Wednesday, August 18, 2010

What Would You Have Done?

Every time I go to Sri Lanka, something that happens a lot these days, I fly with Sri Lankan Airlines.

Is it because of the fantastic customer service RD?

Is it because of the modern, clean and efficient fleet of aircraft RD?

Is it because they offer such brilliant value for money oh Rhythmic one?

Or is it due to the airline's amazing ability to always take off and land within twenty four hours of the stated take off and landing time?

No, piss off. It's none of those. It's because they are currently the only airline to fly direct from London to Colombo, despite the fact that an almost one hour stop at Male, which adds about two or three hours to the journey, is still strangely called direct.

My need to be highly efficient with my annual leave and maximise my time there it's become advantageous to get there in as short a time as possible. So it's my choice, but there's hardly an extensive menu from which to choose.

Since the divorce, that of Sri Lankan airlines and Emirates rather than my own one, things on the national carrier have got worse, in its weirdly idiosyncratic way. The in flight entertainment system is now a hit and miss affair, it's just stupid to expect one that works and even more stupid to expect anything to be done about a broken one should you encounter such. For most passengers mealtime would be far simpler if the printed menus actually said

"You'll get whatever we've got left"

instead of the delicious sounding descriptions of the meal choices that they tempt us with only to continually disappoint.

There are other gripes I have, but this post wasn't to talk about them, though one of my biggest feelings is one of having nowhere to go, no one to complain to on Sri Lankan, as there seems to be not a soul that actually cares.

I'd like to ask you what you would have done if you'd been faced with the situ I met last week. I was returning to London with A and K, my daughters. If you're good at maths you'd already have worked out that there were three of us.

These days I know that the only way to get the seating arrangement you want, though far from guaranteed, is to go online and reserve it. Waiting until you turn up at the airport to check in is pointless unless you're the type who has outriders and the power to stop Colombo traffic when you nip down to the shops for a new Aston Martin.

So, some weeks ago I'd reserved our seats online, for both the outbound and the return journeys. For the girls I'd booked a window seat with the accompanying aisle seat and for myself the window seat behind them, something we're all happy with. They like to sit together and watch movies and sleep and I get to be close to them, though that's far more for my peace of mind than it is for them.

When we checked in I was told that the seat next to me had been blocked, a good result especially considering the flight was almost full, and I looked forward to some space and some sleep, all aided by my trusty inflatable pillow.

We got on the plane, took our seats, then put them back and sat down. Things were looking good. Then I heard some angry voices, well one actually and it was coming from an Indian woman. I joined in with the rest of the aircraft (we had no choice) and listened to the conversation.

It seemed that she was travelling with her husband and two young kids of about three and seven and they had been allocated seats that weren't all together. The husband was with one child and she was with another one with a considerable distance between each pair. She was protesting that she needed to be seated with both the kids, as they were young and needed to be with their mother, for the whole flight.

I must admit that this somewhat irked me. I was brought up in an environment that had some roles of the sexes but was largely mixed and I've brought my kids up, as has their mother, in a situation in which either parent does what's necessary at the time. When they were young I changed nappies, fed them, stayed up in the night with them and generally did whatever I could.

When the Indian lady was shouting and huffing that both her kids needed to be with her I found that I had sympathy for a situation, that of her kids not getting what they were used to, but I didn't agree with the fundamentals of it.

Then it became apparent that they hadn't reserved any seats, they had just gone to check in and only at that stage asked about getting seats together. I, the smartarse regular Sri Lankan airlines flyer, still felt sympathy but now it was mixed with smugness and annoyance.

The crew were trying to help her, using their best attempts at extrapolating logic to figure out who they could ask to move in order to give the lady what she wanted. K, sitting in front of me, was about fourteen steps ahead of all the adults with her logic and had already worked out the easiest solution. She shared this with me and I told her to keep quiet, as it involved me moving to South Africa or something.

Some minutes elapsed and then the stewardess looked at me. I tried my best to avoid eye contact, something that she seemed to be very good at whenever anyone tried to get her attention later in the flight, but I failed with a level of success that was simply astounding.

"Excuse me sir but would you mind sitting over there and then this lady could have these two seats?"

