The Airport – where your adventure begins.

9 07 2009


These days we tend to groan at the thought of a trip to the airport. With long and winding check-in lines, less than jovial workers, the necessary strip down for security and too-often delayed flights, we’re more than a little flustered by the time we settle into our snug seats. The airport has over time become little more than a necessary evil to get us from point A to point B. While I definitely understand why, I find it terribly unfortunate.

I remember the sense of excitement I felt every time we’d make our way to the airport. There was something exhilarating about pulling up at the airport while majestic carriers were taking off and landing overhead. Inside the terminal there was always such a buzz of energy, people from all over the world joined together for the common purpose of travel. Announcements rang in multiple languages while people scurried about to their airline’s check-in desk. It was always fun to people watch, to see the carefree looks of those on vacation or the seriousness of those on business. Check-in was where you got the first taste of the carrier you’d chosen and your boarding pass was handed over with your final destination officially in print. It was the start of your adventure.

Airports are often architectural sights to behold. From the modern grass-topped sprawl of glass at Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport to the contemporary metallic styling of Seoul’s Incheon airport, architects are constantly pushing the boundaries. Airports often give us our first taste of a country’s culture, through art on display or the amenities offered. Voted the World’s Best Airport this year, Seoul’s Incheon airport operates a Traditional Korean Cultural Experience zone. Travellers can enjoy traditional performances including masque dances and twelve-stringed Korean harp recitals on stage. Some of the finest shopping and dining can be experienced while you wait to take off. Many airports also offer panoramic lounges that offer terrific views of planes taking off and landing. Most airports now have well designed websites that can help with your travel planning and research.

So next time you travel, hard as it may be, take some time to appreciate the airport. A lot of careful thought and planning went into its creation. You might even be surprised to find that you enjoy it!

Photo and Post by: Merav Benedetti © 2009

The View From The Cockpit

9 06 2009


“Excuse me…pilot? Can you keep your radio communications down…I’m trying to sleep.”    


In the good old days prior to 9/11, it was possible to visit the cockpit during a flight. I don’t think they admitted just anyone and probably denied access to anyone wearing a bandolier of large-calibre bullets even then, but children were regularly taken to the cockpit for a look around. Today, I’m not sure that even Britney Spears dressed as a schoolgirl would get past the 3-inch thick armour-plated door before a slot opened and she was hosed-down with high-pressure tear gas and a barrage of taser fire.


It’s a shame really, because flying is a lot more exciting than sitting in a pressurised bubble with a plastic tray of luke-warm food and the germs of 400 other people. It’s just that you rarely get a hint of flying at all…which for some people is probably a very good thing!


Very small commuter aircraft often have no division between the passengers and the pilot. I remember one such flight in northern Ontario when the pilot simply turned around in his seat and asked the dozen passengers to let him know if it was too hot or too cold. Somehow, attempting to tap the average 747 pilot on the shoulder would likely end up with you pinned to the floor by several burly plain-clothed Skymarshalls and shot out of a torpedo tube to Guantanamo…or wherever they send people now.


I love watching what the pilot does. Sometimes his or her actions can actually be a little disconcerting, like when he starts fighting with instruments or controls or leans forward and frantically scans the sky all around for something unseen that’s clearly of considerable concern.


Some airlines used to have cameras which provided passengers with live views of take-off or landing. That stopped when it was rumoured that passengers aboard a doomed DC-10 may well have watched themselves cartwheel into the runway. That was many years ago and I believe that some airlines now offer that again on one of the channels of the backseat personal entertainment system.


United Airlines have an audio channel that provides you with all the communications between your aircraft and air traffic control. I love spending the entire flight listening to my aircraft being handed off from Albuquerque control to Salt Lake centre and so on, or hearing the pilot request permission to change course to avoid some particularly rough weather. ATC re-direct us to 33,000 feet on a new heading and the next thing I know, my aircraft is banking and climbing. Such eavesdropping adds a new dimension to a flight and makes a 5-hour cross-continental haul far more interesting than watching a re-run of a 7-year old sitcom on my backseat screen.


Even if there’s no live video or audio, most airlines do at least now offer the ‘Map’: the video channel that plots your progress on a moving map and provides you with live information on your altitude, speed, outside temperature and your ever-changing time of arrival.


