It’s six in the evening and I’m stuck inside a hot and stuffy DC-9 flying above Illinois. After a quick layover in Indianapolis we’re heading for Kansas City. I’m scheduled to participate in “ORDER UP! Tales from the Dining Room,” a program sponsored by that city’s public library. It’s my first trip as a published author. It might also be my last. Cue the Airport 77 music!
“Man, it’s hot in here,” my seatmate says.
“The A/C hasn’t worked since we got back on the plane in Indianapolis,” I reply. “I wonder what’s wrong?”
“Who knows?” my seatmate says, shrugging. “This plane’s probably older than either of us.”
I look around the cramped confines of the narrow bodied jet. This plane’s so old that I’m surprised the pilot didn’t yell “contact” before we took off.
“You might be right,” I reply. “But I assumed things would start cooling off once we got higher the air.”
My seatmate glances out the window. “We’re not flying very high,” he says. “Not even 9000 feet. And we’re flying very slowly.”
“Oh well,” I say, wiping the sweat off my brow. “I’m just glad I remembered to use deodorant this morning.’
“Me too,” my seatmate replies, chucking softly.
Several minutes elapse. The passengers start muttering. The stewardess is sweating bullets. It’s obvious something is wrong. The captain comes on the plane’s PA system
“Good evening ladies and gentleman,” the pilot says in reassuring tones. “You’ve probably noticed that we’re having a problem with our air conditioning. That’s because we’re experiencing a cabin pressure issue. There’s no danger. The plane’s flying normally but we can’t climb to our scheduled cruising altitude of 36.000 feet because we can’t pressurize the cabin. We’re troubleshooting the problem with our mechanics on the ground and we’ll let you know more as the situation develops.”
My seatmate turns and looks at me. “Cabin pressure issue?”
“The late, great George Carlin would’ve said ‘BROKEN PLANE!’” I reply.
“The pilot’s gonna turn around and go back,” my seatmate groans. “I know it.”
“But we’re halfway there.”
As if he’s listening to us talk, the pilot starts executing a fairly sharp 180 degree turn. Suddenly the passengers on the left hand side of the place are sitting higher than me.
“He’s turning around,” I say, stating the obvious.
“I hope they can fix this fast,” my seatmate says. “Because it’s a six hour drive to Kansas City.’
My seatmate and I sit quietly. I know I’m not in any real danger, but my brain starts crunching the probabilities of us losing our aeronautical fight with gravity anyway.
“If there was a serious problem,” I whisper to my seatmate, “Do you think they’d tell us?”
“If I was them I wouldn’t either”
“No use having a plane full of panicked passengers.’
“Yeah,’ I say, grinning. “But if the stewardess starts asking ‘Who didn’t have the fish?’ then you know we’re screwed.”
My seatmate picks up on the Airplane reference and starts laughing. Suddenly, a baby starts crying loudly.
“Just great,’ I say. “Now all we need is a nun playing a guitar.”
Twenty minutes later we land back at Indianapolis. I take the fact that no fire engines greet our arrival and the stewardess isn’t screaming “Get out! Get out!” as a good sign. As the plane taxis towards the terminal the passengers start whipping out their cell phones and start making calls.
“Now the stories are gonna start,” my seatmate whispers. “People will start making a bigger deal out of this than it is.’
“They’ll call it Terror Flight 2008! or something,” I reply.
“Some guy’ll say there was a hole in the plane. That we might’ve crashed.”
“Our stewardess was sucked out the window!”
“I swear boss, the wing came clean off!”
The plane reaches the terminal and stops. Several passengers jump out of their seats and march towards the front of the plane.
“I want to get off right now!” an imperious woman snaps at the stewardess.
“You have to wait for the skybridge, ma’am,” the stewardess replies.
“Why do we have to wait for the skybridge?” another passenger, a choleric looking fellow in a loud shirt, yells.
‘Because we don’t want you to fall twenty feet onto the runway, sir,” the stewardess replies, deadpan.
“Move the line!” another impatient man shouts. “Move the line!”
As I wrote in my book, 80% of restaurant customers are nice people just looking for something to eat. The remaining 20% are entitled sociopaths. That ratio seems to hold true for airline passengers as well.
“Let us off!” the imperious woman yells. “You can’t keep us here!”
“Ma’am” the stewardess says. “You cannot disembark until the skybridge gets here.”
“And when will that be?”
“When it’s here.”
“That’s not acceptable.”
The stewardess decides to ignore the huffy woman. Long gone are the days of “coffee, tea, or me.” Failure to comply with flight attendant’s instructions is a federal offense. I idly wonder how the cranky passengers clogging the aisle would fare at Guantanamo.
Soon a trio of technicians clamber aboard the plane and start fiddling with the knobs and dials in the cockpit. I find it mildly disconcerting to see one of technicians leafing through a big green manual and scratching his head. The air in the cabin is hot and uncomfortable but not life threatening. There are no people in imminent medical distress. The stewardess lets the young mother with the baby stand near the cockpit door so the child can get some air. That overheated baby’s the only passenger entitled to be crying.
“Let us off of here!” another cranky passenger shouts.
“Sir,” the stewardess says. “The technicians are close to fixing the problem. If you get off you’ll just be getting back on again.”
“I don’t care. I want to get off now!”
The gantry arrives and about 20% of the passengers get off the plane. The technicians quickly fix the cabin pressure problem and the air conditioning kicks in. We can’t leave promptly, however, because several of the disembarked passengers refuse to get back on. The wimps are freaked and want to go to Kansas City on another flight. Because they and their luggage are gone, the ground crew has to reweight the aircraft so we don’t roll over and crash on take off. Another delay. I sigh loudly. Flying is just like eating out in restaurant. It’s the difficult and entitled idiots who make it tough for everyone else.
Eventually we’re back in the air and the captain comes on the PA again.
“Sorry about the delay, folks,” the captain says in that clipped Right Stuff accent all pilot seem to cultivate. “We had to turn around because we didn’t have enough fuel to fly to Kansas City at 9000 feet.”
I run some basic science though my head. The air is denser at 9000 feet than at 36,000 feet. Therefore, a plane would need more fuel to power through the air resistance at a lower altitude and finish the trip. What the …..?
“Jesus,” I say to my seatmate. “You mean they don’t fill the tanks to the brim every time we go up?”
“No way,” he says. “They do everything to try conserving weight and gas,”
“But that’s cutting it kind of close don’t you think? Having to fly at 36,000 and not 9000 feet in an emergency?”
My seatmate shrugs. “Ever since they stopped giving away free peanuts, flying sucks.”
I say nothing and look out my window. The darkening Missouri countryside rolls beneath us we fly towards the setting sun. I think about plowing into an anonymous cornfield at 600 miles per hour because some corporate bean counter wanted to save a few bucks.
For the first time during the entire flight, I’m scared.
NEWS FLASH! Wow! Talk about timing! I swear I didn’t read this article before I wrote this!