God's Own Airline!

I think it will be fun to have a worldwide contest where every airline staff is given the same uniform to wear and no one is allowed to display any logo. Then, we play a game of 'Guess Who?'. The point I am trying to make is that most airlines are the same. From check-in, to boarding, to pre-flight announcements to their food! The leaders create and the followers ape and it takes only a few months for everyone to do what the other guy is doing up in the sky.

That however does not mean that all plane rides are the same. Most are. But if you are not a pilot or a flight attendant and still averaging 50 flights a year, you can come up with at least a small list of unforgettable flying moments. I remember most of the the times I've been generously upgraded to first-class especially on long-haul flights.Though, those memories are a bit pale compared to the time we were about to touchdown and the pilot aborted the landing and the plane took off again. But, flying is still my favourite way of travelling. Its quick, convenient, it can take you across long distances. And as a pilot's daughter I also know - it is the safest! Though, I have had my moments of cynicism. 

In 2006, I was summoned to Dhaka to do a presentation to travel agents there. For those of you who do not know where this city is – it is the capital of Bangladesh – yes that tiny little country located on the north-east of India (the same one that thrashes India in cricket)! Anyway, while I toyed with the idea of flying business class - that was all of US$40 more than the economy fare - my travel agent went ahead and issued my ticket. 

I waded through a circus at Kolkatta airport where everything was manual and my baggage tags were stapled to my boarding card and a “good seat” 6A was chosen from the seat chart for me (yup these things still happen around the world). I boarded the plane – it was a Fokker F28! I had never seen a passenger aircraft like this in my entire travel life! Now to have a guy as old as you chatting you up is one thing, but sitting in an aircraft that is as old as you is quite another!

The inside of the aircraft was imaginatively done up – the air vents were stuck with brown tape – definitely a first for me. When the engines started and the aircon was switched on, the moisture collected around the air-vent and started to drip. A child in the plane said to his mother – “look mama it’s raining inside the plane!”

And, the business class! Wait a minute, what a business class? The first two rows of the aircraft were business class – that’s it! There was no difference in service, seats or anything else – just row 1 & 2 were business class and I figured that people probably pay that $40 extra to sit closer to the emergency exit!

It was time to shut the stowaway bins but one of them was so badly behaved that it refused to shut. After a dozen failed attempts, the steward came and asked the passenger seated just below that bin to get up. He took off his shoes, climbed on the seat and started hammering the nuts and bolts of the bins. His engineering stunts paid off and after a few minutes the bin was shut tight. Well, I didn’t wait to find out if it opened again after the flight had landed.

The safety demonstration began with God’s name. Now, that made me a bit uncomfortable. The stewardess announced that it would be a 30 minute flight and ‘God willing’, we will make it to our destination… on time, she may have added that just for our comfort.

Midway through the flight, I felt something crawling on my arm - it was a tiny cockroach. The passenger next to me, who travelled this route every week, comforted me by saying that we would be now landing in a few minutes, and therefore a fuss about what I had just discovered was not required. Then, I spotted, what I thought was the parent of this pest on the other side ‘Look, a bigger one, now can I scream?’

He was friendly. He tried to comfort me and offered me free advice at every point. He recommended that I skip the on-board meal. "Drink only the coke - because it is canned." 
I felt every cloud and air-pocket. It was a bumpy ride. And emotionally strange. Life and time become a weird combination at times like these - every second seems like an hour and yet your mind seems to work faster than it should. Random thoughts of your loved ones zip in and out. Mundane moments of your life become meaningful. A very long thirty minutes indeed that thankfully  ended – without incident!
I met my host at the airport. He greeted me enthusiastically. He told me that the airline had a hundred per cent safety record. I think he was trying to be funny by saying that it was the case because 'God looked after it'. Much later I would find out that the airline flying these vintage planes - didn't have an accident free record. Plus, I guess safety records are meaningless anyway - an accident is an accident and it can happen to anyone - on a train track, on the road, on the high seas or in the air!
The grand finale really presented itself the following morning at the presentation. We had a turnout of 40 travel agents. Many would say that it is a successful turnout for Dhaka. But I think my presentation was a failure. No one understood it becasue hardly anyone spoke or followed English.

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