I haven’t travelled at all in the last two weeks due to a nasty stomach bug (perhaps it is all the horsemeat I ate in Kazakhstan – see my previous post, Don’t Mention the War). I was meant to be on a road-trip to Barcelona, London and New York, and instead I have been grounded in Singapore, largely staying at home and subsisting on a tea-and-toast diet.
Bored and unable to sleep, a few days ago I found myself re-watching Up in the Air on late night cable-TV. The film stars George Clooney as Ryan Bingham, a corporate downsizer for hire, whose job involves travelling approximately 300 days of the year. It offers a unique insight into the world of the hard-core business traveller, and is packed with many memorable one-liners describing life on the road, some of my favourites being:
- “To know me is to fly with me”.
- “When I run my card, the system automatically prompts the desk clerk to greet me with this exact statement: “Pleasure to see you again, Mr Bingham”. It’s these kinds of systemized friendly touches that keep my world in orbit”.
- “All the things you probably hate about travelling – the recycled air, the artificial lighting, the digital juice dispensers, the cheap sushi – are warm reminders that I’m home”.
- “Know how much time you lost checking in? 35 minutes a flight. I travel 270 days a year. That’s 157 hours. That makes seven days. You willing to throw away an entire week on that [extra stuff you packed]?”
- “Asians …. they pack light, travel efficiently, and they’ve got a thing for slip-on shoes, God love ‘em”.
- “[In the security screening queue] never get behind people travelling with infants. I’ve never seen a stroller collapse in less than 20 minutes”.
- “Old people are worse. Their bodies are littered with hidden metal and they never seem to appreciate how little time they have left on earth”.
Early on in the film, Ryan meets Alex, female protagonist and his eventual love interest. Their first meeting is set in a hotel lobby bar, and they pass the evening doing what all frequent travellers who meet up tend to do – that is, they talk about how many miles they fly each year, compare the perks of different airline membership programs, and try to one-up each other on who has more “status”.
At the end of the scene, they briefly swap notes on the most outlandish place they have each had sex. Alex confesses to having done it on a plane – a regional flight and in an economy class toilet, no less – making her a member of the infamous “Mile High Club”. Ryan expresses his disbelief, but Alex assures him that she could achieve this feat because she was “extremely flexible”.
I didn’t remember this bit of dialogue from when I first saw Up in the Air at the cinema. Maybe I wasn’t paying attention at the time, or maybe it was a case of over-zealousness on the part of the Singaporean film censorship office. But my ears certainly pricked up now – here was a travel oddity that at 2am could take my mind off an aching stomach and perhaps even distract me from moping around feeling sorry for myself.
I decided to do some impromptu research. My objective: to ascertain whether the Mile High Club is real, or a modern version of the fabled Loch Ness monster – a legend where everyone has a friend of a friend who says they have seen the beast, but no-one can actually claim first-hand experience of it.
According to an “official” website, membership of the Mile High Club (or “MHC”) is achieved when “two people engage in sexual activity at an altitude of no less than 5,280 ft (a mile high above the earth) in an airplane.”
The first documented case of Mile High status is attributed to Capt. Lawrence Sperry, “daredevil pilot, mechanical genius, and inventor of the automatic pilot”. In November 1916, so the story goes, he was giving private flight instruction to a New York socialite. During one of their lessons the flying airboat they were piloting crash-landed into the waters of South Bay. Sperry and his student were rescued from the semi-submerged wreckage by two duck hunters, who were shocked to find the pair naked, and, well, let’s just say the evidence suggested that the couple had been heating up the cockpit shortly before the crash. The next day, a local newspaper in New York ran the headline: “Aerial Petting – ends in Wetting”.
Following the research trail into the modern era, amongst the celebrity jet-set crowd Janet Jackson, Carmen Electra and John Travolta have all boasted of MHC membership (although not with each other, unfortunately). Richard Branson wrote in his autobiography that he joined the Mile High Club in 1969, at age 19, through a chance encounter with a married woman in an airplane toilet. I am sure that somewhere in this there is a joke to be made about Virgin Air, but let’s move on…..
In 2007, a Qantas cabin attendant enjoyed 15 minutes of fame after she was fired for bonking the actor Ralph Fiennes on an international flight. Shortly thereafter, the results of a poll about the Mile High Club, responded to by more than 1,000 Australian frequent travellers, were reported in the Sydney Morning Herald, proving that I am not the only one who regards this subject as being worthy of research. Twelve per cent of the sample group claimed membership of the MHC, and another fifty percent said they would really really like to. If this is true, I would suggest that Qantas shouldn’t be firing MHC-supportive air staff; instead they should be adding special cabins to select long-haul flights and selling “premium” flight packages.
To my amusement and surprise, I even discovered a link between Singapore, of all places, and the modern era of the Mile High Club. In late 2007, Singapore Airlines became the world’s first airline to fly the new double-decker Airbus A380. In its reconfigured first class offering, the airline introduced a world-first: 12 private cabins, or Suites, which included a double bed option.
In the lead up to the first A380 flights, the interest in these Suites from would-be MHC members was so great that the airline put out an official statement, politely but very publicly requesting that Suite passengers refrain from engaging in any in-flight nookie. Rather bizarrely, the airline felt the need to justify the request on the basis that its Suites were not sound-proofed or completely sealed, so attempts to join the MHC might “disturb or offend” other passengers. One newspaper commentator at the time observed: “like all things good, [the Suites] come at a price: private suites for two from Sydney to Singapore return cost $19,655.80 to be exact. At that price, the airline should provide sex, not discourage it”.
As for the future, given the possibility of mass market space-tourism within the next decade or two, the blogosphere is already buzzing with the thought of the MHC going galactic – literally taking the Mile High Club to a whole new level. Supposedly, one “adult entertainment” company has even jumped the gun by filming a couple doing it in zero gravity conditions. According to media reports, “the filming process was particularly messy from a technical and logistical standpoint”. Try as I might, I have been unable to track down a copy of this important piece of cinema history.
Despite all this, I remain unconvinced. I have seen more than my fair share of airplane bathrooms – they are often barely big enough to accommodate just me standing up, so I am not quite sure how anything more could be contemplated. Heightened airline security, on-board air marshals, jam-packed flights and the ever-present prospect of turbulence all add to my scepticism that completing the Mile High Club “entry exam” is actually possible.
However, after a few hours of reading-up on the subject, I had certainly forgotten about my stomach pains, and I was in a decidedly better mood. So rest assured, dear reader, I will continue my research (strictly in the spirit of scientific enquiry, of course), and report back to you on any further developments. Admittedly, this might be viewed as a rather crude attempt to boost readership of this blog, but that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.