I spent just over two hundred days on the road last year, and took more than one hundred individual flights. I think it is safe to say, therefore, that I qualify as a frequent flyer.
Most of the time I consider myself to be extremely fortunate to have a job that allows me to travel like this. I get to see fascinating places; I get to eat different foods, often seriously bizarre ones; and I have the opportunity at times to meet weird, wonderful and interesting people.
Although for the most part the travel is not as glamorous as it may seem. In fact it can be rather monotonous, a daily grind of navigating my way through the vast global machine devoted to moving us from Point A to Point B, and then back again. Illuminating moments tend to be the exception rather than the rule, brief flashes of light in what is otherwise a very dark, very gloomy night.
As a result of all this high frequency travel I have become unhealthily familiar with airports and check-ins and the rules and regulations of multiple frequent-flyer loyalty programs. I know how to pack a suitcase so as to maximise every last gram of available luggage allowances; I know how to dress to minimise the chance of setting off an airport metal detector; I know how to squeeze a flight upgrade out of an uncooperative airline. I have learned to live with jet lag, queues, surly hotel staff, cancelled flights, lost luggage, security screenings, pockets filled with loose change in five currencies and truly gargantuan mobile phone bills, as part of my day-to-day life.
Which I can more or less handle when on the ground, because on terra firma I am more or less able to exert some control over the situation. Experience a long delay? – I can go for a walk, buy a book or change my flight. Bad weather grounded my flight? – I can leave the airport, do a crossword in a corner while nursing an espresso, or find a hotel for the night. And so on.
Up in the air, however, the degrees of freedom I might enjoy on the ground disappear. For a fixed duration of time, confined to a fixed seat, I have limited choice as to what happens to me. I am caged inside a flying cigar-tube, entirely at the mercy of whatever comes my way.
Including, in particular, whoever fate decides to put in the seat next to me.
You see, on a plane you are forced to share your personal space with another human being. Normally, this will be a complete stranger who you would never otherwise have had any interaction with. Now, however, merely because an airline computer has randomly determined that you should sit alongside each other, you are unavoidably thrust into each other’s lives for a brief period of time.
All of which brings me to the point of today’s blog. My personal little nightmare – one of the few things that will cause me to break into a cold sweat if I think about it as I board a plane – is the prospect of being trapped during the flight next to someone truly unpleasant, with no possibility of escape. Compiled from years of experience, here is my list of those folks who I will do anything to avoid on a plane. I call them the Twelve Types of Terrifying Travellers.
Number One: The Bawlers and Kickers. We have all experienced the “joy” of flying when seated close to a child who screams like he or she is being murdered, from the moment the plane takes off until the moment it lands. Not to mention the irritating little shit who sits behind you and kicks your chair, repeatedly, throughout the entire flight. Yes, I know they are only little kids; yes, I know I have kids too; yes, I know that it is un-cool for me to pick on children like this. But what can I say: an out of control kid on a plane is annoying as all fuck. It’s the truth, and deep down, despite any feigned offence on your part, I know that you secretly agree.
Number Two: The Apologists. Question: what’s worse than a misbehaving child on a plane? Answer: the pathetic parent who steadfastly refuses to take control of that child. Apologists might smile at you helplessly – “what am I supposed to do?” They might try to placate the offending youngster with promises of treats and rewards; or they might try to distract them with lollies and dummies. But most often Apologists will just allow their brat to have a tantrum, hoping that no-one will notice and eventually the kid will scream him or herself to sleep. The worst kind, however, are those Apologists who will try to reason with a hysterical child: “Jonny, let’s discuss what you are feeling that makes you want to kick the chair all the time, because it is bothering the nice man in front of you”. Honestly, at times like this I am not sure if it is the child or the parent who is more in need of a good spanking.
