Famed love stories tell of couples who could not bear to be apart for a single day. You might think such relationships rare, until you encounter an airplane full of Indians. I was reminded, on my return from Europe earlier in the week, that this nation is crowded with people whose devotion to their travel partners makes unendurable a few meters’ separation for the duration of a flight. I’ve been on connections so short the plane barely reached cruising altitude before commencing its descent, in which individuals frantically sought to swap seats in order to stay within touching distance of their loved ones. It was as if proximity provided some substance essential to existence.
If there was a substance essential to my existence, I would make sure of a supply before each journey. For some reason, the profound bond I have described is often accompanied by a cavalier attitude to acting on its imperatives. Inseparables think it is fine to turn up at the check-in counter when it is about to close, without any prior seat reservation. If they cannot be placed next to each other, well, they can always request other passengers to adjust.
Having learned a number of hacks related to independent budget travel, I maximise my chances of having an empty seat next to me when flying solo, while minimising potential inconveniences. On long haul planes with a 3-4-3 configuration, an aisle seat in the central block is the best bet. There is at most one person who will trip over you on the way to the loo in the middle of the night. Aisle seats in the other blocks have two such persons, and window seats mean there are two you could trip over. The places in the central block being EFGH, I choose one where EF or GH are already taken. The fourth place will then only be occupied if the flight is over 95% booked.
Heading home from Frankfurt, I was pleased, as the Lufthansa 747 filled up, that the G seat next to me remained vacant. About five minutes after the scheduled take-off, with the plane still on the ground, an attendant brought to my notice the desperate attempt of a woman to be reconciled with her aged mother. The tragedy of separation, preventable by a few clicks on the web hours previously, could now only be forestalled by a seat swap in which I sacrificed the empty G. Cursing my luck for being well brought-up, I took the switch.
Indians may be lax in reserving seats, but they make up for it with their enthusiasm for pre-booking wheelchairs. On my flight, it felt as if every desi above 60 had ordered assistance meant for invalids. When the boarding started, without exception, they strolled to the gate on two good feet.
There used to be a medical certificate requirement for those requesting wheelchairs. Enlightened activists got the provision dropped, which means one only has to declare oneself unable to walk in order to gain priority boarding, priority security checks, and priority immigration clearance. Which sensible Indian can resist abusing such a provision? Leave it to elderly Europeans, with their pride in being honest and independent, to tire themselves out during departures and arrivals.
Once seat-related issues are settled, the Indian mind turns to food. Not only do we have more food prohibitions than the rest of the world put together, frequent fliers are over-represented in the taboo category. I recall a flight on Emirates in that airline’s early days, when it offered a single vegetarian and non-vegetarian option on its India itineraries. A steward, faced with a passenger who spoke little English pointing to his food and shaking his head, kept repeating, “Those are mushrooms, vegetarian”, before imploring me to translate. I shrugged, reluctant to explain the intricacies of the Jain diet.
Airlines soon learned they could not operate in India without catering to food tastes and taboos. The Japanese prepare for these with characteristic meticulousness. On All Nippon Airways flights, attendants spend about an hour sticking colour coded swatches of paper to each seat while consulting the passenger list. Sadly, the Japanese method does not account for seat changes between members of tour groups. And so you have the harried attendant carrying a special meal to seat 30C, only to be told that passenger has moved to 44A, but is currently standing in an aisle chatting with a friend on 25F. European airline staff cope with the chaos by being straightforwardly rude to Indians, but that is unthinkable for the Japanese.
The most distressful aspect of Indian travel in any form, road, rail or air, is the toilets one must encounter. Enough has been written about the subject, but let me add this: I understand that the muscles of Indian men might be too weak for them to raise toilet seats. But are they so atrophied they cannot help direct a graceful arc into the centre of the receptacle? Using a tissue gingerly to raise a soused seat on the jumbo jet, I grew convinced that some Indians have sprinkler systems in their pants rather than conventional genitalia.
On landing, I dodged the dozen-plus wheelchairs and attendants waiting along the aerobridge to make my way into the familiar Bombay Terminal 2, which has won a number of awards for its design. I have no idea why. As a place to arrive, it is among the worst in the world, thanks to a horrid, paisley-patterned carpet that covers its considerable length. I’ve been told the carpet in Delhi’s Terminal 3 was an attempt to mask flooring that wasn’t ready in time for the Commonwealth Games. Bombay has no excuses, however bad. The ugliness of the carpet hardly helps, but my objection to it rests mainly on the fact that plush carpeting increases the force needed to pull wheeled baggage by a factor of at least 10. Sure, some of the route is covered by moving walkways, and there’s a bit of art to view along those, but the path to immigration is incredibly long. Only a sadistic designer would put such an impediment on the floor to welcome exhausted travellers, some of them too weak to raise toilet seats.
Next time, I think I’ll go for the wheelchair.