On a wing and a prayer
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Six flights in 10 days. Not a patch on what the real road warriors notch up, but a wee bit taxing for long-in-the-tooth headhunters who have just started their 25th year on the road.
When they clip your boarding pass, the staff sternly tells you to have a good flight. And they should be stern, as a good flight is increasingly an act of God. My idea of a good flight no longer just involves champagne, a good movie and being told I have lovely eyes by cute flight stewards.
I have now taken to carrying that ridiculous toilet seat-shaped travel pillow wherever I go. Now a great flight is one where you fall asleep on boarding, waking only to the hard-landing bump-screech-wild braking that announces that you are back home in Mumbai. Or even better still, waking to the soft hiss of tyres on tarmac and an English-accented voice gently announcing that you have touched down at London’s Heathrow.
But a good flight starts well before the flight itself and requires all sorts of events to occur—or not to occur.
A good flight starts when you make it to the airport in time, in spite of your spouse’s pathological fear of being early. When you don’t spend eight minutes behind a chap fussing over his ID only to discover that he is at the wrong terminal. When the platinum check-in line hasn’t been taken over by a large group of travellers. When your assistant didn’t forget to pre-book your seat and meal, and if she did, if an aisle seat is still somehow miraculously available.
A good flight generally involves a pre-printed boarding pass and no checked bags that can be delayed or lost. Bit rare, since my mother completely disregards my day job as a headhunter and believes that I basically run a personalized courier service between London, Delhi and Mumbai. I once carried a lawnmower on the LHR–BOM sector. I kid you not.
When a whole decade after 9/11 the chap in front of you at the X-ray doesn’t have two bottles of Johnnie Walker tucked into his cabin baggage (Why is it always Johnnie Walker? Do they sell it to you saying “Boss, yehi lo. Sabse achha. Bilkul x-ray proof”?) It’s when they don’t decide to send you back to take off your shoes. And if they do, then when the pat-down doesn’t resemble an invasive medical exam.
When your boarding card doesn’t fly into the crevice under the magazine display stand, causing 20 people to gather and video your attempts to get it out, before you give up and go back to getting a new boarding pass, requiring you to redo the joyous security and immigration process. Yes, been there, done that.
A good flight is when you have boarded the plane in a semi-civilized manner, without being out of breath because the gate was somewhere near Alaska or because you had to sprint the last 500 metres because your spouse’s innate Punjabi optimism that three minutes to schlepp across terminals is perfectly doable. It’s great when the sprint is on a non-slip tiled floor rather than those ugly carpets that test the drag factor of your roll-on luggage.
It’s good when you have time for a quickie at the lounge (yes, of course I meant a foot massage). When someone you bump into at the lounge says you look “just the same”, after a dozen years. When you don’t get denied boarding because you look nothing like your photo ID (happened to a colleague, last week). It’s great when you don’t actually look as bad as your passport picture.
As you board the plane, as my friend Hemant Luthra (often) says, a good flight is when you turn left instead of right. A good flight is when that client you have been chasing down for months is serendipitously seated next to you. A very good flight would be when they size you up, give you a small size sleeping suit—and it fits! And a great flight when George Clooney (or lookalike) is seated next to you and feeling chatty (no, that one hasn’t happened. One can hope, though).
When you do turn right on boarding, however, it’s quite the religious experience. You learn to pray, to take the name of the lord in vain, and you learn to count your blessings.
It’s when you don’t have to do the “walk of shame” through business class, past a competitor smugly ensconced in his business-class seat. Or when there is an empty seat next to you, and you don’t have to do the elbow tango with your invariably large neighbour who doesn’t understand the concept of personal space. It’s great when that large person has remembered to use deodorant, and even better when he remembered to stop using deodorant after the third puff.
It’s good when the flight is only half an hour late, but not on that day when you are strapped in and dying to use the toilet. It’s when the aircraft toilet also doesn’t stink. When you are not seated near the aircraft toilet. When you are not hopping on one leg for 20 minutes outside the loo because some idiot has decided that the toilet is his personal cabin space. When he remembers to flush before he exits. Hallelujah.
You pray as you board, that there will be no wailing child anywhere on the aircraft. Okay then, let’s negotiate, within 10 rows will do. Or God forbid, if there is one just behind you, then it’s not the multitasking type—i.e. not crying, kicking your seat and pulling your hair all at once. When the person in front of you doesn’t unexpectedly recline his seat just as soon as your beverage has been placed on your tray table, and your laptop is on your lap. I literally have that T-shirt, and it has a large coffee stain on it.
It’s a good flight when your choice of meal is available. And great, when it’s actually heated, and edible. And when the plane doesn’t run out of food, five hours before landing—on a 16-hour flight (happened to me, in March).
Did I mention religious experiences? It’s good when there is just that much turbulence that you pray, and resolve to be a better person if you survive. It’s great when the turbulence doesn’t send the big chap waiting to use the loo lurching into your lunch and lap.
When the temperature is just right, the blanket isn’t smelly and your phone doesn’t get stuck in the chair mechanism—or fall and slide off into the back of the plane on taking off (been there too).
The good flight experience continues, when you land. When there is a parking bay immediately available. When the aero-bridge isn’t sulking and immediately couples with the plane on the first try. When there is an aero-bridge. When you do have to take the bus and it’s not pouring outside. And if it is raining, then the buses are all lined up and ready. And it does not count as an on-time arrival if there is a 20-minute bus ride past half of Dharavi to get to the terminal.
When the gate is near the exit. And when your line at immigration moves faster than that supercilious competitor in the fast-track lane. When no stern-looking Thai police has decided you are a potential drug mule. And then when your mother’s courier consignment appears first on the belt, without the dreaded white chalk cross. A great flight is when you don’t break a freshly manicured nail wresting the earlier-mentioned lawnmower off the belt.
These days it’s a good flight when only the prices are unbeatable, and not the customers. It’s a great flight when the staff is not slippered and you are not dragged out of the plane on your back. And fabulous when you actually collect the $800 free flight voucher when you pass go.
It’s not easy, this have-a-good-flight business. I’m boarding now. Wish me luck.
Sonal Agrawal is managing partner at executive search firm Accord India.