Of course, none of these are quite as interesting as sitting in the cockpit itself, but all of them beat being arrested by Homeland Security and banned for life for simply knocking on the pilot’s door!


Post and photo by: Simon Vaughan © 2009

Snakes On A Plane….for real!

17 04 2009


What time’s the next flight to Melbourne?                       (Python in Amboseli, Kenya)


I love babies and small dogs and have a soft spot for old people. Any façade of stoic, disinterested masculinity evaporates when confronted by a wide-eyed, bubble-blowing, gurgling, bouncing bundle of joy, and I am genuinely more than happy to help any blue-tinted, zimmer-framed, slow-motioned senior reach the pureed apple from the top shelf of the supermarket…but I confess to harbouring a deep resentment towards both while on long flights.


Flying is not only a way of getting from point A to point B, but it’s also a wonderful reprieve from the stresses and strains of cell phones, e-mails and everyday life –even if I lose the feeling in my feet after a couple of hours. It is also a perfect opportunity to read that book I’ve been crawling through for several months or to catch-up on much needed sleep ahead of a busy schedule of meetings or sightseeing. So, woe behold anything that gets between me and a positive aerial experience.


Fortunately however, teething, kicking, flatulent babies and hearing-impaired seniors who bellow every word and pound the back of my seat in an effort to get their entertainment systems working are generally the only annoying things I have ever experienced on any flight – and even that annoyance is tinged with guilt at my own intolerance.


Some passengers on a recent flight in Australia were almost not quite so lucky.  During a two and a half hour flight from Alice Springs to Melbourne, four pythons escaped from their container in the aircraft’s hold and started slithering their way throughout the plane.


Fortunately, none made their way into the cabin – or at least if they did, none were spotted stealing the packets of pretzels or using the paper seat-covers in the toilets. Unfortunately, when their absence was discovered upon arrival, the aircraft had to be pulled from service and searched from nose to tail.


The Stimson’s pythons were each about 6” long, which makes them less threatening than a fully-grown constrictor with cold scaly skin, beady little eyes and a darting tongue…but also means it’s easier for them to climb into your seatback pocket, your bag in the overhead locker, your discarded shoe…or up your trouser leg while you sleep. Luckily, Qantas thought of all that as well, and after a fruitless search, eventually elected to fumigate the plane rather than risk having one of the serpents drop down with an oxygen mask during a safety briefing.


Passengers incovenienced by the delay were said to be understanding when they realised the alternative.



Photo and post by:  Simon Vaughan © 2009

The Baggage Hall: Traveller’s Purgatory

2 10 2008

Tag, you’re it!

Your flight was delayed. The cabin was too warm. The person behind you performed ‘River Dance’ on the back of your seat. You’d seen the movie. They ran out of your choice of meal and left you with the gluten-free sodium-free minced soy-substitute spinach stew, and your bladder is exploding because you couldn’t climb over your slumbering neighbour. All you want is to collect your bag and get home.


Remarkably, you breezed through Immigration in record time and you’re so close to a nice shower and bed that you can almost taste it.


You sprint for the baggage hall. You find your carousel, grab a baggage cart and stake out the prime position that provides you with maximum warning of your approaching bag and direct access to retrieve it.


As others crowd around, you position your trolley as a perfect buffer between yourself and the hordes. The buzzer sounds, the light flashes, the conveyor starts to turn and the first bag bounces down. You eye the tags as they rotate by to confirm that it’s your flight. The first bags have ‘Priority’ tags but you are confident yours will soon follow.


You happily watch the cases with rainbow straps, the large cardboard boxes and the items wrapped in industrial cling-film. You notice cases that have been torn-asunder and which drag trains of formerly-white unrecognisable garments behind them. You read the addresses on the boxes to distract your growing impatience.


You start to count the pieces. Your bag will be the 20th one down, the 25th one, the 35th one…


The crowd around you thins. The person before you at Immigration is long gone. Your palms grow sweaty. The seed of doubt germinates. Will you ever see your bag again? You begin to recognise the same items going around and around and around. You fidget and pace from side to side. The others have the same apprehensive expression. You are united in your forthcoming loss. There’s a baggage bonding between you.


