Monday, October 10, 2005


Flight Fears and International Incidents

(Note to readers, yeah, all three of you: You may remember this as the second submission to the Post-Intelligencer, sent in the first week of September. But, just for posterity's sake, I'm posting it nonetheless.)

My first and second times on a plane were in 1999, and from what I recall of that trip, security measures certainly have changed. These days laptop computers must be in plain sight, shaving razors are left at home and security guards wield metal detectors without hesitation, not to mention clippers in case a prospective passenger bears suspiciously sharp fingernails.

But even in those less cautious times, a first fling in a flying machine was an intimidating prospect. One could site statistics of airline safety until their countenance turned cobalt and this would generally fail to assuage one’s deepest concerns, namely: “This thing is really, really high off the ground.” As such, the person who is on their first ever flight is generally easy to spot: they are the ones whose necks appear trapped at an angle allowing them to look at nothing save the airline window. Recent government studies by top scientists have isolated the exact thought process of these passengers during the first hour of any given flight: “This is as high as we need to go, right? Right???”

My third time on a plane took place on the morning of Aug. 21, when I flew from Nashville to Chicago before boarding the plane which would bring me to Seoul, South Korea. Though my six-year gap in aeronautical expeditions had left me unprepared for the resurgence of my first flight fears, I can confidently say that this trip was different from those, because this time I had a window seat for an even better look. Yes, I knew that only about one in a million flights crash, but if mine topped that particular fraction this would be slight comfort.

Though the Nashville flight was booked with an American company, those who did the booking evidently sought to prepare me for the cultural experiences ahead by sitting me beside an Asian man, and to accustom me to my coming geometric difficulties by preparing an incredibly low hanging overhead storage compartment.

After entering my window seat with my 6’4 frame bent forward at a 90-degree angle, I noticed that the two seats across the divide had a symmetrical arrangement to ours: compact Asian man with easy access to the aisle placed beside a lumbering Caucasian folded into a window seat.

During the portion of flight in which the waitress distributed what passes for on-flight nourishment, myself and the other passenger with WASP-like characteristics both ordered Pepsi. Meanwhile, (Warning: Ethnic generalization to follow) our more centrally-located flying companions ordered fruit juice, perhaps believing that caffeine would offset their intentionally stunted growth that allows them to sit comfortably in airplanes.

But, had I to do it all over again, I probably would have treasured that hour or so flying to Nashville, rather than staring at the ground wishing for the plane to land, and then wishing it would land but just a little slower, please. I say this because, despite the strategically located Asian men beside me, this is the last time I can remember being part of the majority cultural demographic. The moment I stepped into Chicago’s international terminal, suddenly my identity was that of Pasty McAnglo, he of the greatest vertical dimensions, lightest complexion and worst scores on standardized math tests within a 100-yard radius.

And this feeling continued after I boarded Korean Airlines. After several hours, how high the plane is flying becomes a secondary concern well-behind wondering when the flight will end, allowing you once-neglected access to the blood flow of all extremities. In truth, it was only a 13-hour flight felt but substantially longer for all of the following reasons: 1) The in-flight movie was Miss Congeniality 2: Armed and Fabulous.

I must say, however, the flight attendants on Asian airlines are very dedicated to their jobs. Towards the end of the flight, I was served a fish dinner by a lady who asked, in her limited English, if I wanted Tobasco sauce with it. Having not come down firmly on one side of the Tobasco-with-meals issue, I shrugged and said, “Sure.” After waiting a couple of minutes, I started my meal anyway. As the last piece of fish entered my gullet, she returned with Tobasco in hand.

“Oh, I sorry,” she said while bowing with hands folded. “I bring you another.” I was unsure of what she meant until another fish dinner arrived to accompany my precious hot sauce.

“I sorry,” she reiterated, continuing to bow.

“It’s okay, really,” I said, while thinking, Don’t go do something ritual to yourself with one of the plastic butter knives.

But despite the occasional cultural misunderstanding and ill-conceived Sandra Bullock vehicle, I arrived in Seoul and was picked up by representatives of the Seventh-day Adventist language institute. At 9 p.m. South Korean time, and 26 hours after the trip began, I arrived at my temporary Seoul apartment, where I marked the occasion by uttering the well-regarded international slogan of good will: “Jet lag, shmet lag, where can I lay down?”

Former Post-Intelligencer reporter Rob York now teaches English in South Korea. He can be reached at

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