How to get the best seat on a plane
Ever spent 15 hours stuck in the middle seat in economy class? Then this guide’s for you.
In the low lighting nobody notices the six-footer in an aisle seat is quietly sobbing. I’m on a long haul international flight in economy again and tearful only a couple of hours after take-off. This happens every time. Though not from discomfort or dissatisfaction or wishing to be further forward in the aircraft; I just end up in a state of heightened emotion.
It always begins with goodbyes after good times when people unabashedly express their feelings in case my plane crashes. Travel lets you know you’re loved but doing it often, when it’s your living for instance, requires strategies for all the comings and goings. I’m fine, I’m fine, I’m fine until the international departures gate where I realise I have no defences in place against the mini-melodramas of parting strangers.
We leavers will all pass through that gate carrying our feelings of separation, devastation, freedom, heartbreak, longing, anticipation. Then be channelled into queues and rooms and corridors and tunnels and compacted into increasingly decreased spaces.
In the no-electronic-devices customs line I usually read from a hard copy of The New Yorker in which even an article on political reform can be deeply evocative. Ahead are two points of intensity: immigration for mild interrogation or punchy conversation; and security. For undocumented reasons, speed and efficiency are paramount worldwide when publicly unpacking personal belongings, partly undressing and, if you’re one of the lucky ones, posing in a yawning cubicle with hands raised like antlers.
Up until this point we’re all in it together regardless of ticket type. But then there’s a peeling off to first and business class lounges while I find my way to a $5.50 takeaway coffee close to but not at my gate and settle into a string of chairs near a charging port to ring a parent or friend or get some personal admin done with music in my ears.
Walking onto the plane there’s that strange class-conscious parade through the business cabin when it seems any eye contact with someone already sitting down may be misconstrued as envy. Further back awaits a livelier group of travellers creating often unnecessary palaver as they settle into a more compact seating arrangement.
Yet anywhere on the plane holds the potential for a marathon heart-to-heart with your new neighbour or barely acknowledging each other until a dramatic lurch or bad landing forces spontaneous conversation.
By the time I’m in my seat I’m ready to eat. Economy meals indulge me the TV dinners I was denied as a child by parents who insisted on cooking nutritious food and encouraging dinnertime conversation. The compartmentalised courses, the possibility of a tiny chocolate bar hidden beneath the cutlery pack, a screen inches from my face – they never lose their shine.
Though love isn’t perfect. The person behind might clutch the seatback and my hair every time they get in and out or prod their screen thinking it needs the force of a manual typewriter. The economy toilets will probably be quite gross by flight’s end and I could do with an extra meal in there somewhere.
For these things I employ the art of Zen and try to see it all as training for the road. I figure if I can’t handle a non-stop 14-hour cushioned flight with food, drink and entertainment delivered to my seat then how will I be able to navigate my way across Hungary on an old bicycle, stay in a Papua New Guinean village, hike the Yukon wilderness midwinter.
I do, however, always sit on the aisle in case appropriated Buddhism fails and I need to make a quick getaway.
Love is also mysterious, and the older I get the more comfortable I am travelling this way. Even a karate kick in the head by a half-asleep three-year-old on my most recent long haul home was easy to take by simply imagining how much worse it was for his mother who just witnessed her three-year-old karate kick someone in the head.
In oh so many ways economy is not conducive to getting work done. I made a pact with myself a long time ago to fully embrace that rare and true luxury of enforced unproductivity.
Catching up on cinematic dramas in low air pressure while shooting through the atmosphere at crazy high speed tips me over the edge. I cry at everything I watch and think thoughts in the waking dark in a way I never do at any other time or in any other place. When I can’t stay awake any more I power nap then continue bingeing.
Hours into the flight, increasingly dishevelled familiar faces line up for the toilet in their socks. One or two desperately weary parents pace with a baby in their arms while a wailer in its bassinet is just audible over LA LA Land. Now we’re like a big family or a travelling band or circus and I feel remotely sentimental, and always upset if my movie isn’t over, when we land.
Maybe if you love the job the commute is always OK. But here’s where it gets really weird: I’ve been on the other side in the exclusive lounges and business class seats but I still prefer my convenient long-distance travel in the slight discomfort of economy. And why should that be a surprise when on the ground I want the local bus not the air-conditioned coach, the tuk tuk not the limousine taxi, the rattler on rails not the bullet train. To be where the characters are, the life is and where I’m allowed to work at least a little for my next destination.
Elspeth Callender flies economy both as a guest and at her own expense.