This is the year with the lowest airfares on record according to statistics, and it seems that, with the massification of travel, more families are going from the road to the air.
Or I am just obsessed with it. Or simply unlucky. But I do see an increase in the number of children and babies in the air.
A large number of babies in a plane cabin usually brings discomfort and anxiety to frequent flyers or those without children. I have seen it on other passenger’s faces when they arrive at their seats only to find a kid next to them or a baby screaming to the top of his or her lungs. I am pretty sure this is how I look too. This is not a shaming article, in these situations, both parents and passengers suffer, there is no obvious solution. Both parties just need to be prepared to deal with it in the best way possible.
When I was a business traveler I used to obsess over the first row seats on economy flights because they afforded me the fastest way out. Nothing mattered more than getting out of the plane first so I could get to immigration without the queues. My colleagues and I used to even race each other to the passport control.
We were very aware that taking these seats also carried a higher risk of ending up surrounded by babies because these are the basinet seats given to families. And we were prepared for the worst: Bose noise canceling headphones, blankets over our suits in case there was any spillage and an unwavering eye always on the baby in case anything would fly off from their food trays and land on our laptops.
These days, I continue to request for the first row on every flight, for my racing behavior has not left me and I can’t help it – unconsciously, I need to be the first one out of the plane, it’s like knowing that it can be avoided has bestowed me with the superior need to do my best to. As soon as the doors open, I have an urge to run.
Ironically, I no longer carry the noise canceling headphones so I have landed myself in terribly unpleasant situations of recent which made me remember all those flights that felt like they were going to Hell.
Admittedly, the worst ones do not feature babies, there are too many of those when a screaming child does not allow for even a cat nap or I end up with a glass of milk all over my lap, these are the hazards of the frequent flyer, fly enough and you are likely finding yourself in a few of these experiences. These are not remarkably bad, they are just a lottery that seems to be increasingly a winning one.
My worst moments are difficult to predict, one-off situations. Looking back, I can’t help but smile at what I learned, but at that time, they made me swear never to fly again. Yes, they were that bad.
Needless to say, I always come back because time cures it all and after a couple of days I need to be back on the road again and I have largely forgotten. Sadly, bad experiences are just a part of flying and a matter of probability. With over 150 flights a year and what I estimate must be over 200,000 miles a year, I just get more opportunities to be down right in the sh!t than the average passenger.
Here a few bad flying experiences I will tell my grandchildren about.
The reason why I always carry perfume with me
I spent 5 years traveling in Africa and the Middle East and flew with more than my fair share of random airlines, all of which were banned to fly into European space. I had only one admittedly silly rule: I would not fly banned airlines for work because I felt it would be really sad to die on a plane crash over the Congo River while on a business trip. Now, for the weekend or for holidays I flew anything and everything, from two-seater charter planes we booked to tiny Air Zanzibar Cesna planes, even Sun Air, the local Sudanese Airline.
These airlines were not bad per se, but they were sure filled with people for whom flying was a first, and possibly, once in a lifetime experience.
On one particular flight from Lagos, Nigeria, to Joburg in South Africa, I was seated in front of a kid who, shortly after take off, poo-ed on himself. The poor kid didn’t know how to handle the situation and was old enough not to wear nappies so his mess simply ended up on the aisle, between my and his seat.
This was a South African Airways flight, an airline which is part of Star Alliance and allowed into European and American air space, but with possibly the worst cabin crew of all time. Think a combo of the rudeness of European civil servants, bitterness of overworked service staff and a “do it yourself” attitude.
In their, “I couldn’t care less” approach they decided that the task was below them and they were not cleaning the mess so left it on the floor, for everyone to walk on it and spread it around for the duration of the 6h flight. That’s right, the mess stayed on the aisle for the rest of the flight, with the ensuing vomit-inducing smell. I thought it was a joke but they just could not be bothered. After a few minutes we realized this was how the rest of the flight was going to pan out so we all tried our best to cope however we could.
I have never been so euphoric for finding a small sample of perfume from a safari lodge I had taken with me. I sprayed it on my clothes and on a napkin and held it under my nose for the rest of the flight.
It was deeply unpleasant not to use stronger words and possibly the most unhygienic situation I have ever seen on a plane. Compare this with Emirates or Singapore Airlines regular cleaning of the bathroom on a long flight and you know why I would never fly SAA unless I have no choice. I bet the crew would have got seriously reprimanded if Management found out. I was so shocked that did not even think of filling a feedback form.
One word: Appalling. And yes, I carry a small bottle of perfume with me everywhere.
The day I thought I was going to die
South Sudan is today an independent country but, when I was there, it was still part of a united Sudan. I was there on business, as part of the second project I had on the ground. Sudan is one of my favorite places in the world and I have fond memories and even good friends after my long time there .
Half way through the project, we needed to travel to the South to assess the best way to continue the deployment of a mobile network given that the country was about to become independent so I agreed to flying to Juba, South Sudan’s capital.
