Up In The Air

I still remember the very first time I flew. It was a hot March morning in 2002, when I bid goodbye to Kolkata and prepared to come face to face with the noisy little winged creatures that used to fly over our home. Jet Airways’s flight 9W 201, which would leave Mumbai at 6 in the morning and be in Kolkata by 9, would take on more passengers and leave for Guwahati at 9:55. It would be at the Lokopriya Gopinath Bordoloi Airport at Guwahati by 11 AM.

Gate to gate, the flight would last an hour and five minutes. It would spend fifty of those minutes in the air. In about a month, I’m going to be travelling halfway around the world, spending nearly twenty hours in the air across two flights.

A lot has changed in these twelve years. Both in the airline industry, and in me.

In the two years that we lived in Guwahati, we used to make a round trip to Kolkata every two months or so. 9W 201, and the return flight numbered 9W 207, had almost become buses that we’d just turn up at the airport, buy tickets and board. In those days, fares always remained constant (Indian Airlines began toying with “apex fares” - dynamic fares set according to demand - sometime in the beginning of 2003). I’ve never flown anything other than economy class, and in those days, even economy was a treat.

Now in 2002, I was eight years old. I was pretty small, too small to make a meaningful comment on legroom. But the seats were cushy and very comfortable, and just after boarding, flight attendants would come over with a wicker basket full of all kinds of candy, and cotton balls for the ears, and I could help myself to a fistful. I still have some of the bags that I had collected courtesy of the JetKids programme - where every “kid” would get a bag of some sort full of goodies. They were pretty big bags.

Even the cutlery was unique. The spoons and forks were plastic, but they were blue and engraved with floral motifs. They would always have a special small spoon for the pudding, with the Jet Airways sun on the other end of the handle. The main course itself would come on an oval tray, with a semi-transparent amber rim. I will admit to haveing taken a few of them home.

Oh, and the yellow roses. Every desk or table in a Jet Airways city office would have a bouquet of yellow roses. I still love yellow roses. I’m not one to buy flowers, but if I ever saw a florist selling yellow roses I would definitely buy a few.

Flying is still fun. But in the days of old, the holiday began at the airport. Now it begins after landing.

Back in the day, I used to be dressed in my Sunday best when flying. I used to have a bow tie, which was standard flying attire, and I was apparently a huge success with the flight attendants, who would greet me in their widest smile and their best singsong voice, and I would greet them back in the exact same tone, with much teasing from my father to follow. These days, by force of habit I still dress somewhat formally for flights, but I cannot remember the last time I’ve ever made eye-contact or exchanged words with a flight attendant, except for when they’re serving meals.

Back in the day, I would be too excited to take my eyes off the outside. These days, on many flights I just lean against the window and sleep.

Back in the day I used to look forward to meal services on the flights. Now I eat at home or at the airport, and don’t buy anything on board. On the few long-haul flights I’ve been on, where they serve meals, I’ve had to make multiple trips to the galley to fill up on snacks, just because the quantity of food served in economy class these days leave the stomach wanting so much more.

Everything today is minimal and measured. Niceties that we would expect to experience only a few years ago are now reserved only for the people who can pay through their nose. In the old days, much was written about the romance of air travel. I’ve been fortunate enough to live through the twilight period of the golden age of air travel, and I miss every single bit of it.

But then all of the above is true for almost every other aspect of modern life as well.

Modern life.