I, like every expatriate who flies thousands of miles a year both domestically and internationally, read the article Paying a Price for 8 Days of Flying in America, in the New York Times on June 9, by Sarah Lyall, about the gross indignities of air travel. 8 days, 12 flights, 1 journalist. All domestic flights.
It was a well written, funny article and I enjoyed reading it.
She seemed a bit whiny. In fact, I’ll go out on a limb here, a lot of people seem a bit whiny about air travel.
Yes, there are indignities involved when traveling and I do think it is ridiculous to see people, myself included, shuffling over filthy airport tiles in bare feet because our flimsy sandals are on a conveyer belt just in case we tucked a weapon between those Old Navy plastic pieces of junk. It is truly awkward to have a stranger give me a groin pat and quick feel under the wire of my bra, in public.
Yes, I wish I could fly while lying on a bed of rose petals, sipping champagne, while a private masseuse rubs violet essential oils into my now germ-ridden feet.
Sure, it would be awesome to have a steak dinner and handmade hot fudge sundae while zooming above the clouds.
We all want to walk on fairy dust and ride unicorns.
We all want to be treated like kings and queens and be first in line and get overhead space for our over-packed roller bags.
We can’t always get what we want.
I get it, air travel is no longer the realm of the exotic and the regal, sometimes it is barely the realm of the dignified. I get it, planes aren’t on time and luggage gets lost.
I have been in a seat with the person behind me wedging their knees into my back so I couldn’t recline. I’ve sat beneath overhead panels that dripped water on me incessantly throughout the flight. I have been in seats with broken entertainment systems on flights lasting more than thirteen hours. I have been delayed so that I missed my connecting international flight which meant a 2-day journey through three continents turned into a 5-day journey, including lost luggage. I have been thirsty and my stomach, dear God, my stomach has growled.
I would not call any of these things suffering.
I didn’t recline. Okay, it made a little crabby but no one died. No one even got cramps. I asked the flight attendant, who was empathetic about the dripping but unable to move me on the full flight, for a napkin and draped it over my lap and shoved another into the crack above me. I read a book and listened to music instead of watching a movie. I, and my two children, turned our epic 5-day trek into a memorable adventure that we now laugh about. I ignored my thirst and didn’t cry because I couldn’t meet my stomach’s needs in this exact instant with organic free-range gluten free paleo something. In other words, I put patience and perspective to work.
Traveling by plane is now for the masses, at least for more of the masses than it used to be. We aren’t treated like kings and queens while traveling and despite what our parents may have told us, we are not all kings and queens.
We pay to get across the country or the globe in a matter of hours and those of us in economy class paid less. So we get less but we still get to our destination. There are many people who have never flown in an airplane. Many people who can’t afford to soar above the earth, duck through clouds, watch lightening from above it, stare down at golden wheat fields and glittering cloverleaf freeway exits, and disembark in a totally new location. Many people never get to feel the surge of power forcing them back into their seat upon takeoff or the drop of their stomach during turbulence.
This is a privilege. Air travel is a privilege.
And, dare I say it, it is a privilege to sit in economy. To know that I have saved hundreds, thousands of dollars, and that I and the person in business class will both get off at the same place but I saved money and, if it is money I actually have, I can donate it to a friend in need, to my child’s college fund, or to a just cause – I find that satisfying. If it is money I don’t have, what have I lost, compared to the person in first class? I have lost ten minutes of time while boarding. I have lost a fancy meal. No problem. I packed a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and, again, I’m satisfied.
It is hard for me to justify paying for a seat that reclines to a bed or a monogrammed pillow on a three-hour flight when Syrian refugee families live in less space (more or less). It isn’t so bad, back here in economy. I’m flying. I’m seeing the world. I’m typing this while I sit here in my seat at the back of the plane. Here, where I have electricity, a movie, running water in the toilet, temperature controls, smiling flight attendants who ask if I want Coke, juice, water, coffee, milk? Almonds? Pretzels? Cookies? They only get crabby when we treat them poorly (don’t be an ass to flight attendants, flying tip #1). In other words, this seat has more amenities than the homes of some people I know in Djibouti.
In saying this, I’m not judging the person in Business Class. I have no idea what they do with their money or how they make their choices and I can feel legitimately happy for their comfort, or I can just ignore them and not let envy or judgment ruin the incredible experience of flight and of my own life. I’m simply saying I can find fulfillment in the lifestyle I can afford.
I realize this makes it all sound hopelessly dramatic, to make these kinds of comparison. But by looking up, toward people who have more and who will always have more, only stirs discontent and Americans, myself included, have become far too good at this. Don’t look ahead, don’t look behind. Look at your own self, your own seat, your own life.
Your brown-haired daughter snuggled on your lap, her head so heavy your legs fell asleep sometime over Chicago. Be glad you are sitting so close together, there aren’t many more years before she won’t want to lean on you anymore. Look at your husband, on the other side, his elbow poking into your ribs as he crosses waaay over his share of the arm rest. He keeps choosing you and your life together, over and over, even when you are mean or selfish or try to shove his elbow back over to his own side of the arm rest. Look across the aisle at those teenagers. They are going to college in a year and they are the best thing you have ever made, the best thing you have ever given to the world. Swallow the lump in your throat. That isn’t from turbulence, that is from contentment.
Yup, that can happen. Even back here, in economy class, boarding zone 3, last row of seats. It is enough.
Actually? We are kings and queens.
Yeeesssss!! I wrote about this earlier in the year, about the privilege of stress, and talked about a stressful flying experience and how, while it was awful, was still a privilege to even have travel stress! I love this! So much yes.
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hear, hear. i LOVE flying, and my family always eyes me askance when i voice this love, but for real: it feels like a miracle every time. and i may or may not be known for lecturing the adolescents beneath my roof about how high a privilege it is that we can traverse continents and oceans in a matter of hours (ok, well, days, but still), while so many folks never have the option of exploring beyond their 30km radius of life.
don’t get me wrong: when the kids were bitty things, it was fraught with stress. they kept losing the gum out of their mouths (chew with your mouth closed, people), or dumping the contents of their “child proof” sippy cups on my lap, but it allowed us to see grandparents and cousins, and now to live among friends who feel like family.
air travel is a privilege, and a high one at that. so well said, rachel.
Here, here! Well said.
Awesome! Live ya all!!
Yes! I don’t think we fly nearly as much as most expats, but we did a good bit of flying recently, and my general impression was that it was so nice and easy! (Of course, a lot of that was because our kids are older now.) Thank you for taking it a step further and deeper for me.
Very well said. As someone who has travelled for over 30 years for NGOs in what he affectionately calls ‘cattle class’ I agree entirely with the article. And on those very very very occasional and random upgrades – even more to be rejoicing about. Now once in an infrequent while, I’m the guy with his knees in your back Rachel. I want you to know that i wish you no harm or ill- I simply can’t get my legs under your seat. I’ve had a couple of 3 hour flights like that but have to say that the staff have tried to be really accomodating. The only time it really mattered was when I didn’t get an isle seat and no leg room and when I realised I’d lost the feeling below my knees – I got to the isle and promptly fell over like a drunk. Staff quickly identified the problem, and found a seat for me then – which was great- it was an 8 hour flight. In hundreds of flights there are going to be a few disappointments. Like Rachel I’ve learnt to mostly just suck it up and appreciate the wonderful and good things I can enjoy travelling economy