The flight was booked by the client, on Sun Air, one of a few local Sudanese airlines. There I broke my promise to myself to never fly banned airlines for work. It was that or staying on the ground and being the only one among a group of fifteen to do so. Finding myself between a rock and a hard place I regretfully agreed.
The flight was departing in the early hours of the morning when it was still dark in Khartoum.
Sudan has one of the worst airports I have ever flown into, and I was told that the new airport opened just before I started flying. I can’t imagine what it must have been before. If the international airport is something resembling a cattle market the domestic airport looked like cattle was indeed being traded. There were people everywhere, including someone trying to put a goat through the X-Ray machine. Most of the people there had probably never flown before and the lack of organization and mess inside what tried to be the terminal was something I have only witnessed in the world’s most remote places.
Someone had taken all our passports. He was a fixer of sorts, common in Sudan and other parts of the continent, as the red tape and processes are so random, a whole lot of smart businessmen have started parallel services to circumvent the rules for those who can afford it. By the time our boarding passes were ready, without our presence or security control of any kind, we had enjoyed our breakfast at the VIP lounge, another ever-present institution across Africa, to monetize those who don’t want to “mingle with the masses”. We only had to get the boarding passes and make our way through customs and security control to board the plane. I was following everyone else in the confusing arabic-only instructions that I kept hearing, I had no idea what was going on and was simply doing what I was told.
Unlike in the case of international departures, in the case of domestic flights there was no way from the VIP Lounge to the plane so we had to walk past the crowds of people who were still trying to figure out that goats were not allowed to board the plane in any condition, not even dead. Security guards were yelling at the crowds, old men were trying to understand what they were supposed to do, women were carrying children at their backs while pushing and pulling large bundles of personal effects. The area looked like a fish market.
The plane was something out of a James Bond movie. Not because it was full of tricks but because it looked like one of the planes used by the evil characters in the older, Soviet-time movies. The instructions and signage were in Russian and a few decades old. It was a second-hand plane sold by the Hungarian airline to Sun Air, probably for chips. The only upside was that it was empty so we all got a row to ourselves and could sit by the window as we flew over the Sudanese savannah and desert. There was nothing but solitude, desolation and desert for most of the journey. The vastness of this country, the largest in Africa pre-cessation, left me speechless.
The entire experience was surreal. The plane was not in good shape and several pieces were broken, parts were missing and there were no safety cards. I am pretty sure the life vests were not there either. Getting to Juba was a two-hour flight so we got peanuts and chemical tetra brick orange juice.
“All is well if it ends well,” I thought to myself throughout the flight. And it was the case until the moment we started descending.
The plane started to lose altitude fast and I the bush was getting closer and closer to the point of being able to distinguish the wildlife below us. But we were not slowing down.
As we approached landing it turned completely on its side, 180 degrees, bringing the animals below even closer.
We were frightened and convinced we were going to die. There was absolute silence in the cabin. Most of the passengers were my colleagues and clients from a variety of backgrounds and cultures. I saw the Muslim half of the group praying, holding on to their beads. The few Christians, including an Egyptian Orthodox girl, with their palms together, eyes closed, silently whispering to God.
I looked around in what felt like an eternity but must have been only a few minutes and I could see the fear on everyone’s body postures. Everyone thought those were their last minutes and chose to spend them with God. Me? I found myself reaching out for my phone to send one last text to my loved ones.
In the last minute, the pilot redressed the plane and we landed, at high speed, almost missing the end of the runway, in the most basic of airports, one that would soon become the youngest country in the world.
For two hours after touching ground everyone was shaking and in almost complete silence. I picked up my phone to call my boyfriend and tell him that I loved him very much and that I was terrified, that I thought I was going to die.
I never understood why the pilot thought it was a good idea to land that way, the most prevalent theory was that there was strong lateral wind which required the plane to stay in that position until the very last minute. Or perhaps we were indeed going to crash and he just managed to sort it out, a la James Bond. I will never know. What I did learn is that, in my last minutes of life, my instinct was to talk to my loved ones.
Flying through a cyclone
The Philippines is regularly hit by the worst natural disasters. When it is not a cyclone it is an earthquake or flooding. During my two and a half years on the ground I experienced everything. Although Manila, on the West coast of the country, is relatively protected, it still suffers from heavy rain and Earth temblors.
On one lucky week, as I was flying into Manila from Singapore, I got caught in the middle of one of these storms. Pilots in Southeast Asia are used to flying in such conditions because this is the typical weather for half of the year, but there is nothing they can do in the case of turbulence brought about by the violent winds.
On one such day I experienced the worst turbulence ever. There was no meal service as the crew was seated and buckled up for the duration of the flight. At times, my body was lifted by the sudden drops of the aircraft into the void. To say that it was scary would be an understatement, we were all frightened. Except for the occasional scream, there was the most absolute silence in the cabin. Everyone looked at each other, looking for comfort, but finding nothing more than another terrified face. The storm was unforgiving and did not give in an inch for the duration of the flight.
When we landed we found most of the flights had been cancelled and aircrafts were grounded waiting for the cyclone to pass. Why we were allowed to fly will remain the mystery, and perhaps miracle, of my traveling life.