THE FLIGHT FROM JFK to Incheon, leaving at 1 pm and arriving at 5.30 pm the next day, is non-stop daylight in the late spring, passing over the remote Arctic and North Pole and taking 14 hours. Flying has always been exciting for me – though of course, as tranquil and spectacular as it is, the scenery only keeps a those passengers with window seats entertained for so long, and when you’re flying over the ocean, the entertainment better be damn good.
But this was different – I availed of the two-week mid-semester recess to attend conferences in New York, and as accommodating as lecturers were, deadlines remain, and as much as you think you can, you will never, ever do assessments effectively when overseas. And, having exhausted the monthly entertainment offering on the flight there, there weren’t many new things to offer – so it was time to load up all the reading materials to my laptop and prepare for the longest non-stop term-paper marathon of my college life.
Things went well for a couple of hours … then came the routine stretch and walk around. Yet, after all my fond New York experiences, I would still squeeze another memorable life lesson on the flight back.
Having my stretch in the galley, it was just after lunch, the peak hour for going to the bathroom on any long-haul flight. Almost immediately, I picked up on the conversation between the two others waiting – distinctly and unmistakably in Tagalog. When overseas, familiarity creates an instant personal bond. And travel conjures the most personal of scenarios – usually involving someone leaving work to go home, or vice versa. One, a civil engineer involved with the new World Trade Center; another, a simple wage earner going home to his massive family in Cebu.
A flight attendant noticed how long we had been there – before we knew it, an hour had passed. She could have responded with a casual smile, excused herself or asked us back to our seats. After all, things would get busier as drinks were in order. Did she do any of those? No … she joined in the conversation as she went on her rounds of drinks and snacks, naturally giving us the first taste of anything from the galley. It continued for about two hours – until the seat belt sign interrupted us.
But did that end it for this group we started? Of course not – as soon as it turned off again, back in the galley we were. And by now there were six of us. Being an avid travel reader, keeping in the loop and ever curious about the aviation and airline industry, I had heard of many of the things FAs go through. But even though she talked about aspects of her life that I had read and heard of in journals and articles, what she said took it to a new dimension. The company’s requirements, quirky passenger demands, the toll on her personal life, and the thrill of her job. Just like an expat … or a young conference goer. By the end of the flight, we passengers had exchanged business cards or contact before we parted ways at Incheon. Of course, we didn’t keep in touch that close. But, even if only for those hours, that social bond, between complete strangers, was there.
A notable trend in the airline industry has been emerging in many of the world’s best airlines. It has become an informal standard to reach this tier of air travel through launching the inflight experience of bars, lounges and social spaces in the first and business classes. These new spaces are touted as returns to some golden era where flying was more romantic, or on a more pragmatic sense, a space to rest, mingle and play.
But do airlines have to go all out to create these spaces artificially for their passenger experience? Or should the common individual not part of the exclusive premier class clientele be denied it? It certainly doesn’t have to be the case. The same lessons on the ground about creating spaces and experiences for people to connect and identify with ring true in the sky – that a tourism body, company or any institution can do their best to manufacture them, but they cannot create connections between people. Many an airline has been rewarded for superior inflight service – but while on board, they maintain the sterile professional veil. By contrast, I had my best experiences on the flight from JFK to Incheon Airport. The best experiences cannot be manufactured. They are the product of natural human openness, warmth and sincerity.