who since 2007 has been collecting funds for the first luxury airline for smokers, SMINTair, or getting used to boarding a flight armed with no fewer than 10 packs of gum.
Of course, you can always light up in the WC. in 2007, Amy Winehouse smoked three times during a one-hour flight between London and Glasgow – and got away with a mere scolding in the tabloids. The same year in May the Portuguese Prime Minister, Jose Socrates, curtained off the First Class section of a charter flight from Lisbon to Caracas and smoked a cigar. It wouldn't have been such a big deal if Socrates himself hadn't been the one to ban smoking in public places in Portugal.
Such examples might lead you to believe that you can get away with sneaking a cigarette, too – especially if you've heard that onboard smoke detectors can easily be deactivated with a condom. However, the problem is that if you get caught, you're looking at a hefty fine. Also, don't forget the case of the 50-year-old Greek living in New York who got a 15-month prison sentence for smoking on a flight – and hitting the steward who tried to take away his cigarette.