Flying: Sit Back and Relax

Plane trips are a territorial battle, complete with armrest assaults and seatback skirmishes
There is a special room in hell where the flames are extra hot and you must sleep sitting straight up. The sign on the door says “Reserved for People Who Reclined Their Seatbacks the Entire Flight”. Most of us understand the discomfort we are inflicting on the poor person behind us and try to limit our reclining for the lights-out portion of the flight. If everyone leans back together, in the manner of a synchronised, unattractively upholstered Esther Williams swim routine, no-one is unfairly crowded.

I had a seatback diva in front of me last week. We were barely airborne, and there she was in my lap. Using my computer would now entail making a slit in my belly flab and inserting the front half of the keyboard, so that the bottom row of letters was rendered inaccessible and I’d have to make do without the words banana, vixen, balaclava and many other colourful favourites.

Defeated, I tried to watch the little TV mounted in the seatback in front of me. Alas, the screen was so close that my eyes were crossing. The TV chef had become a set of perfectly choreographed twins, which is one or possibly two more celebrity chefs than I can handle.

In desperation, I turned to my copy of the in-flight catalogue and began to read. A mail-order company was selling “the Most Compact Washing Machine in the World” – enabling, I don’t know, elves to do laundry in their tree. “Tiki Head Tissue Box Dispenses Tissue Through the Nose!” another ad reported.

“Who would buy this?” I said to the man in the middle seat, but he was busy waving down a flight attendant. “Miss?” He was holding up his knees. “Is there room in the overhead locker for these?”

We hit a pocket of turbulence and Bloody Mary mix slopped onto the chinos of the man next to me.

I pointed out the Most Compact Washing Machine in the World. “You need this,” I said. The man did not smile. His expression was just like the Tiki Head with tissues up its nostrils, displeased and clearly embarrassed yet resolutely stoic.

More and more, you must board a plane like a general going to war. You must constantly defend your wee, airless kingdom. The occupier of the next seat will make his move on your armrest the moment your vigilance flags. You will return from the toilet to find an elbow planted in the little vinyl peninsula.

The battle for armrest dominance has grown ever more intense in the era of the laptop computer. The airliner seat, designed to be a chair but never very good at it, is now expected to perform double duty as an office. Soon people will be bringing fitness equipment and hobby craft aboard, and the company that makes the elfin washers will need to get started on looms and rowing machines.

Complex rules apply to the space beneath your seat. Not long ago, I was on a long flight when I was woken by the woman behind me.

“Excuse me?” She was holding up a plastic juice cup. ,i>“Excuse me? This is coming in my section.” I had put my empty cup under my seat and it had slid backward, crossing an imaginary line in the carpet. She was peeved. Her eyes were squinty and her nostrils flaring, as though about to dispense tissues through the nose.

People were staring, so I took the cup. Later that night, a pantyhosed foot made a stealth assault on the back of my right armrest. It was her: the Juice Cup Border Patrol.

“Excuse me?” I nudged the foot ungently. “This is coming in my section.”

Several hours went by without incident. I was beginning to drift off when I heard a driving, tinny noise: ch-ch, ch-ch, ch-ch, ch-ch... The woman had mobilised the most fearsome weapon in the modern jet arsenal: the Overly Loud Headphones. I waved my hot towel in surrender.
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