The Friendly Skies

The child’s screams were horrific.

I’m not much for children, but this was the kind of full-throated, near-choking wails that would have, in a different situation, aroused my concern. As it was, aboard Air Asia flight AK 1204 with non-stop service from Kochin, India to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, the screams did little more than thwart the best efforts of the sleeping pill I’d popped in my mouth half an hour earlier.

Most children tucker themselves out after a solid 15-min round of body-wracking screams like these, but I have to hand it to this Indian child: He had a mission. He also seemed to have a strategy, alternating between rapid heaving breaths punctuated with wet, gurgling screams and one long, steady wail sustained evenly over a breath even a yogi would admire. Just when I believed he’d likely asphyxiated himself or busted his larynx, he found new reserves and continued his aggrieved vigil at precisely my four-o’clock, three rows behind.

Peter, it irks me to note, paid him no mind. Peter, of course, being the pimply British teenager tourist in the window seat in the row behind me. He and his brother Jackie were blissfully ignorant of the child’s distress as they made crashing and shoot-em-up noises behind me, often excitedly enough to cause my headrest some turbulence. I must’ve accumulated some seriously poor karma while in India, because Peter’s father was sitting in the aisle seat across from mine. A large, disheveled man with wire-rimmed glasses persistently sliding down his greased nose, he had elected himself Dinner Captain for his family and took his role quite seriously.

The Air Asia stewardesses, wrapped tightly in cherry red pencil skirts, arrived at our aisle with pre-made, pre-ordered, pre-paid-for meals (I opted out). The menu seemed expansive as they shuffled papers to get Peter’s family’s order correct. The entire cabin and crew, by the end of the 10 minute affair, knew that the family had collectively ordered vegetarian pizza, chicken lasagna, spaghetti bolognese and barbeque chicken with roasted vegetables, to be washed down with half a dozen cans of soda.

In the midst of sorting the order, the plane hit serious turbulence. The child, having been momentarily distracted, used this new inspiration for more anguished cries. I closed my eyes, willing the sleeping pill onward in its pursuit. No luck. The plane lurched around, losing altitude and eliciting gasps and murmurs from the passengers. The pilot clicked on the intercom, allowing us to hear his slow, exasperated sigh before he began to talk in thickly-accented monotone: Weareexperiencingturbulenceplease. Fastenseatbeltsandremain. Seated. Another sigh, this one more disdainful, I thought, and he clicked the intercom off.

Peter’s father seized the opportunity, yelling across the aisle. “Jackie, do you want pizz-er, lasagn-er, spaghet-ti bolognese or barbeque chicken?” He was asked to repeat the choices. Jackie paused his game long enough to say, “Pizz-er’s good, I guess.” I facilitated the exchange of hot aluminum boxes with a tight smile. Next up, Peter: “Dad, what’s for dinner?” he yelled, cookie crumbs escaping his enormous mouth.

“Aw, bloody hell, Pet-er. For the last time, it’s pizz-er, lasagn-er, spaghet-ti bolognese or barbeque chicken.” More handing of hot aluminum boxes across the aisle, as Peter finally settled on the spaghetti. Thinking this surely concluded the dinner demonstration, I relaxed. Nope–Peter’s dad checked in with the kids several times throughout the meal, inquiring about the flavors of each dish, before it became clear that he’d like to try them all, too. More aluminum-box shuffling, now with bits of food flying out of Peter’s dad’s mouth as he alternately praised or discredited the Air Asia chefs.

Finally the meals were finished, the aluminum tins scraped clean of any stray calories lest they escape, and I felt drowsy. The baby had paused. The turbulence had abated. The fasten seat belt sign was turned off. I got up to use the toilet before, I dared hope, falling asleep.

When I came back, I was alarmed to find that the dessert cart had stopped in my aisle, and Peter’s dad was again in deliberations. Would it be the rice pudding, or a piece of mango cheesecake? What’s that Malaysian option, and is it caramel or butterscotch coated? Was the exchange rate better in Indian rupees or Malaysia ringgits, and why was pre-paid dessert not an option at the time of booking? I stood impatiently behind the cart and tightly swaddled stewardesses. Finally all had made their choices, rupees were exchanged and change was made, and I got back in my seat. Peter’s dad sat contentedly with an enormous pile of cardboard, aluminum and paper garbage heaped on his tray table.

But then it was over. Really over. The meal was in the past and the lights were dimmed. I allowed hope to creep into my brain again. But the child kept screaming. And then another joined in. The middle-seat dweller next to me was in that restless sitting-sleep, his head lolling about dramatically as he continually jolted himself awake with a half-cough/half-snort, his slobber-covered chin occasionally crashing into my shoulder. And Peter and Jackie continued chattering behind me. And me–I’ve flown countless times, and every single time, I forget that airplanes make me sneeze and produce an overwhelming amount of phlegm. And, after all, you know what they say–if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. I joined the cacophony, sneezing and blowing my nose as the plane lurched and tilted in the stormy sky. The child screamed bloody murder until we touched down.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for low-budget airline choices. Hell, I paid just $125 for a direct 5-hour international flight between exactly the locations I needed. I don’t mind that there was no beverage service, drop-down movie screens, or one word spoken to me by cabin crew. I was annoyed, sure, when informed I had to pay $15 to check my bag, but I understood the nickel-and-dime strategy of the company. No problem that pre-requesting a seat cost $5–I accepted an aisle seat near the back of the plane without complaint. When the duty free cart ran over my bare toes, I didn’t even flinch.

But it all seems to be a bit much, right? Sure, for my next Air Asia flight I know that pre-registering my checked bag costs half the price, and that printing a boarding pass before arriving at the airport saves the $5 in-person check-in fee. And, no, I won’t expect there to be anything but instant coffee available in the Low-Cost Carrier Terminal (inhabited, it seems, solely by Air Asia), though I don’t think it’s such a ridiculous notion. I just… I don’t know. Maybe I’m getting old. Maybe I’m getting cranky or high-maintenance. But just once… a decent flight, at a decent price, with decent service and decent decibel level. Is it so much to ask?

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