Amusing story about a flight in Russia and an airline seat

While writing the last blog entry I remembered an amusing story about an airline seat that was told by a man who took part in a TV documentary quite a few years ago now about air travel in Russia. This didn’t actually happen to me and I don’t know the person who was being interviewed, but I have been on so many outrageously dangerous flights in developing countries that I can believe it.

In the early part of the 1990s when Eastern Europe and Russia were opening up to foreign travel it was a bit of a Wild West frontier. I spent time in Siberia among many other places and often air travel would be on one of the ‘Baby Flots’. These were essentially regional airlines that grew out of the Russian state-owned monopoly Aeroflot. When the Wall came down in 1989 and the former USSR began to break apart, newly autonomous countries acquired the airframe assets that were grounded on their territory at the time. As a result there was a plethora of newly created airlines, most of which don’t exist today and frankly most of which paid scant attention to safety and maintenance. This story was told by a man being interviewed about the more outrageous travel experiences of this interesting period.

If I recall correctly he was a consultant with one of the big firms who had been doing a lot of work in Eastern Siberia. I am assuming he was doing exactly the same thing that I was at the time, namely traveling in to Sheremetyevo to the north of Moscow, which was where most international flights went in those days and crossing the city to the south of Moscow to the world’s largest airport, Domodedovo, where the majority of domestic flights to all points east departed from. Russia covers eleven time zones, so flights to the farthest parts of Siberia take many hours. It was without a doubt one of the world’s worst places to be, but that is the subject of another story for another time. The man’s wife said she was keen to see where he worked and so he agreed to take her on one of his trips. She must have had a death wish is all I can say. They made the journey to Domodedovo and eventually boarded their flight. But when she sat down, there was no seatbelt. I can confirm that this was often the case. The seatbelt was either missing or it didn’t work and after a while you didn’t bother to point this out to the cabin crew, because they didn’t care anyway.

You have to picture the scene. You are boarding with a mad crowd of people who are traveling with everything from designer bags to jars of pickled mushrooms and even the odd chicken, intent on bagging the best seat. You needed to be part of the rush, in a sort of pre-Easyjet frenzy, because no one gave a damn about the seat allocation rules. British Airways it was not. It is an extraordinary fact that when surly and rotund passengers well insulated in layers of clothes against the minus 30 degree cold are really putting their mind to getting a good seat, their bodies become lethal weapons suddenly sprouting elbows and knees like spears. The one good thing about being a foreigner was that on the odd occasion when someone did mount an indignant complaint about the fact you were in their window seat, you could just look blankly back, not understanding a word. Of course there is a kind of internationally recognised set of sign languages that are pretty obvious. Particularly, an overwrought Russian woman who has angrily fixed you in her sights and is jabbing her finger frenetically at her boarding pass. In fact I once shared my seat with a St Bernard and a rottweiler, both of whom followed me up the steps of the aeroplane in the snow. The rottweiler started the flight by sleeping on the floor beside my feet, but shortly after take-off he sauntered off to the galley, where he cornered the stewardess. Every time she tried to move he let out a low growl and she froze. She was still there when we landed hours later, at which point he walked over to the steps and exited the flight. His friend, at least they seemed to know each other, slept on the seat beside me. I am assuming they were some sort of frequent flyers.

But back to our story about the man and his wife. He gallantly swapped seats with her and she happily strapped herself in, now confident of the security afforded by an Aeroflot seat located in the jewel of the Russian aviation industry, a Tupolev 154 airframe that probably left the factory some twenty years previously. Its little sister, the shorter range Tu-134, used to come complete with a dual purpose glass nose cone. The popular myth was that this was so that in another life it could double up as a medium range bomber with somewhere for the bomb aimer to sit. Actually it was for the navigator when operating as a military plane in difficult terrain. But it was a good story.

Aeroflot Tupolev Tu-154

I can just imagine the scene now. The trusty Tu-154 workhorse trundled to end of the runway and the pilot revved her up and let out the hand brake. At which point the wife’s seat is pitched backwards into the lap of the passenger behind. Someone had removed the bolts that secured it to the floor.

Nowadays in the time of a safety-obsessed airline industry, you may find this story hard to believe. But let me assure you that, stripped of the dramatic license, it is a true story and there are many more like it. Incidentally, the stewardess of the enforced detention in the galley with the rottweiler fame, well her absence during the flight didn’t have an especially detrimental effect on the general service level in the cabin. There would always be one female member of the crew who stood apart from the others in terms of her good looks and sulky attitude. She was the one who seemed to have just one relaxed purpose in life, to occasionally push a trolley along the aisle during the flight, dispensing for a price toiletries, the odd bar of chocolate, cigarettes and other useful sundries. I don’t think they liked dogs very much.

If you are at all nervous about flying, then for goodness sake do not look at this website and do not look-up the aeroplane you are about to fly on.

Things to hate about travel (4) – the reclining seat

I have had a short rest from travel over the Christmas and New Year break … Happy New Year by the way. But here I am back on a flight and suffering from another of those ‘things to hate about travel’ moments. This time it’s the passenger in front who reclines their seat. I don’t know whether it is because I was brought up to go through life respecting others and trying not to make a nuisance of myself, but it is an increasing challenge to be charitable to the fellow traveller who does not know how to behave. This particular one can be agony on a cramped short-haul flight, but is enough to send you rushing for the emergency exit on longer journeys. Passengers who do this thoughtlessly are the epitome of selfishness and, I think, are secretly not as frequent a traveller as they would like to make out. I have noticed that the worst offenders are often those who are sitting in a bulkhead row and already have plenty of space themselves. It works like this. You’ve noticed the person in front is large enough to have an impact on your personal space. Usually it is their unattractive head that pokes up above the line of the headrest in front. Then, just when you have your laptop open on the tray table or that moment when your drink is still just too full to withstand the risk of turbulence … wham … the seat flips back without warning and the drink goes and the laptop lid is wedged into the tray table space. A short sharp jab to the seat back sometimes elicits a reaction and a small adjustment but more often than not, nothing. Then of course you have no option but to slightly move your own seat to provide just a little personal space for your own sanity. Unless that is you are the row in front of an emergency exit or you’ve been unlucky enough to check-in late and are seated in the last row at the back, in which case your own seat is locked rigid in an upright position. There is nothing for it but to close your eyes, breathe deeply and just hope the person next to you doesn’t have some repulsive personal habit.

This, I believe, is why God invented the iPod.