Sunday, March 05, 2006

If You're Thinking of Flying (Economy), Think Again

Judging from the last few posts, it seems like my blogging instincts are best triggered when I travel. I am starting to write this on my flight to India. Just a few hours back, I stepped onto the plane in Boston and took one of the cramped seats in economy with no legroom, with armrests that wouldn't move. As I strapped my seat belt on, I had ominous visions of being strapped on to an electric chair. Why, it soon became clear.

I had developed a cold yesterday. Now, this cold was the kind that gives you a running nose: a nose that runs more copiously than the Nile. I purchased three Kleenex packs, and sure enough, by half the flight, I had run through two of them. This cold was also the kind that gives you headaches and body-aches. Add that type of thing when you are trapped in a seat and can barely move, and the results are lethal: in fact, Guantanamo would be a breeze after this. If you want your terrorist to talk, expose him to common cold, strap him onto one of the economy seats on an international flight, and let him fly for, may be, two days. See if he doesn't spill his guts out.

I started feeling feverish after a while. I feared I might have contracted the bird-flu. As I fitfully slept, I had nightmares of waking up and coughing and spraying blood and viruses all over the other passengers, and then being quarantined in Amsterdam. I also realized I had to take a crap. Blame it on my stern upbringing, or call me stuck-up (as it were), but I am one of those squeamish folks who simply can't go in an airplane. So, in addition to my already nightmarish situation, I was now constipated. Just peachy.

Flying to India is like the journey of Moses and his people to the land of Canaan. Its long, arduous, and a great test of resilience. The Jews at least had their manna from heaven. All I got was undercooked schezuan chicken. My flight schedule looked like this: 8-hr flight to Amsterdam from Boston, 3-hr stopover; an 8-hr flight from Amsterdam to Mumbai, and then a stopover for 6.5-hrs; finally, a 2-hr flight to Bangalore. That's over 26 hours in transit.

Having reached Amsterdam without actually dying, or killing other people with my bird-flu virus, I was feeling a tiny bit better. Optimistic even, that with the worst behind me, I would make it. But my heart sank to the floor as I entered the KLM flight to Mumbai. The legions of seats were even more cramped than those on my earlier flight, if that were possible. It's like KLM decided to treat people flying to India (which translates to: Indians, mostly) a bit differently on their flights. The earlier flight at least had individual TV screens. The "in-flight entertainment" on this plane, however, consisted of images beamed onto the wall in front of the first rows of seats from a projector. What are we, in the 70's? Why this disparity, I ask the airlines.

I was feeling slighted (by the conditions on the plane), and debilitated (by the cold). Just when I thought things couldn't get worse, my ear, which was acting up because of the cold, started hurting as the plane changed altitudes. This was not the dull, throbbing pain I very rarely get when I have problems with air pressure at higher altitudes. This was like someone took a screwdriver and inserted it into my right ear to see how far it would go. Within minutes, involuntary tears were running down my face. I felt this urge to unbuckle myself, and storm out of the plane. Just as I reached the limits of my tolerance to pain, the hurting stopped. I collapsed, as much as that was possible, back into my seat, and almost passed out. I then slept -- long and hard. I woke up and was deaf in the right ear. As I write this, hearing has still not returned to my right ear.

As we approached Mumbai, I suddenly started feeling a sense of camaraderie with my fellow travelers: we had made it together! Then, I realized: it was not all over yet. I had the return journey in a couple of weeks. Best not to think of it until I had to experience yet. If I have my way, I will never again fly. At least, not economy.