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My air rage is driven by righteous anger

Chrissy Iley on her many outbreaks of in-flight fury — one of which led to a passenger mutiny. Why do we have to pay £8,000 for airline staff not to be rude to us?

17 June 2009

12:00 AM

17 June 2009

12:00 AM

Chrissy Iley on her many outbreaks of in-flight fury — one of which led to a passenger mutiny. Why do we have to pay £8,000 for airline staff not to be rude to us?

I don’t like planes and I’m on them all the time. it’s not really about the fear that I’m going to die, or maybe it is and I’ve just transferred it; it’s the absolute certainty that I will lose control of my life. I will be asked to remove my shoes and sometimes my jewellery and made to line up like I’m going to Airschwitz, handing over my belongings. On the plane I’m told what to do.

Naomi Campbell is a woman who has fought hard to get control of her own life; the shock is even more intense when you lose it. I mention this because I was once on a plane with her. I was the one who had a police escort at the end of it. I was flying to New York. It was pre-9/11. If it had been post-9/11 I would probably be in Guantanamo Bay.

I was travelling Virgin premium economy. I thought it was very expensive for what you didn’t get. I was going to interview Naomi Campbell and I had the press cuttings all spread out in my tiny space and on the spare seat next to me.

A woman came from the back moaning about a bad leg. She sat in the spare seat but stuck her leg out, right in front of me, on my lap. I told her I’d paid for that space and her leg was not allowed in it. There was a fight. She got sent to upper class and I got the police escort. When we got off the plane, who should I see right alongside me, agitated and affronted, but Naomi Campbell. The woman with the leg had been moved to sit next to her. From that moment I felt empathy with her.

Planes are a rigid Nazi society. If you are a woman who complains you are punished. You must not get above yourself. Regardless of what class of the plane you travel in, if it’s a British carrier you are subjected to the class system.

I was travelling in Virgin upper class when they used to have masseurs. They came round before take-off and asked me if I would like to be woken up for my massage. Massages were not a given on these planes. It was a lottery system, although if you were a famous actor you always won the lottery. If you said you didn’t want to be woken up for a massage, you didn’t get a card to say you were entitled to jump the queue for your return flight.

I said, ‘This is my 20th flight on Virgin upper this year, I really want the massage. If not this time, I’ll take a card for next time.’

‘I’m afraid that’s not possible unless you answer the question “yes, I want to be woken up”, and then we may or may not wake you up for your massage.’

I argued that I wanted to be an exception, not the rule. The man behind me said, ‘Think out of the box, won’t you. That was what this airline was built on, not acting like somebody who’s servicing the rides at Disneyland who says something horrible with a smile.’ With that she disappeared. A supervisor asked me and the man who had tried to defend me to leave the plane. Rudeness to staff would not be tolerated, said the supervisor.

Rudeness to customers, though, that’s OK.

And this is how the rudeness goes. In economy, there’s lots of you. You can’t do anything you want, like go to the toilet if the trolley’s coming down the aisle, or have an extra glass of wine (because you might become dangerous), but you are a big group and you’re easy to control.

Try travelling British Airways club class and leaving your phone or a handbag or a book on the floor beside you. You’re going to be punished. Everything must be cleared away because that phone could kill somebody. And the blanket they give you is this quilted thing, shaped like a coffin. They are rigid and obsessive about tidying the cabin, and then they tell us that their command over us is about our safety rather than what it really is, which is ‘I’m not your servant. Just because you might have paid a lot of money for this ticket, don’t think you’re something.’

On my recent British Airways first class trip to Washington DC, the food wasn’t any better. It was still dried up and bland. Why is it that no matter what class you are travelling in on BA and Virgin, they give you slop? Nothing you can do about it. You can’t walk out, or refuse to tip.

In BA first, though, the space is better and you get a blue velvet Anya Hindmarch bag with moisturisers. And you get the class system going the other way. You get reverence, obsequiousness. ‘Oh, you must be so much better than me I’m not going to ask you to put your seat belt on because you must be educated, you must be able to read the sign, it says “Fasten your seat belt”. Oh no, I couldn’t possibly patronise you.’ The question is, do you really have to pay £8,000 just for people not to be rude to you?

And on British Airways there’s more chance that they’ll lose your luggage and think it’s outrageous if you throw a strop about it. If it hadn’t been for Naomi Campbell standing up for herself when her luggage was lost, they would never have made an effort to improve the system.

After DC, I flew BA London-Newcastle, economy, bulkhead seat. Trolley dolly demonstrating right in front of me said, ‘Is your seat belt fastened?’

Me: ‘Yes.’

TD: ‘Can I see?’ My jacket was on my lap.

Me: ‘Are you calling me a liar?’

TD: ‘No.’

Me: ‘then are you going to take my word for it, that I’ve read the sign, my seat belt is fastened, or would you like to take away my jacket and see for yourself?’

TD: ‘I would like to see it.’

Me: ‘Perhaps you’d like to hang my jacket up?’

TD: ‘Madam, I need to see your seat belt.’

Me: ‘In that case may I suggest rephrasing your initial question to, “Can I see your seat belt?”’

TD: ‘There is no need to be like that. I am just doing my job.’

Me: ‘Why don’t you do your job with another passenger?’

At this point my travelling companion had gone purple with embarrassment. He took my jacket and put it on his lap and said, ‘She is wearing her seat belt.’ He said it like a mouse, almost squeaked it. TD was pleased. Usually I travel alone, so I’m indulgent with my air rage moments. I say what I feel. I shouldn’t have to be embarrassed about that.

Once I led a revolt. A Virgin plane turned back halfway across the Atlantic because its hydraulic system had failed. We were on the tarmac. We were supposed to wait in the plane on the tarmac for several hours while it was fixed, no air conditioning, and we’d already eaten the meal. This was nonsense. Who needs to be on a plane for 24 hours? If you had something urgent the next day, you’d already missed it. But the whole disembarkation process costs money which they didn’t want to spend. I said it was inhumane, so several of us were allowed off. Others stayed, too frightened to move, because that’s what flying does to you. It diminishes you.

The other day I flew Air New Zealand business class to Los Angeles. The trolley dollies were like waiters in the Ivy, always there when you wanted them, anticipating your every need but never in your face. The food, created by Peter Gordon, was absolutely delicious. Even the raspberry ice cream was homemade. They never demanded to take away your headsets or turn anything on or off. They didn’t ask anything of you. They just let you be.

In New Zealand they don’t have a class system in the same way as elsewhere. Nobody wants to be put in their place; rather they want to grow out of it. That’s not only allowed, it’s encouraged. And then it occurred to me: air rage is not about getting
angry with the plane, it’s about getting angry with structure. Air rage is a particularly British disease because it’s a response to something very familiar: an airborne version of the class system.

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