Number Three: The Nervous Nellies. One of the great mysteries of life is why so many people with a morbid fear of flying nevertheless choose to fly? Nervous Nellies are easy to spot, clinging anxiously to the arm of the seat, digging their fingers in to the point that their knuckles are white. With every bump of turbulence a Nervous Nelly will audibly gasp, or start praying, and might even reach out without warning and grab your arm (yes, really, this has happened to me). I once sat next to a lady who for five long, extremely painful hours sobbed uncontrollably with fear. On another occasion, the fellow in the seat across the aisle from me was so terrified he had a near seizure, before proceeding to loudly fill two vomit bags. What is it with these people? No-one put a gun to their head and forced them to board the plane. Don’t fly if you don’t like flying – simple as that.
Number Four: The Vultures. Every now and again you might encounter a fellow traveller who behaves as if they have recently been released from an Ethiopian prison, or have just completed a month-long hunger strike. Vultures will suck up every scrap of food placed in front of them, they will ask for a second, third and then fourth bag of shitty airline peanuts, and when that’s done they will lean across the aisle and ask: “if you’re not going to eat that bread roll, can I have it?” Whenever this happens to me (and believe me, it has happened way more times that you may think) I find myself handing my leftovers to a complete stranger, while I think to myself: “Airline food is not that good, honey. You’re just a pig”.
Number Five: The Louts. Closely related to Vultures are Louts – those passengers who decide that free alcohol on a plane means they have an unwritten obligation to single-handedly drink it dry. Louts are on a mission, and can become quite dangerous as they sink deeper and deeper into airborne drunkenness, getting louder, more aggressive and more irritating, all at the same time. Louts are most often found on flights in and out of Australia, the UK and South Africa, especially when those flights are to or from holiday resorts, or around the time of a major international sporting event. The absolute worst Lout flights are those from Australia to Bali, where the only sure-fire way to protect yourself from the Louts is to become one, too. You have been warned.
Number Six: The Chatterboxes. Chatterboxes are those passengers who suffer from recurring bouts of intense verbal diarrhoea. Often Louts, once thoroughly shit-faced, will morph into Chatterboxes. Although for many others, the copious consumption of alcohol is not a necessary prerequisite to being an effective Chatterbox – some people are blessed with being naturally annoying. Chatterboxes feel the uncontrollable need to make constant, inane chit-chat. Without any hesitation they will share with me their life story, the details of their just completed holiday, and a blow-by-blow account of Uncle Jim’s recent prostate surgery, mistakenly believing that I actually give a damn. Even confidential business information is not sacred. I was once seated next to a Chatterbox who turned out to be an executive at a business that a client of mine was trying to acquire. In the course of the flight he told me how his company was about to “completely screw” a prospective purchaser (unbeknownst to him, my client). He then proceeded to most helpfully spill the beans, telling me everything I needed to know about the seller’s position on my client’s offer. Making this the one and only time I have ever actively encouraged a Chatterbox; usually I hope that in the face of a non-responsive, stony silence, they will eventually get the message, and shut the fuck up.
Number Seven: The Endless Whiners. An aircraft is many things. It is a means of transport. It is a flying machine used for various productive purposes, civilian and military. It is an engineering marvel. But equally, there are many things that an aircraft is not. For example, it is not a hotel, or a country club. Nor is it a cinema, or a Michelin starred-restaurant. Although that doesn’t deter the Endless Whiners from behaving like it is all of these, and more. These truly horrible passengers will bitch and moan and complain about anything and everything, the whole flight long. Like two days ago, flying from Singapore to Paris, where one particularly odious little toad went completely ballistic at a poor flight attendant, for no reason other than that his plastic tray airplane steak was cooked medium, and not medium-rare. Such people should, in my humble opinion, be treated no differently in the air than on land. That is, they should be escorted to the nearest exit door, and asked to leave the premises.
Number Eight: The Don Juans. Fellers, let me give you a tip. I am pretty certain that the attractive flight attendant serving you does not hope to find her future husband, boyfriend or lover on the flight today. The plane is her place of work, not a pick-up bar. Remember that next time you shamelessly hit on her. Remember also that as part of her job she is paid to smile at you, no matter how much you might make her skin crawl. Plus, in case you are in any doubt, I can confirm she is not going to risk her job just to have sex with you in the plane’s bathroom (unless, of course, you happen to be Ralph Fiennes – see my previous post Up in the Air). So stop trying, it is pathetic. Oh, and one more thing: thanks for sharing, but if I had wanted to hear a complete stranger’s stories of sexual conquest on a recent business trip, I would have asked.
