The long haul


The start of the long journey back to Europe.

There are few things guaranteed to grab my attention more than an article about some new type of aeroplane that has the potential to shorten journey times between Australia and Europe to a matter of two or three hours.

The recent test flight of a hypersonic rocket looks completely terrifying, but then I suppose rail travel struck the fear of God into many people too, when it was first invented.’

I make the trip from Canberra to Copenhagen at least three times a year for work and to catch up with friends and family. My working life has been peppered with spells of long-distance travel and I’ve developed various techniques for coping with jet-lag, packing efficiently and getting through immigration and customs with minimal delay. But all of that is dancing around the fact that the Aus to Europe trip itself is so interminably long. And there are certain things that are guaranteed to make it feel even longer.

Very occasionally, usually when travelling out of peak holiday season, I’ll hit the jackpot, and bag a whole row of seats to myself. Then, purring like a cat, I’ll wait for the ‘fasten seatbelts’ sign to go off, lift up all the armrests, and stretch across all four seats for as much sleep as I can manage on the assumption that, on the next leg of the journey I may not be so fortunate.

Then there are those other trips. Like the one I experienced last week. The Canberra to Melbourne hop was pretty good — spare seats aplenty and, anyway, it’s only an hour and half’s flight.

At Melbourne, I connected with Emirates for onward flights to Singapore, then Dubai, then London, before another short hop to Copenhagen. But here luck deserted me.


Even the brilliant Airbus A380 can be uncomfortable given the right set of unfortunate circumstances.

Behind me was a man who mistook the ‘touchscreen’ in the back of my chair for a ‘punchscreen’. So determined were his jabs to select songs, movies or play interactive games, that I spent a good few hours in the horse-racing ‘jockey position’ to give my poor back a rest. This would have been fine, except the woman in front decided that the dimming of the seatbelt sign meant she could recline immediately, fully, and for the whole flight. So my nose was now no more than an inch from my own touchscreen. It saved me using my fingers though.

I think this was around the time that the woman next to me –the flight was rammed to the rafters without a spare seat to be seen — leaned to me and, in a heavy, northern English accent, said: “Sorry about the smell. I had a massive curry for lunch and the garlic bread was really strong.” She wasn’t kidding.

Five hours after take off, the flight map showed us finally crossing the shoreline of north-western Australia. Two meals, two movies and a short snooze and you haven’t left the country yet? That’s when the rest of the journey yawns before you like the chasm that claimed Gandalf the Grey in The Lord of the Rings.

We had two medical emergencies, a fainting woman and a collapsing man, the second of which almost saw our flight diverted to Jakarta. Thankfully, an on board doctor was able to administer emergency care and stabilised both.

And so it was for the 15 hours to Singapore and Dubai. There, Garlic Lady was replaced by a Chinese man who spent the final leg trying to cough up a lung without ever once putting his hand to his mouth. That was when I found out how noise-cancelling headphones can not only eliminate noise but also soothe the soul.


Journey’s end.

Each time one of these trips approaches, I sense I am steeling myself for the possible horrors to come. I find that if I expect the worst, then anything else becomes a pleasurable bonus. And, thanks to this most recent trip, I have a new benchmark definition for what ‘expecting the worst’ might mean.

Suddenly, that hypersonic test flight looks worth a try. I’d miss the opportunity to catch up on a year’s worth of movies, but that aside, two hours of white-knuckle fear seems a fare trade for a sore back, the smell of second-hand curry and potential exposure to pneumonia. Yep, where do I sign up?



9 thoughts on “The long haul

  1. But look, you wouldn’t then have great stories to tell. I must say, nothing infuriates me more than people who recline their seats immediately and for the whole flight – it’s bad enough at lights out time but really. I never say anything – not like the recent Grant Hackett affair – because ultimately that’s how the seats are designed and it’s the passengers right to do so – but I really wish the seats weren’t designed that way! I don’t find the reclining does much anyhow! But that’s just me I suppose. Those flights from here to Europe really are an ordeal. We are never – we say anyhow – going to do it again without a stopover both ways. But then we’re retired without a family so have the luxury of time.

