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     Volume 5 Issue 80 | January 27, 2006 |

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Food For Thought

Fear of Flying

Farah Ghuznavi

There are many who view air travel as a stressful experience. Interestingly enough however, their reasons for doing so can vary hugely. For example, you have the common or garden variety of person who is simply terrified of flying. Absurd, you say? Think about this carefully: 300 people are suspended in the air in an immensely heavy metallic craft in a way that seems to defy familiar concepts such as gravity. While in no way attempting to denigrate the marvels of modern technology, it is perhaps not that strange that some people retain a primitive scepticism towards the safety of taking to the skies...

Of course, in some cases, people have more rational reasons to dislike air travel. They think that the engine is making a strange sound, or that there are sparks coming out of the engines i.e., that the tenor of the flight has changed in some way. Indeed, the boffins at Heathrow airport have made a fortune out of a course which costs a pretty penny, but is apparently highly effective in persuading people how an aircraft might actually sound when it is in trouble, as opposed to how it sounds when we just think it's in trouble. Apparently the course has a very high rate of success in curing anxious travellers of their fears. Now of course, they just have to make sure that they don't hear any scary noises that they actually recognise!

Others have even more well-founded cause for fear. A colleague of mine remembers an incident many years ago - which he now regularly recounts to great laughter from an appreciative audience who are particularly glad that they weren't there at the time. Apparently, he had the misfortune of being on a smaller aircraft with a high proportion of both Bangladeshis and Pakistanis travelling on a particular flight. Some foolish altercation between two passengers of different nationalities quickly developed into a skirmish between the two groups, leading the aircraft to pitch wildly from one side to another in mid-air, while the hapless cabin staff (and the minority of sane passengers) shrieked at everyone to calm down - and more importantly, sit down!

Another friend described an incident on a flight to Calcutta, where a novice passenger apparently decided to see what would happen if he turned the handle of the emergency exit! Narrowly avoiding explosive decompression, whereby all the passengers could have experienced flying in quite a different way (i.e., freefall) by being sucked out of the cabin door, the valiant stewards managed to prevent the door from opening properly. However, somehow they were unable to close the door again firmly enough, so that two people held on to the door for the rest of the flight, while a third kept a sharp eye on the nutjob passenger, who couldn't understand why everyone was so upset over what, after all, was an honest mistake...

But if the cabin crew acquitted themselves with valour on that occasion, I regret to say that I must put forward a new reason to dread flying: mad cabin staff. It is perhaps an oversimplification to use the term "mad", since many of these individuals are not clinically insane, but merely suffer from borderline personality disorders (a condition, alas, far more widespread in society than we might like to believe). In the context of this article therefore, the term mad is used to cover a multitude of sins, and simply denotes a degree of bizarre or inexplicable behaviour.

In recent years, I have several times either directly experienced, or been a fascinated observer of such behaviour on the part of various airline crew members. In fairness, I must say that the airline least inclined to such behaviour (and I beg them not to take this statement as a challenge that they must disprove) is probably Emirates.

While fully acknowledging that airline passengers can be demanding and unreasonable, particularly when so many of them are packed into a small space, I believe that working in a service industry, unfortunately means that you have to provide service (not to mention, that the customer - however much of an idiot he or she might be - has to be treated at least politely). After all, they are paying handsomely for the privilege! In contrast to some airlines, whose crew members appear to have missed this rather vital point, I have frequently been struck by the fact that Emirates crew members generally try to be courteous, also to those who are often treated very badly by some airlines e.g. migrant workers or less sophisticated or non-English-speaking travellers.

Having giving credit where it's due, let's move on to the good stuff. On a recent flight with an airline which is fond of bragging about its popularity, a steward was serving soft drinks in plastic cups. When one passenger took a glass, and made the mistake of asking him what was in it, he left all of us speechless by taking the glass away from her and saying (in a very school-masterish way) "If you don't know what it is, why did you take it?" The astonished passenger replied, "I took it because you offered it to me! I assume it's safe to drink, I'm just asking what kind of juice it is. Why did you take it away from me?" The man replied, "If you don't know what something is, you shouldn't take it! So you can't have this!" And so saying, he stalked off to the galley with his tray.

In that case, I have to say that the personality disorder may have been full-blown rather than borderline, but there are many other cases which leave you wondering... Like one female cabin crew member I overheard telling a passenger to take her luggage out of the overhead locker and place it in another locker. The passenger tried to explain to her that she would do so, but that she had a back problem and needed her daughter (sitting in the middle seat) to help her do it.

Unfortunately, she didn't even get that far with her explanation, as the less-than-service minded stewardess brushed her off, saying, "Yes, I have a back problem too, so I certainly can't help you!" Sadly, she stalked off too quickly for me to ask her whether it was wise for airlines to hire people with such severe back problems that they cannot help passengers if the need arises! In that instance, the woman's daughter and another passenger were able to do the needful, but her embarrassment at this public rudeness was quite evident.

Finally, there are always those occasions where cabin staff members are not particularly reassuring in terms of competence. A friend of mine described how a steward explained the lack of water for washing in the toilets, on a flight from London to Dhaka. It was so cold outside, he told her, that the water in the tanks had frozen! Given that at high altitudes, temperatures are always that cold, this was hardly a convincing reply. Not to mention, that it raised the rather worrying question, as to whether the fuel in the tanks would then also start freezing...

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