She pointed to a seat that was a bit of a distance away. It was easily within sight of my kids but would have eliminated any possibility of conversation with them without a journey involving asking several other people to move. As K still suffers from travel sickness I was concerned about this.

Meanwhile in the background the Indian lady was creating merry hell, shouting all sorts of rubbish about splitting up families, telling them at the check in desk and then issuing the ultimate threat, that of never flying with Sri Lankan Airlines again. Surprisingly the crew didn't appear bothered about it.

Fortunately K's earlier comment to me had alerted me to the possibility of being asked to move and I had rehearsed my answer. My thinking, that is to say the answer in my head if it were wholly unedited, would have gone something like this:

"No, fuck off. I reserved my seats months ago and the facts that the lady didn't and that her beliefs/culture/lifestyle choices mean that her husband is incapable of looking after a child for a mere eleven hours or so do not make this my problem. And I don't get to spend as much time with my kids as I'd like to so I treasure times like this anyhow. And I want a window seat, I love this country and like to say goodbye to it when I leave."

Of course, being the polite Englishman when faced with a situation like this, the actual words that came out were:

"Look, I'd like to help the lady, but I reserved the seats a long time ago, so I'd rather not move as I want to be near my kids (pointing a whispy hand in the direction of A and K (whispy because I didn't want them to see or hear and then announce that they would be fine if I moved)) (I like brackets you know)"

I'd figured that my answer, without committing to a firm yes or no, would leave the onus on the stewardess. And genuinely I felt some sympathy for the Indian mother, not to be confused with an Indian mother.

The stewardess looked at me and I could hear her brain working, trying to figure out if I'd agreed to her request or not. It became apparent that she'd taken my retort as a negative one when she sloped off and thanked me. I felt all manly and assertive, like an American or a Sri Lankan in a queue, not British at all, and I found it distinctly uncomfortable. I just managed to suppress my desire to shout after her and tell her that it would be fine, that I'd sit on the wing if it helped, as long as I could have a blanket or something when it got cold.

Guilt was flooding all over me. I was swimming in the stuff. Splitting up families, having two seats to myself, it wasn't the Indian lady's fault that she didn't know to check in online, A and K would be more than happy to sit by themselves, call yourself a drummer. All these things were rushing through my mind. The call yourself a drummer bit wasn't to do with the situation at hand, it just occurs to me at regular intervals anyway, I just thought it's better to tell you the details.

Then I saw it, heading towards me. It was a gangly Indian youth, or perhaps I should say ganguly. Everything about him was floppy. His hair, his limbs, his clothes and even his bumfluff, of which there was a fair amount. He looked as though he'd just dipped his face in the glue vat at the Post It note factory then walked past a barber's shop at the end of a quiet day as they were sweeping the hair onto the pavement at the front.

He brought some things, settled himself in the seat next to me and said something to his mother a few seats away. There was that hint of BO, BO covered up by cheap deodorant. It took some investigation but eventually I confirmed that it was from him, not me. I breathed a sigh of relief, a shallow one.

That was the solution, to move the lad next to me and rearrange things so that the irate Indian lady finally got her three seats together.

As you'll have realised if you've read this far, these things play on me. Was I too selfish or was I just asserting myself to get what I was entitled to? Should I have let the lady have my seat or were my feelings about her attitude towards parental roles getting in the way?

So, my favourite reader.

What would you have done?


Charlene said...

I am not sure, having no kids and having given up air travel forever!

I would have told the stewardess that I'd be happy to move to another part of the plane that gave me easy conversational distance to my children and a window seat, as that is what I had planned, made reservations and paid for. I'd have smiled while I said it.

With the new "Eat Pray Love" movie coming out, I don't think flying to Shri Lanka is going to improve in the near future.

Lady divine said...

I like window seats too..

If that lady really needed to be with her kids, then she should've arranged it before without making a fuss after getting on the plane.

Depending on my mood, if the kids were really small, then I would've definitely given them my seat...

If not, I would've said 'sorry, I reserved this seat some time back. But if you can give me another window seat, then Im ok to move.'

T said...

ugh. i would have changed, nothing is worth sitting next to someone with BO. Though I suppose you didnt know that in advance.

thekillromeoproject said...

I think you did the right thing.

Sach said...

You did well, relax RD.

Rhythmic Diaspora said...

