Thursday, 27 September 2012

A Sudden Reduction in the Number of Wings by Zoë Sharp

Next week sees the start of the Bouchercon Mystery Convention 2012. I, along with many hundreds of other crime fiction fans and authors, will be making my way to Cleveland Ohio for the event.

And for the majority of us that means entrusting ourselves to <gasp> the airlines.

Let’s face it, unless you’re one of the rarified few who happens to have a sparkly new LearJet 85 on permanent standby, this means entering the special hell that is today’s modern airport.

Passengers―who are so often viewed as a necessary evil only there to make the day-to-day running of the airline more difficult―are extruded from plastic check-in desk, via Duty Free shopping to plastic departure gate, and squirted down a toothpaste tube onto a plastic aircraft, where they’re told to sit down, shut up and don’t annoy the staff before being fed plastic food with plastic cutlery.

Last month I flew to Greece, into a tiny airport with only two gates. (Well, if I’m being picky it had actually two doors leading from the same lounge.) No tubes, we merry passengers were actually trusted to amble across the tarmac without behind shepherded every step of the way to our waiting aircraft. It had real steps to front and rear doors, with a charming lady checking seat numbers who instructed those sitting closer to the rear of the plane they needed to go “Back side!” to climb aboard.

Ah, it all takes me back to a simpler time.

But the reality of next week’s flight will be having to remove half my clothes to get through security, and allowed to carry on board only a micro amount of anything even vaguely squishy, never mind actually liquid. I’m not looking forward to having to clear Immigration in Atlanta and then make an onward flight for Cleveland. Or trailing luggage single-handed along miles of tiled corridors.

But actually being in the air? That I do still enjoy. For one thing, the views are stunning, of mountains and landscapes that are totally different from the way they appear on the ground. Even the most industrial cities have a certain beauty from the air.

I’ve had some ‘interesting’ flights, sure. I’ll draw a veil over making an unscheduled approach into JFK with one engine shut down and rows of fire engines lining each side of the runway, or the ground crew having to clear the runway of sheep so we could set down by helicopter in the Scilly Isles off the Cornish coast.

Mostly, I think the memorable flights are down to the cabin crew―good or bad. There was one dominatrix on American who came round with the food cart and growled, “Chicken or beef?”

When I had the temerity to ask for more information about the chicken dish, she put her hands on her hips and said, “Honey, it’s airline food. It’s chicken. Cluck, cluck.”

But the best in-flight service is done with style and humour and for that SouthWest wins hands down. I’ve heard better stand-up comedy routines on SouthWest flights than on Open Mic nights, that’s for sure. Here are a few pearls:

 “We don’t anticipate any problems with our aircraft today … or I would have called in sick!”

“If you’re travelling with children ― we’re sorry. Fit your own oxygen mask before helping them. If you’re travelling with two children, pick the one you like best. If you don’t like either of them, at least pick the one with the most potential …”

Whispered over the mic after a late-evening takeoff, with the cabin lights low: “You are all feeling very sleepy… You don’t want any drinks… Nuts give you gas…”

“When you leave the aircraft please ensure you have all your belongings with you … or they’ll be on eBay tomorrow …”

And there was that wonderful safety briefing skit on an old UK comedy show called Not The Nine O’Clock News that included the line:

“In the event of an emergency there will be a loss of cabin pressure and a sudden reduction in the number of wings …”

So, Hardboiled Crew, what horror stories or moments of comedy do you have to report from your forays into the air? Come on, give me something to look forward to!

This week’s Word of the Week is propugnation, from Shakespeare, meaning a defence, from the Latin pro for, and pugnare to fight.


  1. We recently flew to the midwest, and on our return flight Beth had a jar of jelly in her suitcase (a present for her mother). TSA had a rather lengthy discussion before they decided to let her carry it on board. The funny part was the advice she got: "Next time, freeze the jelly. Then it's a solid and you won't have any problems."

    1. Freeze it? Really? That's priceless! I once had some small jars of jelly (a gift from the convention I'd been to) taken away from me at an airport as possible explosives. The security guy then dropped them four feet into the bottom of a steel litter bin. Hmm, so he was really worried they might explode then, wasn't he ...?

  2. Delighted that you'll be at Bouchercon, Zoe! If your schedule permits, please visit the Noir@thebar reading at the Wonderbar (near the host hotel)on Friday from 7-8 pm by a group of Snubnose Press authors.

    1. Hi Les

      How could I resist a bar with a name like that? I'll definitely try to stop by. See you there :)

  3. I traveled too much over the last couple decades, leaving the airports behind just a few months ago. I had Chairman's club perks and several vacations to show for it. I never once had a serious problem and only 2 (out of ~1,000) flights were cancelled.

    The only thing I miss about air travel was the focused time it afforded me to read. I've enjoyed hundred of books. Too bad I hadn't discovered Charlie Fox back then or I'd have finished the lot by now.

    Peace, Seeley

    1. Hi Seeley

      Sounds like you had a charmed flying life. I have a card that gives me access to the executive lounges, and I'm lucky enough to be flying near the front for this trip to the States, which will make it a slightly more relaxing experience, I hope! Won't make airport security any more fun, though. I hate those full-body scanners. (Note to self: must work out more ...)

      Hope you still get enough time to catch up with Charlie, though :)

  4. I once flew into Manchester airport. Shortly before landing the captain came on the intercom and told us that we would see fire engines and ambulances at the side of the runway. We should not be alarmed as there had been a small fire in the air conditioning unit which had now been extinguished and the emergency services were only there as a precaution.
    I was sat near the back of the plane and looking forward you could see a Mexican wave of heads lifting as people smelled the electrical fire.
    Thankfully everything turned out fine bu being on a plane in the early nineties and hearing the words fire and Manchester in the same sentence was not pleasant.

    1. Hi Graham

      Scary experience. People tend to treat fire a little too lightly for my liking. Glad you escaped without getting even mildly singed!

      Years ago my parents were on a plane in Germany which was delayed waiting for a connecting flight. The captain mistranslated the word 'aircraft' into 'machine' and from that it came out as 'engine'. People were not reassured to be told that, "Zee delay iss due to zee late arrival of zee engine ..."

  5. Probably my most annoying flight was spending two hours on the tarmac at Heathrow while the fellow sitting in front of us read aloud the Times story on BA's shoddy mechanical record (then having Titanic inflicted on us -- the horror, the horror). But I remember being in Helsinki when the whole liquids business started -- the DAY it started. No liquids in the cabin. I held up the two bottles of berry liqueur you can only get in Finland. "I just bought these in the airport and you're telling me --" They insisted they go in the cabin. I had a nylon bag and a reindeer skin to wrap them in and I was flying into JFK. >_< Would you believe they survived?!

  6. "insisted they go in the" hold, of course.

    1. Wow, Kate, you were so lucky there. When I was still doing a lot of photography I had airline staff trying to insist my camera gear went in the hold. No. Way. So, as retribution, I think they tried to run the plane over my tripod. It still bears the dents and scars :)

  7. worst flight experience? A 1 yr old son. Manchester to NY. wiggly fingers. passenger in front wearing headphones and being possessed of unfortunate brillo pad/ sheeps wool type hair. fingers enmeshed, whiplash inducing yanking ensued, man nearly had heart failure as he was completely lost in a movie and had no idea what hit him! result: 5 hours of feeling very apologetic, and verrry grateful when the boy finally fell asleep!