Checking us out
Tessa Mayes gets ticked off
As the flight to Prague took off, the air stewardesses started the usual run-through of the safety procedures. I turned yet another page of the in-flight magazine to keep calm, following a mini-panic concerning nothing at all apart from the fact that I was hundreds of feet above ground in cloudy sky. I concentrated on the comforting aspects (if the lifejacket doesn't inflate automatically there is always the plastic pipe to blow in to) and not the nightmarish ones (like, who needs a lifejacket after the plane has nosedived into the sea at high speed?).
Out of the blue, an air stewardess towered over me in the aisle. 'Are you Czechoslovakian?' she demanded. 'Errr...no', I mumbled. 'Do you know where your emergency exit is?' she asked fiercely. (What was this, a GNVQ test?) I pointed to the huge doors nearby. 'Right', she said, turning on her heels and disappearing for the rest of the flight with no explanation.
Was there a new passenger etiquette I didn't know about? If my answer had been wrong would she have made me sit in the corner facing the wall?
High-profile media cases of air rage have helped create a perception that the passenger is automatically suspect and untrustworthy. And with this mentality on board, airlines and their staff seem to find it harder to tell the difference between air rage and behaviour that is just plain disobedient. Thus naughty smokers who try to sneak a drag in the toilets can find themselves being manhandled and restrained as if they were putting a match to the fuel tanks.
New guidelines introduced by Japanese Airlines state that staff can tape over the mouths of passengers accused of verbal sexual harassment. In overreacting to a flirty joke, staff can transform passengers into troublemakers in a second.
It seems that the newly suspicious, interfering approach of airline staff can actually cause the problem it is meant to prevent. Recent headlines reported a 'violent drunk' jailed for three years after causing £30 000 worth of damage in 'the worst case of air rage'. Ian Bottomley's fury was ignited when a steward told him to stop looking at pornography on another passenger's laptop computer. But why should the steward be concerned with Bottomley's choice of viewing material?
Once, when subjected to delayed flights, cramped seats and disgusting airline food, you could bond with your fellow sufferers through a collective whinge. Now we are encouraged to keep a wary eye on the potential nutter in the next seat, while we shut up and sit quietly as an obedient member of the Smile High Club.
Reproduced from LM issue 122, July/August 1999