    I look forward to stories from your next flight (oh, and, aren’t these days of individual movies are saviour!)


    • I think, ultimately, I actually mourn the death of manners. It’s not just on flights, it’s in so many other places. I took the kids to the cinema in Belconnen yesterday and the guy in front spent maybe 20% of the movie playing with his mobile phone. From the immediate seat behind him, the bright light was incredibly distracting. At one point, he was just reading the Canberra Times online. In the middle of a movie. So we can wish for all the seat technology in the world but, without consideration for others, it’ll make little difference.
      Aaah yes, the communal in-flight movie. When we first went to the US, in the early 1980s, they actually brought ice-creams to everyone mid-way through the movie. It was great in its own way, of course. Unless you’d already seen that day’s movie.


      • Ah manners, you’re speaking my language. I think it’s funny sometimes when people want to discuss etiquette re new technologies. Etiquette is mostly based on a very basic principle of consideration and respect for others, isn’t it. Once you know those principles you know what you should do, no matter where you are or what you are doing or what technology you are using.

        My husband has a story about being in Qantas Club in the US, and watching the grand final of a big sporting event (can’t recollect which). He was with a bunch of people sitting in the TV area watching the game, when someone in the bunch got a phone call. He answered his phone and proceeded in situ to carry on a loud conversation. Eventually, my husband said to him that he was affecting their viewing and could he take his phone call away, but this man said, “No, I can’t, that would be an inconvenience to me!” What do you say to that? Yes, I think manners are very important to teach.

        Do you think it’s our focus on individual fulfilment that’s brought this about? This sense that we all have a right to happiness and satisfaction?


      • I absolutely do. And actually, Denmark is a very interesting case study of that. It has an innate tension between the rights of the individual, and the obligation to the broader community. It manifests itself in strange ways so, on the one hand, all the green waste that is collected all year is composted, and then the local authority has a day in spring when the whole town can go and collect free compost — people turn up with vans, trailers, you name it, to take advantage of this. That’s collectivism. But that collectivism can lead to an abdication of personal responsibility, or a belief that everything you want is actually your right. So by contrast, I was on a local train on a boiling hot day (no aircon), with all the windows slid open bar one. A woman who was clearly uncomfortable, went over to the woman sitting next to the closed window and asked her if she would open it. “No, it’s my window and I want it closed.” So the first woman walked away again. I think obligation and courtesy are dying traits, and yes, I think our immersion in personalised, digital worlds has much to answer for, but I also hope that I can still steer my kids to being well-mannered in such a world, otherwise what kind of world will it be?


  2. I feel very mean for laughing at your sorry tale, but at least your trip is over now and you can consign it to a distant memory. Until the next time. It’s one of those experiences which reminds us that we are all different and we all have varying standards. But so many medical emergencies on one flight – quite something! And having a curry and boarding a long haul flight – complete madness! I think you might have got off lightly with just the unbearable smell of garlic!


    • I once has a guy (across the aisle, thankfully) get roaringly drunk on free in-flight brandy, then as everyone else was trying to sleep, he sat in the arm of his chair, tap-tap-tapping his glass (in the days when they used real glass) with his wedding ring to the rhythm of whatever he was listening to on his headphones. Later, as it got warmer, he took his socks off and used them to fan his face. That’s when the cabin crew intervened. Compared to that, this was actually quite unremarkable.


  3. It’s good you have a new benchmark now for horror plane trips! I once began a flight from a Australia with a little sore throat, and by the time I’d arrived in Amsterdam I had full-blown tonsillitis! Plane travel can be hell, worse when you’re ill.


    • I know, and if there was a genuine medical emergency, I’d have had all the sympathy in the world for whoever it involved, regardless of the disruption to my trip. These days I always travel with a few decongestant tablets in my bag. I can handle most things, but if you develop a full-blown cold during a flight, it can really mess with your ear pressure on take-off and landing. If I have decongestants, I know I can at least eliminate ear pain, if not the fever and discomfort.

      Liked by 1 person

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