Flying has never been my forte. As an anxious flyer, it can be easy to view the airport experience as a huge ordeal. I always feel a pinch of jealousy when people say it’s only the taking off or landing that they fear, leaving them to enjoy the duration of the flight in peace. I on the other hand fear the whole journey, except for the landing when I know I’m finally coming back to ground. The moment the plane touches the runway, I get a rush of joy, relief and thankfulness — as well as the realisation that all those bargains I just made with God if I land safely will now require a whole lot of effort.
Thankfully, for those of you who share in my fear of flying, there are thousands of other people up in the sky at the same time and they open up a vista into human kindness. More often than not, it is in these tremulous moments of travel, when time seems to slip from our control, that we can see a glimpse of humanity’s kinder side by sharing a conversation with a perfect stranger.
A pro-Trump, country lovin’ Texan
As I prepared to fly for the first time to the USA, I was equally excited as I was apprehensive. Everyone joked about the ‘pond’ that lay stretched between us on this eight-hour flight to Chicago.
In my case, I soon discovered that I was sitting next to a pro-Trump, country lovin’ Texan who addressed me as ‘mam’ and stood up to help with my overhaul luggage. As the plane stopped and started multiple times before take off (the energy on board the flight was somewhat of a challenge, we were told), I realised to my horror that there was no in-flight entertainment: no TV screens, no headphone to plug into the arm rests, not even magazines. Slowly it became apparent that choosing the cheapest airline isn’t the best option for the most nervous of flyers.
I shared my disappointment with my fellow neighbour who asked if I would like to listen to his music, although he couldn’t assure me that it would be to my taste. However, eight hours later of Blake Shelton, Chris Stapleton and Luke Combs, and I can honestly say I loved it!
It seems insignificant, but sharing in each other’s music immediately opens us up to another person’s world; their experiences and identity. It was amidst this country music that we began asking one another questions about politics and faith. He was a Trump supporter that couldn’t understand my concerns regarding racism and the treatment of migrants and women. Neither of us had heard the other’s perspective because he had never read a paper like The Guardian, just as I had never watched Fox News. Unlike myself, who identifies as a left-leaning Christian, my plane partner had no religious beliefs. We were clearly worlds apart. And yet, this eight-hour flight, where we sat next to each other with nothing to entertain us but us, offered the opportunity to listen to one another’s points of view; and, leave as friends.
A Pilot’s UN Translator wife
As I flew to Paris for work, the pilot made an announcement to say it was snowing in Paris so landing may be slightly turbulent. The Tur-bu-lance word instantly made me grip my armrests.
However, the redhead next to me in her ankle-length fur coat offered me a comforting smile and asked what I was planning on doing in the city of love. We happened to be living in the same 16th arrondissement and the hour-long flight which I had been dreading was rapidly starting to feel too short for our breathless conversation.
As we began our descent, she asked if I knew where WHSmith was? I shook my head — who knew there was a WHSmiths in Paris? ‘You need my help’, she laughed and tore a piece of paper from her notebook. ‘Contact me when you’re back home and I’ll send you a ton of information to help you get around. Feel free to visit me’.
In a flight as short as an hour, my neighbour had offered me comfort and guidance that lasted long after our trip ended.
An oil rig (Dubai-based) father
A middle-aged man sat by the window and asked what course I am studying at university, why I was leaving Paris, what I thought of Brexit and talked fondly of his wife and children. As the trolley came down the aisle on our delayed flight, he asked: ‘do you want anything?’ Odd I thought, it’s usually the stewards that ask this. However, as I had only got through customs within five minutes of my flight boarding, leaving me no time for breakfast, I decided to ask for an Earl Grey and a croissant. ‘Here – let me get these’, he instantly replied, calling over my shoulder to the air hostess. ‘Students shouldn’t have to pay!’ he joked.
What was a couple of pounds loose change to him, made my day. I couldn’t even remember what I was afraid of for the rest of the flight.
I’m sure most of these people spoke to me because of my very obvious fear of flying. You know the symptoms; the panic-stricken face, the sweaty hands, the constant back and forth between staring at the air hostesses for any clues and checking the wings every second to make sure something isn’t wrong with the fuselage.
When we’re 30,000 feet high we are reminded of the tiny place we take up in the world and our basic need to feel safe. It is here in these moments, when humanity (which at times can be consumed with its own selfishness), is revealed in its most selfless capacity.
So if you’re travelling this summer (as one fellow passenger to another), can I encourage you to offer a sign or word of comfort to your nervous neighbour. Be it a smile, an introduction, an offer to buy them a cup of tea, or even asking them questions about their trip! When we give people the opportunity, they will always rise to the occasion and surprise us.