For the last 30-plus years I have been a fairly frequent air traveller, mainly between the UK and Japan, but also within Europe. Over the years I have developed my flight kit, and my personal expectations of plane etiquette. For long-haul flights I always take a neck pillow and my own small blanket (I don’t think airlines clean the blankets after every flight, how could they?). I have a foldable water bottle, and a small plastic bag with toothbrush, moisturiser, eyedrops etc. I always carry my Kindle. For short-haul flights I can do without the neck pillow and blanket.
Plane etiquette: Of course I greet the person I’m going to be sitting next to, but after that I like to be in my own little bubble until just before the plane lands. After the travel to the airport and getting through luggage drop-off, hand luggage check, waiting at the gate, it’s nice to just unwind a bit. Unless you need me to pass you something or stand up so you can get past me I’d rather not have long conversations.
Several years ago, KLM announced some link-up with Facebook where you could search your flight for people who knew and then get seated next to them. No thank you. In all my years of travel there has been one occasion, only one, when my fellow passenger started talking to me before take off and I didn’t mind. We’ve stayed in touch, she’s a Facebook friend now, but that is the only time. (It was a December flight on Swiss Air, hello H if you’re reading this.)
In these 30-odd years I have also been a reasonably loyal customer, and have amassed air miles in a couple of frequent flier programmes. On a few occasions I have been upgraded, but it hadn’t happened for a while.
Last month I went on my annual visit to the Netherlands (more on that in another post). From Manchester to Schiphol is a very short flight, only about 50 minutes, barely time for the cabin crew to serve everyone a drink and clear up before we land. You take off, climb for a while, cruise briefly and then start to descend.
I checked in online, went to the airport, dropped off my bag and went to the gate (OK, I did make a brief detour through duty free and Costa Coffee). Just before boarding, they announced that the flight would be full and asked several passengers to come to the desk at the gate; one of the names they read was mine. They gave me a new boarding pass; I had been moved up to 1C from a few rows back. Oh what joy! It may be a very short flight, but a bit more space, being right at the front of the plane so I could get off ahead of everyone else, I was briefly happy with my lot.
The fun started when I got on the plane.
Sitting in seat 1A, the seat next to the window, was a British man in his late sixties or early seventies. Realising that I was going to be in 1C, he asked, would you like the window seat? I agreed to the seat swap, and as he settled into seat 1C he remarked, ‘I always sit in 1C.’ OK then. From there he didn’t stop talking until we landed at Schiphol.
Within a couple of minutes, he was telling me about his wife’s cancer and chemotherapy, his former life in South Africa, first as an engineer and then as a diamond dealer, (he was on his way to Antwerp that day), his reluctant return to the UK and disillusion with post-Apartheid South Africa, his own health concerns, including a recent colonoscopy (done by a doctor friend in Germany at no charge), how to book train tickets with the best app (the one I was relying on was not good, apparently); on and on he went.
I tried to avoid his conversation, first by pretending to doze. That didn’t work; I was poked awake for the snack (which is much nicer in business class). Later I pulled out a newspaper but he read over my shoulder and commented with some relish about the article on North Korea. I mentioned then that yes, it was concerning, particularly as I live in Tokyo. I thought he might find that interesting, but no, he ignored it completely. I was just the person he was talking at for the duration of the flight. Later I turned and looked out of the window, noting with some relief that I could see wind turbines in the sea, so we must be approaching the Dutch coast.
Just as I was thinking, oh thank goodness, a bit of peace, a hand snaked forward from the passenger in 2A. He poked me on the arm and said, ‘It’s a nice view, isn’t it?’ I gave up and asked a member of the cabin crew for a cup of tea, which was brought in a white china mug instead of the usual plastic cup. ‘Aha!’ said the man next to me, ‘I knew it! You’re from Yorkshire! My wife is from Yorkshire and is always drinking tea.’ Through gritted teeth I answered, ‘North East Derbyshire’. Of course, he didn’t hear me.
Finally, we landed at Schiphol, taxied, then got off the plane onto a bus to go to the terminal. Mr. Chatty picked up his briefcase, deplaned (as they say), hopped on the bus and started talking at someone else. It wasn’t me, it was him.