The carousel stops.


There’s an audible gasp. You feel compelled to hurdle the belt, climb the ramp, dive through the rubber curtain and retrieve your bag yourself. Then it dawns on you there’s a very real chance that your bag is indeed lost. Self pity descends. Why you? You only want to go home. It’s not asking so much. There are half-a-dozen people around you. You try to remember if they sat near you, if you saw them check-in, you grasp for any logical explanation for the unlawful separation from your possessions.


Your shoulders slump. You start to prepare a mental description of your bag and its contents and steel yourself to complete endless paperwork. You should have bought insurance.


The buzzer sounds, the carousel starts. Everyone perks up. No new bags appear. Shoulders sag. The same boxes pivot past, their owners evidently sitting in some netherworld along with your case. There’s a swish from the rubber curtain and a bag tumbles down. Someone to your right grabs it. Then a second…and a third. Your fingers are crossed. Your breath is held.


And then it appears.


As if in slow motion it tumbles down. You run towards it and embrace like Heathcliff and Catherine on the moors. You take it in your arms and hoist it skyward like a father playing with his toddler. You kiss it, twice, continental-style, and place it on your trolley, all the while caressing it tenderly and wiping a tear from the corner of your eye. You race towards the exit, eyeing your bag tenderly, its strap looped flirtatiously around your wrist.


You no longer care about the bed or the shower. You have forgotten the torment of your journey.


You are complete.



Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan

Creatures of the Air – No.1: The Armrest Hog

7 07 2008


“I think you dropped something” (Samburu, Kenya)


Identifiable as that most reprehensible of airborne creatures, the Armrest Hog monopolises the padded divide between two airline seats.


Etiquette dictates that the armrest is common territory to be shared equally between two travellers. This is done without spoken word or acknowledgement. The general approach is for one person to rest their elbow on the aft of the armrest whilst the other places their arm on the fore, furthest away. This enables both parties to rest their appendages without impeding the other.


If either traveller has a physical necessity to occupy more than their allotted seat, there will be an imperceptible negotiation that may result in one – or both – individuals shifting towards the armrest on the opposite side thereby relinquishing the common divide altogether. If experienced, the armrest can be shared equally down the centre – although this engenders the considerable risk of physical contact. Should this happen, it is imperative that the offending arms be promptly yet subtly slid apart – so as to avoid bringing attention to the intimacy.


If contact is made, under no circumstances should eye contact ever occur.


The Armrest Hog, however, seizes the entire armrest either from the onset, or worse yet, as soon as their neighbour’s attention is diverted elsewhere. Once dug-in, not only does their arm occupy the entire median but in many cases their elbow also abuts into their neighbour’s personal domain. These invasive beasts have been known to employ devious tactics in their conquest, such as suggesting that their neighbour has dropped something on the floor. Once relinquished, the armrest is immediately and irrevocably seized.


Historically, if encountered in their natural domain, the Armrest Hog could be repelled by subtly poking with the sharp blade of a Swiss Army knife, pinching with nail-clippers or administering an electric shock with two large batteries and a length of copper wire. However, these effective measures have recently been curtailed due to increased airport security.


Today, the removal of an Armrest Hog takes greater imagination. If distraction does not work, it is now considered de rigeur to introduce laxatives to the offender’s beverage when they are not looking. Once they have removed themselves to the facilities, the entitled portion of the armrest may once again be occupied by the co-tenant

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2008

Lessons Learned the Hard Way – No. 96

28 05 2008

Never assume that having your name called by the gate staff just prior to boarding is a good thing.


I was in the lounge about to board a very long flight and watching with venomous hatred as fellow passengers were called forth and upgraded from economy to business…or beyond. Each turned and waved to the little people left behind, then headed down the walkway towards the aircraft with a sickening spring in their step and a jaunty smirk on their face.


Suddenly, my name was echoing through the hall as if sung by angels playing golden harps.


Hurriedly, I gathered my things and headed to the desk like an actor accepting an Oscar. As I stepped around over-sized carry-on bags and dipsy-do’ed through a minefield of teething babies, I rehearsed my acceptance speech: “I would like to thank all the people who made this possible…”


As bidden, I surrendered my boarding pass to a quizzical gate agent who fed it into the machine. I was already mentally in my newly-acquired reclining throne, glass of champagne in my hand, attendants fanning me gently while peeling grapes.


