When I was young, I loved to travel. Not the flying part of it, no, not that at all, just the idea of going to a new place. And, well, whatever it took to get there. Which is, generally, flying.
I never boarded an airplane as a toddler or even as an adolescent, unlike all parents now who haul their infants with their paraphernalia and their noise on board every flight, all the time. My parents took cruises and flights to Paradise Island and Las Vegas, but the children were never invited on vacations with them except once, just me, on a driving trip to North Carolina, after my siblings got married or were too old to be interested. Durham, N.C., was the destination — I remember my stepfather, fat cigar in his mouth, drove us down there from Brooklyn in his 1965 Oldsmobile Starfire as my mother, smoking cigarettes, pushed the buttons on the radio, searching for Sinatra.
What I also remember of that car trip was where we wound up — “the cigarette capital of the country,” where my mother loaded up on packs and cartons that ultimately contributed to her downfall.
Okay. This is meant to be a fun (sort of) piece.
The first time I got on an airplane was when I was 19 years old in 1967, when some friends and I jetted off to Acapulco, me puffing away in the smoking section at the back. Nervous all the while, wondering whether the plane, with its bumps and swoops and crackly P.A. announcements, was destined to go down.
You do feel vulnerable on a plane. Admit it, everybody does. Up there in this lonely silver tube in the sky with its rattles and its lunges and the ever-present possibility of it going down. Going down in the middle of a silent, dark, moonlit ocean in the middle of the night on the way to Europe. Going down on a commuter flight. What with my often going to Cincinnati to make presentations to the Procter & Gamble clients I work for — meetings that don’t always go so well — I often think, If the plane is going to go down, let it go down on the way to a bad meeting versus on the way back.
So far, none of my planes have gone down, thankfully, after hundreds and hundreds of flights mostly for business but often for pleasure. A blessing. But, can we talk? How insane is flying now?
(I wasn’t fully prepared to be this open about what happened to me on a flight I took 10 years ago, but it’s certainly relevant to my story.)
During one American Airlines flight just around New Year’s 2002, tan, happy, relaxed, and still dressed for the beach in shorts, a Lacoste polo, and flip-flops, unprepared for winter in New York and still hanging on to the aura of St. Barts, where I had just spent two glorious weeks with my partner, David, I got into some trouble. Trouble? An understatement. I got arrested for causing a disturbance on the flight, appearing threatening and terrorist-like. I have Arab roots — my biological father was born in Syria, and I did tend to resemble a terrorist, especially when I had thick black hair and a full-on black beard — but I’m the furthest thing from a menace, except if you ask some people.
That flight was just months after 9/11 and days after someone had tried to light up his shoelaces, of all things (on an American Airlines flight, by the way), and years before the averted underwear bomber and the forbidden liquids and all. It’s unfathomable to me how all this explosives business no longer involves a wick and a cartoon-like black ball bomb. Everything is so different now.
Anyhoo, I needed to use the loo. I have this problem with pissing. Nothing serious, it’s just that I drink a lot of liquids and have a high level of anxiety that provokes the pissing, which is further accelerated on a flight. I just had to use the john. The plane was beginning its descent and I really, really had to go. One lavatory was out of order, another one locked, so I wandered into first class, where I was told by a flight attendant (remember when they were called stewardesses?): “Sir, you must take your seat! You have to sit down and fasten your seat belt, and stay seated until the plane lands!”
When you gotta go, you gotta go, and I really hadda go, so I ignored her and entered the restroom. And I did go, then got back to my seat, but not long after, over the crackly P.A. system, as the plane landed and taxied to the gate: “We have a situation here. Please, everyone stay in your seats until the situation is resolved.”
“This means you. You’re the situation,” David said to me. Now, this was long before the Situation from “Jersey Shore” became known as the Situation. I was the situation? Boy, was I ever, as I was greeted by a copse of cops as I deplaned. I eventually learned that I had been aggressive with my bathroom urge and had threatened the flight attendant who’d stood in my way.
I went, all right. Straight to a holding cell at Kennedy for a few hours and, blah, blah, blah, $12,500 later to a lawyer and three months after that, I was gratefully cleared of whatever the charges were. “Threatening to a flight attendant.” Done in by my burgeoning, bulging bladder.
Profiling? (Check out my Arabic last name.) Nervous flight attendant in the aftermath of increasing airplane terrorism? Perhaps either. Perhaps both. Perhaps something else. I insist I was treated unfairly — the ride from the plane to the holding cell, handcuffed behind my back yet, overhearing the two police officers in the front seat complaining about their jobs, cursing and complaining, wow, did I get an earful and a lesson. And a further lesson not to drink alcohol on a flight no matter how much one’s nerves need calming. It will only make you need to use the men’s all the more.
Flash forward: Stephen Slater, remember him? The JetBlue flight attendant? Activating the chute and saying something like, “I’m outta here,” beers in hands after a nasty exchange with a passenger about the overhead bins? When I fly coach with my carry-on, I feign a limp so I can get on early as someone needing special assistance and secure a spot for my carry-on. Those carry-ons: one more cause of pressure in the cabin — so many bags, so little space.
In the last six weeks, two stories were of particular interest to fliers, be they frequent or occasional. First, the woman: the flight attendant on American Airlines who freaked out and screamed something about bombs and terrorists and crashes while the plane was still on the ground. That wobbly video over CNN with sound is chilling. The screams! The aisle of confused passengers, her being restrained. And then escorted off the plane and straight to a hospital for mental evaluation.
But wait. It gets worse.
Later last month, there was that JetBlue pilot who also snapped and also screamed on that crackly P.A. about bombs and terrorists and crashes. He had to be locked out of the cockpit, restrained, and this time the plane was 35,000 feet up in the air! One could only imagine the panic on board during the long minutes of that tirade. He, too, had to be whisked off to a hospital, but unlike the female flight attendant on American Airlines (I wonder if it was the same crazy one who blew the whistle on me 10 years ago), the pilot might be charged with charges. As well he should be.
I hate flying. I strap myself in and pray that I get to my destination alive. I hope that my luggage is not rifled through and that I am not humiliated by being felt up or X-rayed to nudity or any other degradation. Now I have to fear that a flight attendant may go berserk and decide to open up the cabin door midair, passengers and seats, tray tables, and carry-ons hurled out into the stratosphere to land, splattered, God knows where. Now I have to worry about pilots who will take it upon themselves to scream, “Yahoo! It’s kamikaze time!” taking all of us captive customers with him to kingdom come. Now I have to wonder if I should wear a Depends adult diaper in the event I need to take a whiz while we are warned, and warned rudely, “Get to your seats!”
Bette Davis’s famous line in the 1950 movie “All About Eve,” remember? “Fasten your seat belts, it’s going to be a bumpy night.” That line was never so applicable to flying in 2012.
Hy Abady is the author of "Back in The Star Again: True Stories From the East End." A creative director at a New York advertising agency, he lives part time in Amagansett.