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The Truth About Air Travel

Contrary to popular assumptions, on a recent flight to Europe, I was pleased to note that many things about flying are the same as ever before. It all begins with the ceremonial game “Fear Factor: No Luggage Space,” whereby participants attempt to outfox each other to be the first ones on the plane in order to have space for their three carry-ons. Unfortunately, airlines have made the rules of this game successively harder, first by boarding by seat rows, then by checking whether passengers really do obey the seat row calls.

Once you make it onto the plane, two things immediately stand out: The funny, food-related smell, and the comfy-looking pillow-and-blanket arrangement, ostensibly there to yet again tempt passengers into a false sense of security that this time, they will be able to catch some sleep. While still engaged in the act of sitting down (another fun game all by itself), most passengers are quietly flicking through the pages of a magazine at a constant throughput rate of 1.6pg/sec. while praying the seat next to them stays empty.

When everyone is finally settled and the last pair of skis squished into an overhead compartment, an eerie calm sets in as passengers face the inevitable: Thirteen hours next to Mrs. Brickhill-Jones from Nowhere, America who has never been to Europe but has heard sooooo many nice things about the country.

In the air, I notice that most passengers around me soon fall into a kind of trance, happy to vegetate for a few hours. Only the babies stay awake, busily drawing up a whining schedule to guarantee continuous coverage, with 15-second intervals to tease people into thinking there may finally be some calm.

Some people sleep, or at least they pretend to in order to get away from Mrs. Brickhill-Jones, but most keep their eyes open, staring intently at the TV screen without bothering to put their earphones on. Initially appalled at this apparently unintellectual behaviour, I too quickly notice that Friends is much more bearable without the sound.
Soon thereafter, the source of the food smell is revealed: It is Chickenorbeef. Whenever dinner is served on a plane, I have to think back to a program I saw on TV once: “World’s Worst Jobs.” Condom tester was one (on a plastic rod, and they had a goal of 700 an hour), but I always thought that Airplane-food-cart-emptier must be right up there.
After dinner, I return to silent Friends for half an hour before being served breakfast which consists of fruit and what resembles a Dunkin Donuts “omwich.” I wonder what the melon producers’ lobby has done to monopolise airline breakfast trays, and think it would probably make a great Strategy case.

With that thought, I finally doze off just as the captain informs me that now would be a good time to go to the toilet, as we are about to land. Even though I don’t need to, I figure I will do him a favor and get up, taking care not to disrupt the thrombosis forming in my legs.
Unfortunately, he has shared the toilet suggestion with the entire airplane so I am 32nd in line, with the certain knowledge that not everyone will “wipe the washbasin as a courtesy to fellow passengers,” as the toilet haiku requests.

When I finally make it there, I am surprised to feel wheels touching the ground and am thoroughly shaken, but everything is all right, except that I have lost my favorable position in the starting grid for the syndicated version of “Fear Factor,” called “In The Slow Aisle.”
It was then that I decided to stay on the plane for the return leg, just for the heck of it. Or was it to escape these intellectual tentacles of HBS in favor of another day as a vegetable?

February 11, 2002
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