Worst Airplane Flights

Friday, September 10, 2010

I fly…
Not professionally…but for most of my assignments. And because I so often don’t have feet on the ground I get into a lot of trouble. Not intentionally. Just as an “innocent bystander”.

In my experience the second worst airline route in the world, taking into account all the wilderness, disaster areas, third world flights & fly-by-night airlines, is the crosscountry, non-stop flight from east to west coast—bar none.

Now do not get me wrong. I am in awe of the miracle of flight. It is a magic trick to find yourself halfway around the world in less than a day. But even frequent flyers have to admit air travel has been steadily eroding since the 1970s. What was once the height of sophistication & luxury is now traveling steerage—at least in economy.

On my most recent trip to San Francisco, I bought a ticket, weeks in advance, only to be waitlisted to the last place on the plane—window—seats that do not recline—next to a six year old. Everyone who flies a lot has sat in that exact seat.

After a real crusher of a landing in Phoenix, the attendant came on with, "Ladies and Gentlemen,
please remain in your seats until Capt. Crash and the Crew have brought the aircraft to a screeching
halt against the gate. And, once the tire smoke has cleared and the warning bells are silenced, we'll
open the door and you can pick your way through the wreckage to the terminal."

 There is a famous story about the actress/comedienne Whoopi Goldberg having a fan die next to her on a transcontinental trip. She had to remain in her seat for the rest of the way…beside the body. Federal regulations. First class ain’t what it used to be either.

On my last night flight to Frankfort, Germany an announcement came over the PA system for medical help in the back of the plane. A bevy of flight attendants went running past me but I never saw a doctor. I could not help sympathizing with the corpse. Could have been me.

But in deference to that, the absolute worst flight is the redeye back across the USA. On my latest adventure, Am*r*c*n Airlines canceled my return flight one day & in rebooking the next day they again gave me the last seat assignment. The elderly little Indian man, dressed in white, diaphanous, cotton robes, in front of me grabbed my seat so they had to put me in the MIDDLE seat in the last row. I spent five hours seething.

One Xmas I arrived early at the terminal in order to secure an aisle seat. I was apologetically warned by the gate attendant that she could “do better than that”. 17D. After several minutes of typing into a computer I found myself wedged between a skinny handicapped woman who had some form of medical condition & could not bend her leg. It stuck into the aisle so she blocked entry/exit from the row of seats. I climbed over her. And on my other side, a woman was so rotund she pulled her own seat belt extension from her purse. She not only overlapped my armrest, she spilled into the aisle too. Soon after takeoff I realized I was sitting behind five Asian infants sleeping in the row in front of us. They were being shipped to America for adoption & they took turns screaming all the way. I stuck the cheap headphones on & listened to loud airline Musak for the entire trip wondering “what level of hell had I flown into?” Melissa Etheridge’s songs cut out because only one channel worked intermittently. To this day I have always wondered what the gate attendant was “upgrading” me from.

International flight is nearly as bad. On my first excursion to Greece my assistant/guide abandoned me unannounced. In desperation & without the use of language I tackled the task of going from Athens to Crete. I stood on line to buy a ticket for hours. I sat in the waiting room with families & farmers & orthodox priests longer. I could swear there was livestock hidden in the shadows. I asked several times when my plane was leaving only to be ordered to wait until I was called. On my last attempt the stewardess grabbed my arm, led me to the picture window & pointed to a plane just lifting off. Evidently I was supposed to be onboard. Jones is hard to pronounce in Greek.

I have sat next to Jesus freaks who beseeched me to pray with them once the Boeing 727 got off the ground, children who kicked me from behind for hours & a college basketball team where the frightened point guard vigorously clutched my seat every time the plane jiggled. I have engaged in the territorial power struggle for the armrest more times than I can count. With mixed feelings I shared a row with a guy who talked on his cell phone for most of the trip. He was told to hang up several times but I guess he had pressing business matters. (An ethical question: are you supposed to “rat out” people like that?) Now I know proper modern transportation etiquette is to never engage in conversation unless you are queried first. Otherwise you are supposed to exchange bodily fluids cheek-to-jowl without a word of acknowledgement. Who goes first?

Seats are so close together these days that to eat a meal on an ocean crossing flight you have to contortion yourself like those waif-thin Chinese acrobats. You are forced to backhand slice & flip the tiny morsel of processed cheese or mystery foodstuff into your mouth with the seatback of the passenger sitting in front of you directly under your chin. On that same matter, in Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, just as time is distorted by gravity, food is distorted by air travel. In the new time/space continuum juggling the hot Styrofoam cup of coffee over the lap of the person next to you can be the cause of tremendous gravity embarrassment if you are not steady of hand.

During an annual report assignment, my assistant & I were again in the last seats in the plane when right after “wheels up”, there was a violent slam underneath. Everybody looked around at each other. The stewardess, who was sitting in the jump seat behind us, busied herself pulling the food service cart out—oblivious. The plane pulled straight up in the air, turned hard right, made a loop & an abrupt landing. We were ushered off so quickly I was sure I had left something. It turned out we had hit another plane that had pulled into our taxiing path. Clipped its tail. We were evacuated like lemmings. Every passenger was rushed underneath the airport & up into another plane before we had time to object. I think the stewardess was still back stocking the cart as we took off the second time.

