Tuesday, 16 June 2009

My Exit Row Experience
It is not my usual practice to pray audibly for people when traveling by plane. But when a 49-year-old man grabs my arm on take-off and squeezes for all he is worth, I figure freaking out a few fellow passengers is of little significance.

I felt that something wasn’t quiet right when we boarded the plane. The first warning sign was olfactory. There was a strong smell of alcohol on the breath of my fellow passenger. The second sign was audible. My fellow passenger turned to me and said that he was really scared of flying.

I initially tried to reassure him with the good old scientific rationalist argument; that flying is statistically safer than driving. By the wide-eyed look on his face I could tell that the enlightenment didn’t mean that much to him. While we were still talking a Stewardess interrupted us and asked us to move up several rows to occupy the exit row. The reason, she said, for our sudden elevation was because there were two men of ‘North African’ descent in the exit row who didn’t appear to understand her safety drill about opening doors and helping others to exit. After my recent failure with my scientific rationalist talk, I decided to try a different communication technique with the hostess. I winked at her and nodded my head sideways toward my inebriated friend. This was my sign to indicate that we were really unworthy candidates for the exit row. Unfortunately, she was not the subtle type. I shouldn’t have been surprised, as she had completely miss-read the Sudanese’s lack of eye contact for a lack of understanding. It was perfectly clear to everyone else on board the plane that they had understood as they cursed and swore in perfect English at their sudden down grade.

My fellow traveler and I moved into the still warm exit row seats. I had the centre seat and my fellow traveler, the window. The aisle seat was occupied by another man who just kept reading his newspaper through the whole incident.

After a minute or so there was an ever-so slight bump as the plane pushed back from the terminal. My fellow traveler literally jumped in his seat and with terror in his voice said, “What was that!” It was at this point that I knew this was going to be a very long flight to Melbourne! As we began to taxi to the runway, my fellow passenger began to tell me rather loudly but with shaky voice why he was so afraid. He had been in an aircraft accident while he had been fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan and some of his colleagues had been killed.

Once on the runway the plane turned and then began to accelerate. Without shame my fellow passenger grabbed my arm and squeezed it for all he was worth. His eyes were all scrunched up and he was groaning and swearing. This was the moment when I decided to pray. I told my fellow passenger that I believed in God and that I was going to pray and ask God to help us, which is what I did. Eventually, after we were well and truly in the air and after what seemed like my longest audible extemporaneous prayer ever, my fellow passenger let go of my arm. With a look of complete exhaustion he then just sat or rather slumped in his seat and stared out the window at the wing.

When the hostess came through with snacks, my fellow passenger ordered more alcohol. Obviously my prayer was not enough! I tried again to indicate to the hostess that my friend had probably had a bit too much to drink, but to no avail. She just kept dishing it out. Good-on-you Qantas! By this time I could tell that subtle communication was not her thing. After the alcohol, my fellow passenger decided he needed the bathroom, which was not too surprising. After letting him out of the exit row I turned to the other passenger in the aisle seat and informed him why our fellow passenger was behaving so strangely. He just scoffed and said, “Ah, I am not afraid of flying. If I live or die, it is all the will of God.” When I asked him where he was from, he replied Pakistan!

I am not sure what you are meant to say to a person after such a statement, but by now I was also completely spent and so I too just slumped back into my seat. One thing I knew for certain, if there was an emergency on this flight and people needed to get out, they wouldn’t be getting much help from any of us in the exit row!