THE ECONOMIST: Working in an economy class airplane seat is a flight of fancy

The Economist
Credit: Will Pearce

You are not important enough to turn left on a plane.

But you are important enough for the company to want you to have completed a project-risk update by the time you land.

You have six solid hours in the air, and the work should take no more than three hours. You are not in a middle seat, and no one can email you. What could possibly go wrong?

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You find your seat, which is on the aisle. You take out your laptop and a book, and try to put them into the seat pocket in front of you. It is made for someone who has absolutely no interests but you manage, with some effort, to shove both of them in.

As the plane fills up, your hopes of space around you go down. You scan the people heading down the aisle. So does everyone else already in a seat. In this moment each passenger is being silently judged on only two criteria: girth and proximity to a baby.

Eventually you get up to make way for a couple to sit beside you. Could have been worse.

You waste the first hour of the flight faffing about. There is a surprising amount to do.

You go through every film in the on-board menu three times, surprised anew by how so much choice can yield so little enthusiasm. You stir pepper into a tomato juice while wondering what is supposed to be happening as a result; the grains remain on the surface, unmoved by your efforts. You eat a tiny bag of pretzels as slowly as you can. You fall dramatically and briefly asleep.

Eventually, it’s time. You attempt to remove the laptop and find it is completely wedged into the seat pocket. You tug at it, without success. You pull harder: nothing. And more violently still, until your grip suddenly loosens and your elbow flies back into the hand of the passenger next to you. The hand holding a glass. Also of tomato juice.

You apologise wildly. They are nice about it, but a palpable air of disgrace now hangs over seat 42H. You carefully pull back the seat pocket with your left hand as far as you can, and manage to lever the laptop out. To your right, a lot of murmuring and the dabbing of napkins.

You place the laptop on the tray table, turn the computer on and remember just how little room there is on a plane, especially now that you are determined to cause no more inconvenience to your neighbours.

You tuck your elbows in, and your hands dangle in front of you. You look like a T-Rex about to take dictation. Your neighbour immediately asks if she can get past. You retrace your movements, closing the laptop, folding the table, putting things away. In the galley you can see the crew readying the trolleys for lunch. Give it another hour, you think.

The meal passes without incident. You drink wine from a can and for some reason think this is a treat. You start to watch a film about a gorilla and a monster. You have no interest in this kind of thing normally, but it turns out to be truly excellent. The gorilla wins, or the monster does, or perhaps they both do. You have three hours to go.

The laptop comes out again, but by now the person in front of you has put their seat back. With your own seat reclining and the tray table pulled right out, you can have the screen open at an acute angle of around 60 degrees. You know that it’s important that strangers cannot read company documents over your shoulder.

But reading it for yourself would be nice. All you can really do is insert your hands into the small space above the keyboard and hope for the best. You type a sentence, pick up the laptop and angle the screen away from you, to read: “rag stusys: three redm seven amsber, two groin.”

You spend the next two hours typing blindly. Occasionally you pick the laptop up again to check on what you are writing.

You know what everything means but others would struggle to understand: it reads as though you are heroically drunk. You will have to go through everything again at the hotel.

Suddenly a noise. You peer at the screen and see that your laptop has announced that its battery levels are critical. Before you can think to yourself, “Did I save it?”, it starts shutting itself down. The screen goes dark. You stare at it in disbelief. You press the on/off button. Nothing.

One hour to go, and the crew is coming round again, with something they call “a light snack”.

As you chew on a sub-zero-temperature scone, you start to brighten up. You have got no work done. Your neighbours hate you. But you did drink canned wine while watching a film about a monkey and a monster.

Not a bad flight, all in all.

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