Before deregulation I booked a ticket for a wedding in a remote area. A short journey but the only way to get there was with a stopover in my hometown of Washington DC. With so much layover time my father picked me up & I had breakfast with my parents. Lovely. Upon arrival back at the airport I was informed that there had been a schedule change & the flight had already departed. Since they had failed to inform me the airline called a pilot & a stewardess & I was the only passenger on a two hundred person capacity aircraft to Hershey, Pennsylvania. That would never happen today.

Less than an hour outside of Tokyo the 747 dropped hundreds of feet. Then it started to buck up & down so violently that luggage was falling out of the overhead storage compartments. I came to the realization that there was nowhere I had to go that badly. I would rather turn around & go back if this was going to continue. The “fasten seatbelt” signed flashed on, the plane tossed from side to side & we rodeoed forward like that for hours.

The second biggest lie you hear on an airplane is there is going to be a “bit of turbulence”. If you do, you can be assured that your backteeth are about to rattle. Inventing “Technical Problems” as an excuse when a flight is only half full & bumping passengers to a later flight is an airline favorite too. However the biggest lie is “we are sorry for the inconvenience”. I am awaiting some passenger to go “postal” someday & start emptying a 9mm into the cockpit after hearing that phrase one too many times. Besides they aren’t really sorry at all. If you complain but hear the words “are WE going to have a problem?”—back off. Post 9/11 the balance of power has shifted & YOU are about to be escorted to jail.

A long time ago my assistant & I drove way up to complete an inplant assignment in Northern Maine. It was the biggest project I had done to date. But a Nor’ Easter swept over us & grounded all commercial transportation. I had another job back home so I got the bright idea to hire a private plane to take us back to civilization. After calling around I found a pilot who agreed to fly. We took off in a horrific rainstorm & the higher we climbed the worse it got. It was so torrential that we could see nothing out any window. We were totally dependant upon flight instruments. In our cocoon the weather bounced the plane like a cork. I have never been so frightened in my life. I kissed the ground when we arrived home safely. Even the pilot was ashen. Never again.

But my ultimate ‘flightmare” was flying back from London. Three-quarters of the way to landing in Washington DC we were told due to headwinds we did not have enough fuel & were diverting to New York. Somehow we had enough fuel to circle forever in the fog. And when we touched down I looked out at a vast wasteland. Again they had lied to us.

“This ain’t Manhattan,” I told my seatmates. Then we were forced to stay in our seats in the middle of the runway for an eternity. I had to pee. With my profound grasp of the obvious I knew something was wrong. Eventually we were evacuated into a dinky little terminal in the hinterlands of Bangor, Maine. It took hours for them to wake agents out of bed to process our luggage through customs. News crews with huge video cameras descended upon the British tourists who all thought this was a wonderful, quaint American ritual. I buttonholed a stewardess who conspiratorially told me Cat Stevens had been arrested from the flight. Years before the English singer/songwriter had changed his name to Yusuf Islam, converted to Moslem & was considered a “suspicious character”. Maybe they thought he was going to serenade us to death. The following night the whole fiasco was additional fodder for Jay Leno & David Letterman’s monologues. However I was not amused.

“The seatbelt sign has been turned off. You are free to walk about the cabin.”


teeksa October 8, 2010 at 4:48 AM  


how about using the train more often? i know, i know, cross country on a train? cross the ocean on a train? but for shorter trips the discipline of building extra time into the journey can be nourishing. more and more in my touring of the south and midwest i am using train and bus—creating for me a revolution of use of time. i've slowed down to a more natural, healthier pace.

your photo buddy, skip, about to board the lake shore limited for cleveland, ultimately chicago, on a tour with my israel palestine photos. see you on the other side. (recent photo exhibition here: http://teeksaphoto.org/LevantMore/Female_Palestine_10_6_10/index.html, tour itinerary here: http://teeksaphoto.org/Pages/PublicPresentations.html)

Silke,  October 19, 2010 at 12:23 PM  

LOL - now I am REALLY looking forward to my flight to Germany in December.
Check out the book Plane Insanity: A Flight Attendant's Tales of Sex, Rage, and Queasiness at 30,000 Feet by Elliott Hester. It's a good read, ESPECIALLY in the airport when your flight is delayed ...

marjorie nichols April 23, 2011 at 2:38 PM  

And yet, you continue! I get unnerved just about catching the ferry on time for Martha's Vineyard photos. What a great writer and sport you are!

Marjorie Nichols

Cheap flights to Chicago May 8, 2012 at 5:11 AM  

If an express require extraordinary dispatch, the Man-Mountain shall be obliged to carry in his pocket the messenger and hors a six days' journey once in every moon, and return the said messenger back (if so required) safe to our Imperial Presence.

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blog (blŏg, bläg) n. 1. short for Weblog 2. online personal journal with reflections, comments, and often hyperlinks provided by the writer 3. diary that is posted on the Internet 4. an experiment to verbalize my observations about the status of photography. It will be eclectic & deal with philosophy & practice of this universal art form. It will strive for periodic commentary about issues many photographers face, like ownership and the economy. It will also talk about pictures and what makes good ones and how to get them. No hardware. No software. No recycled clichés. No whining.