Bad air days: David Whitley

When a long-haul flight becomes a battleground of antisocial behaviour, don't let it wind you up — join in the bleary-eyed, semi-delirious horror of it all

By David Whitley
Published 14 Jun 2013, 12:10 BST

The Irish woman next to me — alas, no stranger to the cake trolley — has decided my shoulder makes an excellent pillow. This invasion of my space wouldn't be quite so irritating if the only spare seat on the plane wasn't next to her on the other side. The judge's sentence? Condemn her to 10 years of listening to Dancing In The Moonlight by Toploader on constant repeat.

A 30-hour flight from Manchester to Auckland isn't good for many things. In fact, it's excruciatingly horrible. But it does allow you to slip into that sleep-deprived danger zone of nuclear-grade tetchiness and mild delirium that makes you prolifically judgemental about anyone who's ever set foot on a plane.

And it turns out this makes for a brilliant game — spotting air-travel crimes and devising worthy punishments for the culprits.

It all starts at the airport. People with zero sense of spatial awareness who nearly trip you over by dragging a wheeled bag? A £200 fine and 'PROPERTY OF AN IDIOT' scrawled across the bag in red marker pen. People who stand on the moving walkways as if they're some sort of low-budget theme park ride, blocking the way of anyone trying to walk through the airport? Set a pack of starved Alsatians on them and then see how fast they move.

Then there are the airport security queues, where I like to think I can predict who'll set off the scanners with 100% accuracy. Any man in a suit having a conversation on his mobile while in the queue is a cert — he'll have forgotten about another piece of gadgetry in a pocket. The same goes for women who mistake the airport for Royal Ascot, caked in make-up and adorned in massive pieces of jewellery. They always approach the scanner under the impression that giant bracelets and earrings that dolphins could comfortably leap through don't count as metal.

On the plane, special-strength wrath is reserved for people who can't grasp the simple concept of looking at the seat number on their boarding pass and sitting in that seat using the clearly printed row numbers on the plane as a visual aid. Their punishment? Being sat on by angry bears until they can correctly recite pi to 2,000 decimal places.

Anyone who claps upon landing gets 1,000 Royal Variety Performances to sit through until they learn to use their applause wisely. Anyone trying to stuff the bins with giant cases that clearly don't constitute hand luggage has to travel the world forever, tied to a dreadlocked backpacker with a guitar who only sings Jack Johnson songs.

Alas, if you keep going along these lines, you eventually stumble upon your own bad habit. Mine involves in-flight entertainment. I find myself watching the sort of rubbish I'd instantly switch off if it was on TV. Yet harmless rom-com fluff or mindless action flicks tend to be just the undemanding fare required in the situation. My sin is I'll watch such films, but on other people's screens. And if I can't sleep, I'll look around to see what everyone else is up to. If the woman a few seats in front is playing hangman, I find myself silently egging her on to pick the right letter.

But mostly I watch other people's dreadful films. I never quite know what's going on, as I can't hear it, but it's surprising how quickly you can get the gist and be appalled by the sheer badness. I am now, for example, familiar with Rowdy Rathore — an Indian tale of violence, mistaken identity and world-class facial hair. I also know Pitch Perfect, which tries to be an adult version of Glee, even though Glee was already an adult version of High School Musical.

So although I'm quick to judge the rubbish other people are watching, I realise I'm guiltier to an even higher degree. And my punishment? To watch Pitch Perfect in silence while being semi-crushed by a snoring tubster who fell asleep during the opening scenes.

Published in the Jul/Aug 2013 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)


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