“Not quite sure why that change was made”, she said, curiously, surveying my new boarding pass.


I thanked her profusely and bounded down the gangway, assuming that my new seat – 99G – must be upstairs in the bubble and affording utter luxury in more intimate surroundings. It was only when I was directed towards the rear that my heart began to sink. After a demoralising trek past row upon row of seats that seemed to get smaller and smaller like Alice’s doors, I reached the very back where the interior narrows to a constricting stub – not to be confused with the opulent pointy end found at the front.


And my seat was by the toilet.


Fighting back the tears before I sat down, I tucked my book and water bottle into the pocket before me, and strapped myself in for the 13 hour odyssey ahead. After take-off, I plugged in the headset and settled down to watch the screen at the front of the cabin, only to realise that I was three inches too short to see it without sitting on a telephone directory. Something I had foolishly not brought along. With resignation, I took out my book and flicked on the reading light…only to find it unresponsive. I desperately beckoned a flight attendant and explained my dilemma.


“Don’t worry,” she said, “I’ll check the fuse” and headed for the galley.  A few moments later she returned with a perky smile on her face.


“Well, it’s not the fuse”, she bubbled, with a radiant smile. “So it must be the bulb. Unfortunately, we don’t carry extra bulbs but we’ll have it repaired at our next stop.”


Before I could point out that was 7500 miles away, she was gone. With movies and reading out of the question, I opted to recline my seat…the one inch it would move before colliding with the toilet wall. Without any empty seats available, I took two anti-nausea pills and sought the refuge of the defeated: sleep. Alas, to complete a perfect trifecta, each time I was on the brink of the velvet embrace of Hypnos, my seat was emphatically thumped by someone visiting the toilets, my brain rattled by the incessant bang of the cubicle door and my nostrils mauled by noxious scents.


Eventually, emotionally battered, spiritually spent and utterly exhausted, I drifted into a comfortless and fitful sleep, haunted by visions of the luxury of a normal economy class seat like the one I had briefly possessed but had willed away in hope of something better.


Who ever said “A bird in the hand…” had likely been sitting in the malfunctioning last-row of a trans-Pacific flight in the pitch-dark, devoid of entertainment and constantly jostled and harangued by the flatulent and be-bladdered masses.



Post by: Simon Vaughan © 2008

The Cone of Silence

21 03 2008

I don’t really consider myself to be anti-social, but when cornered I fight back with withering silence.

I can be gregarious and quite chatty, but only when I have an escape route. It’s not that I find my company so much more appealing than anyone else’s, simply that I am terrified by the thought of being trapped with someone for hours on end and hearing all about their life as an archivist at the Nail Clipper’s Hall of Fame. In other words, I am that person you’ve sat beside on your flight who has not so much as acknowledged your existence during the entire trip.

Over the years, I have perfected this solitude. Firstly, I choose a window seat and leave my bladder with the checked-baggage. I have a book - even if I don’t actually wish to read it. I take my seat, and carefully scan the aisle for the arrival of my neighbour. As soon as someone reaches for the overhead bin, I bury my nose in my book and never, ever make eye-contact with them even if they burst into flames or start to play the bagpipes. Should they not take the hint and actually try to start a conversation, their efforts will be met with a painfully fake smile, and a grunt - all without actually turning my head towards them. If their question is more complicated, they may also get a nod. As soon as we are airborne, the headphones are applied and the cone of silence is complete.

The longer the flight, the more diligently I follow my well-rehearsed routine. This anti-social behaviour also extends to the departure lounge. Granted I may only be sitting there for a few minutes and can escape to the sanctuary of the duty free shop if need be, but what if I find myself sitting next to my new best friend on the plane once we’ve boarded?   Best to avoid any interaction at all, I believe.

So, the next time you’re on a flight and the person beside you has their nose buried in a book and is extremely anti-social, introduce yourself to them: it may be me. Of course, you’ll never actually know because I won’t answer you!

Post by: Simon Vaughan © 2008