What goes on in the mind of a cattle-class passenger
Whenever I am on a flight, the most anxious moment comes when the plane is about to land. I am not alone, I'm sure. Horrible things are known to happen during landing, and I usually find a silent prayer involuntarily slipping out of my lips when the plane touches down.
It was no different last Sunday when, returning to Chennai after a pleasurable week in Kolkata, I held my breath as soon as the tyres hit the runway. I was eager to reach home safe so that I could pull out of my bag the large collection of books and CDs I'd bought from Park Street and look at them with renewed pleasure. A purchase is not a purchase until you've spread out the objects of desire on the bed upon reaching home for one final inspection before they become a part of your daily life.
The plane was still bouncing on the runway and I was yet to exhale in relief when I heard a cry from behind. “Excuse me, sir! Excuse me, sir!” It was the air-hostess who was strapped to her seat at the rear end of the aircraft. “Please go back to your seat! Please!” She was pleading, at the top of her voice, with a passenger who, within seconds of touchdown, had got up from his seat to retrieve his bag from the overhead compartment.
What surprised me even more was that the passenger – a bespectacled, thinly-built man who must be in his forties – returned to his seat with great reluctance, as if he did not like following the orders of a woman half his age. Had the plane been forced to take off again suddenly due to an emergency situation, he could have fractured his skull and died. It is not for nothing that the air-hostesses politely keep telling you to keep the seat belts on until the plane has reached the parking bay. But since they are pretty, petite and polite, you don't take them very seriously: replace them with menacing lathi-wielding police constables and you will find not a single mobile ringing during the take-off and not a single passenger unlocking the seat belt within seconds of landing.
But it's a very Indian thing: to defy rules if the rule enforcers happen to be of the courteous kind and if rule-breaking does not attract any penalty. We become like a classroom full of unruly students. There can't be a better example of this than the aircraft. No one seems to realise that the rules are for their own good, for their own safety. And yet, you will find passengers overcome by the sudden urgency to speak on the phone once they board – even though they had been idling their time away at the departure lounge. I guess for most of them, it is the thrill of being able to talk from the aircraft.
It no longer surprises me when phones continue to ring even after the pilot has announced, “Cabin crew, prepare for take-off.” What really surprises me is the scene inside an aircraft after landing. Though not many display the courage to get up from their seats while the plane is taxiing towards the parking bay, almost all passengers are up on their feet the moment the plane comes to a halt.
There is usually a long wait, which can extend up to twenty minutes, before the ladders arrive and the doors open, and yet passengers give up the comfort of their seats and stand up, often craning their necks under the overhead compartments, as if that would hasten their exit. At that point, the plane does not look like a plane but a truck packed with cattle. Cattle: doesn't the word sound familiar?
Published in The Hindu MetroPlus, September 3, 2011.