Charlene - Given up flying? why's that, if you don't mind me asking.

Thanks for the opinions so far. I'd expected a barrage of people telling me how cruel and heartless I was!

PseudoRandom said...

Seeing as I travel alone and I usually sleep/watch movies throughout the flight, I'd be more than willing to move...IF the woman hadn't behaved like such a cow.

She should've mentioned her 'seating preference' to the travel agent when she was booking the tickets, so that they could put a request to the airline...failing which, she should've reserved online...and failing that, she should've requested adjacent seats at check-in. If all that didn't work, she should've shut up and loosened that umbilical cord.

Regarding flying to SL...yes UL is the only direct flight (and you can choose a flight that doesn't go via Male when you book), but considering that UL rarely leaves on time, you might be better off flying on one of the Middle Eastern airlines - sometimes the transit time is only 3hrs-ish, which is fine. And it gives your legs time to stretch properly. You just have to be wary of the housemaids asking you to fill in their landing cards.

Resident Princess said...

I think you did the right thing RD although my reasoning would have been totally different. I just dislike Indians! :)

May I suggest you fly Emirates in the future. The in-flight entertainment is super. Wouldn't fly Sri Lankan if given the choice. Emirates all the way!

shi. said...

i hate sri lankan airlines.

the last time i flew with them, EVERY sector had an undeclared transit. my family had to wait 1 hour for me in London and 2 hours for me in Colombo, and i nearly missed meeting a friend in KL. It's like they think that customers don't deserve to be told *actual* arrival times.

and one time, they woudn't give me a diet coke cos it was breakfast time. then i saw them happily fetching coke for white people.

JP said...

RD , I would have done same and said no sorry if I was traveling with family. But ofcourse my daughter is still at an age I could give an excuse . If I was travelling alone then might have considered. You know this karmic thing sone times pays off and you end up in a seat with more leg space. As for the tardiness, gaps in customer svc etc, there's such a homely feeling flying Srilankan when you are coming to SL . As if almost a crash course in Colombo life.

Rhythmic Diaspora said...

Pseudo - Yes, it's just that it always makes me smile in a puzzled way when I see the flight via Male classed as direct. To be fair the woman was saying that she had asked about adjacent seats at check in. My impression was that because everyone checks in online these days there were none available.

Resident P - I think I'm past being tempted by in flight entertainment. Give me my iPod, my Kindle and my inflatable pillow and I'm more or less content!

Shi - I don;t get what you mean about the sector thing, please explain.

JP - Yes, you're right about CMB life, but somehow SriLankan Airlines has its own uniquely sub standard feel no!

magerata said...

I knew it, these drummers they pretend to be good!
I too fly a bit more than many and I always get tossed about by kind airline staff when things like Indian lady happens.Mainly because I am solo and perhaps mu cute face. So I have this knack for grabbing/asking a class higher when they want to replant me from my seat. Usually there are some empty seats among those expensive ones. It almost always work with direct flights, like over Atlantic or Pacific.
Sri Lankan airlines? yes I flew them once, a long time ago.
Either way be good to others, but be good to yourself first, otherwise it is not fun like those quizzes you tried! :)

aufidius said...

Call yourself a drummer!? haha! super!

Jeev said...

A. Was I too selfish?

B. Was I just asserting myself to get what I was entitled to?

C. Should I have let the lady have my seat?

D. Were my feelings about her attitude towards parental roles getting in the way?

And the correct answer is....B!

Marc said...

RD are airfares cheaper in London or Colombo ? In my case since I visit SL at least 1-2 a year I buy my tickets in Colombo. This works out at least $200 cheaper than Melbourne and also there is no 'peak' period in Colombo, so when I fly back at Christmas time I save over $1000 !
Just wondering whether you have explored this option given that you travel to SL so often..
The only downside is you will need to buy a one way ticket on your first time commencing this..

Rhythmic Diaspora said...

Marc - I don't really know but I always book online these days, sometimes via a specific agent I've use for a while and other times via the Srilankan Airlines site direct.

Because I often go for short trips I can't really take a chance on which return flight I get so I prefer to have it all booked beforehand, even if it has cost me a bit more than booking from SL might cost.

It's certainly worth considering if I was to go for a few weeks though, thanks for the idea.