We take state-of-the-art inflight entertainment entirely for granted these days, as many airlines have hundreds of movies, televisions shows and games, all on-demand, in their systems; and some really forward thinking airlines like Turkish AirlinesandIceland Aireven offer free WiFi in the sky for their business class passengers.
But this was not always the case. Once upon a time, inflight entertainment was quite limited onboard airlines, so passengers actually had to talk to each other.
There was once a time when people actually talked to their seatmates on airline flights — perhaps because there was little else to do.
Major international airlines then didn’t offer the smorgasbord of in-flight entertainment they do today. Business class seats, too, were still configured for congeniality rather than privacy. And notebooks— the paper kind—were the standard carry-ons.
Socializing was the other activity travelers looked forward to, as an acceptable way of relieving the long flight’s ennui.
On a trip to London from Asia in my first year out of college, I met Alastair, a proper Englishman who called himself a wine broker and who worked for one of London’s centuries-old wine merchants.
We were seated next to each other in business class on a Cathay Pacific flight from Hong Kong to London.
Sometime before dinner, the airline announced a special treat of fine wines to be served.
I was never much of a tippler, but the prospect of a 14-hour flight with not much else to do induced me to indulge in a glass or two.
NO WINE FOR ME, THANKS
I noticed that Alastair asked only for sparkling water.
“You’re not drinking,” I began. “Is this a health thing?” He replied: “Certainly not. I actually like wines. It’s just that I never drink anything young.”
We could not be more different, but we became fast friends and still occasionally meet for dinner in Tokyo or London. Even now, when I have a question on wine, he’s happy to advise and act as a sounding board.
A FLIGHT TO PARIS WITH BAD FOOD BUT GREAT CHEESE
Meanwhile, on another flight to Europe in the early 1990s, I met a Frenchman originally from Senegal, who was a marketing executive for one of France’s famous cheese companies.
We started talking because the in-flight supper was just awful.
“I can’t eat this,” he said. “This isn’t food.”
He pushed away his tray table. I nodded at him sympathetically, as I didn’t like the sorry excuse for a chicken dish that passed for a main course in business class either.
He then took out a leather attaché case from the overhead compartment and opened it on the rack between us. It was a specially made case with spaces for six round tin containers and six knives. Each tin container held a sampling of delectable cheese.
“Our very best cheeses,” he said, like a proud father showing off photographs of his children. “Now all we need are crackers, and I think the airline can manage that.”
By the time we reached Paris, the tins were empty and we were laughing like old friends.
IT’S A GOOD THING I TALKED TO HIM
This was most fortunate for me, too, as a transportation strike had crippled Paris and nothing was moving out of Charles de Gaulle airport.
If I had undertaken nothing more than the short perfunctory greeting I am more inclined to give a stranger seated next to me these days, I would probably have been stuck at the airport until the next day.
As luck would have it, he was able to give me a lift to my hotel in the company car.
NO NEED FOR A MOVIE
FROM TOKYO TO NEW YORK
The best story, however, deserves to be told last.
On a flight from Tokyo to New York one day, I was seated next to an American couple who had just visited Tokyo and Kyoto for their honeymoon.
When I reached my seat, they were the picture of marital bliss, holding hands and smiling at everyone.
Prior to cocktails, they showed me trinkets they had bought at a Kyoto shrine and Polaroid shots of schoolgirls in Goth attire walking down Harajuku in Tokyo.
Over dinner, unfortunately, they began arguing. By the time I was enjoying my dessert, this had escalated into a full-blown battle that culminated with the wife throwing her raspberry cake at her husband.
THE RELUCTANT FAVOR: CHANGING SEATS ON A FLIGHT
The husband was just about to retaliate with a half-eaten garlic roll when the wife suddenly turned to me and said: “Can you do me a big favor?” I was almost afraid to respond, after what I had just witnessed.
But the wife continued, “Would you be kind enough to sit in between us? I don’t think I want to sit next to him anymore.”
What exactly do you do, when asked something like this? Without waiting for a response, she stood up expectantly and so I was forced to stand up as well and let her have my seat.
FROM TOKYO TO NEW YORK
I blame this instance of being unable to say ‘no’ on my youth, as this also happened ages ago. And therefore I spent the remainder of the very long flight playing Switzerland to a warring couple.
They never made up inflight, and I remained quiet for the flight’s duration, fearing that my being nice to one would provoke the other.
To top it all, my headphone system conked out and the flight was full. Without any spares, I could only ponder my unhappy fate as the buffer between two tempests.
When we finally landed at JFK Airport in New York, they left by separate aisles without even a word of thanks.
Yet when I finally cleared immigrations and was heading for the luggage carousel, I spied them sharing a trolley and pushing it with arms linked together, smiling sweetly at each other like newlyweds are supposed to do.
You can imagine my surprise at this instant flipover, although I was happy for them, of course.
THE GOOD OLD DAYS
Interestingly, I travel so much these days that I’m on a plane at least twice a month.But I’ve never had experiences like these that I’ve just related from two decades ago. Those were certainly the good old days of real in-flight entertainment, and it was certainly already a never-ending Travelife.