Number Nine: The Stinkers. Two self-evident truths: one, a plane is an enclosed, hermetically sealed environment where air is re-circulated, and two, we live in a modern world where deodorant is available at modest cost, in every supermarket, pharmacy and corner store. Put the two together, and the conclusion couldn’t be clearer: there is absolutely no excuse for boarding a plane and bringing your bad body odour along for the ride. So please, if you are a Stinker, do us all a favour: take a bath before flying, and then deodorise thoroughly. And, if your case of BO is especially severe – you know the kind, seeping out from every pore, clinging for hours to the fabric of furniture and bringing passersby in the street to their knees – then take note: airlines often leave little deodorant and perfume bottles in the aircraft restrooms, especially for people like you. So use them.
Number Ten: The Bombers. On every plane there will be at least one Bomber – some snivelling weevil who farts repeatedly throughout the flight, quietly gassing all those in the surrounding seats. However, Bombers are for the most part a cowardly breed. They will sneakily let one off, and then pretend it wasn’t them. They will continue on with their work, or with watching a film or reading a book, yet all the while surreptitiously glancing around to see if they got away with it. The only way to deal with a Bomber is by public shaming, as I learned on a flight to Turkey a few years ago. A man seated nearby farted, for the third time. At which point another man sitting nearby shouted out, loudly enough for everyone else to hear: “Please, stop farting, it is disgusting and is making me sick”. The Bomber in question almost died from embarrassment, and needless to say resisted the urge for the rest of the flight. Later, his confronter explained it to me as follows: “One fart, I understand – it is an accident, it can happen to anyone. Two farts, OK, perhaps another accident. But three – that’s no accident. Something needed to be done, or we’d be smelling that guy all the way to Istanbul”.
Number Eleven: The Night Trains. On overnight flights, there will always be a passenger somewhere on the plane who snores. Not a big problem if it is a small snuffle, or not too loud, as the noise of the engines, or a pair of headsets, will usually cancel it out. But then there are the Night Trains – people (almost exclusively men, and often Louts who have been at it for a while) who snore so loudly that they sound like an approaching locomotive. Seats shudder, windows vibrate, and anyone within ten rows is completely unable to grab a wink of rest. Remember that Night Trains, however, are by definition asleep, and so have their eyes shut. Meaning as you walk past them in the aisle you can casually thwack them. If you do it hard enough and then scoot, they will be startled awake, so they will stop snoring, but they will never know it was you. Rest assured, none of your fellow passengers will ever rat you out. Indeed, some might even stand up and applaud.
Number Twelve: The Unrepentant Soilers. Almost impossible to detect in advance, Unrepentant Soilers are, for me, possibly the lowliest form of air traveller: truly despicable people who once airborne suspend all norms of civilised toilet behaviour. Without any shame an Unrepentant Soiler will trash the bathroom of a plane, leaving bits floating in the un-drained sink, scrunched up loo paper all over the floor, brown smears in the bowl and piss all over the seat. As if that weren’t bad enough, what makes an Unrepentant Soiler so utterly reprehensible is that their modus operandi involves using you as a tool to cover up their own evil deeds. If you enter a cubicle after an Unrepentant Soiler, you will be faced with a stark choice. You can either make yourself sick cleaning up someone else’s pee, or you can do your business and leave the bathroom as you found it. In which case the passenger waiting to use the lavatory next will assume the Unrepentant Soiler is, in fact, you.
So there you have them – my personal dirty dozen. Twelve Types of Terrifying Travellers to avoid. Now that you know what to watch out for, I encourage you to carefully scan the other passengers, next time you board a plane. At the first sign of danger, take immediate defensive actions. Your flight will be all the more pleasant for it, and no worries, you can thank me later.