Workhorse 737s can strut, too.
Workhorse 737s can strut, too.
Fans of the business of flying should take a look at Jason Rabinowitz’s Twitter feed. His coverage of how the storm affected east coast flight operations is fascinating. He’s @AirlineFlyer. Also, see the article Why Did New York’s JFK Airport Struggle to Cope With Its Flight Backlog After the Bomb Cyclone? from The Points Guy.
On this US Thanksgiving holiday, here is a reprise of a story I filed after a flight out of Bangkok a few years back, destination, the Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon. We traveled in august company.
Happy Thanksgiving, everybody.
Thimpu, capital of the Kingdom of Bhutan
“Your Royal Highness, Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome aboard,” the captain says.
Protocol, apparently, seats Her Royal Highness in seat 1A. I am seated in 2A, so here is the story of my flight behind a member of the Royal Bhutanese House of Wangchuk.
We’re on a flight via Druk Air, the Bhutanese national airline, from Bangkok through Bagdogra, India, to Paro, Bhutan’s gateway airport. The check-in clerk asks if we’d prefer row one or two. She checks her screen and says whoops, I’ll need to put you in row two because row one is reserved for the royal family.
The royal family apparently gets to stay in a more exclusive airport lounge than we do, because when we arrive at the plane (via bus, about eight miles out on the tarmac) Her Royal Highness (HRH) and her escort are already seated. Her Royal Hair is jet black, held up in a gauzy clip, and from my seat directly behind her I see that it takes a while for her to get comfortable. She fiddles with the royal blue (what else?) pillow, resting it behind Her Royal Neck then putting it on her armrest and just resting Her Royal Head on the back of the seat. In the process of making this adjustment I see that Her Royal Fingers bear a number of rings.
HRP (Her Royal Perfume) is overbearing, I fear. I can’t be 100% sure it’s hers but she’s in 1A, her escort in 1B is male, then there’s Mirja and me in 2A & B and there’s a little boy behind me in row 3, there’s a guy across the aisle in 1D and nobody in 2D. I’m afraid she’s the prime suspect. HRP is cloying, sweet and heavy.
HRE (Her Royal Escort) may or may not be much younger than me, hard to tell, but I can report that he prefers today’s Bangkok Post and Nation to yesterday’s Kuensel, the Bhutan paper. Maybe he’s already read yesterday’s Keunsel. I can also report that HRE doesn’t have any facial hair, wears a dazzling diamond ring on his right hand and a high thread count blue and white pin-striped short sleeved shirt. He also has a fine silver watch. It appears he has declined breakfast service. He’s gone to sleep, courteously not reclining his seat back into Mirja’s lap.
HRH has chosen tomato juice and will join us in the breakfast service. She has ordered coffee, served with cream. It looks like HRE will skip breakfast, as he continues to nap. The two flight attendants, young women both, keep stealing glances at 1A & B from behind the curtain in the galley and as they roll the carts up and down the aisle.
In Bhutanese culture it is customary to cover the mouth and say meshu meshu, demurring once or twice before accepting when offered food. It appears to be protocol, or at least respectful, to cover ones mouth when addressing HRH, too. The crew does so while serving the food and does a little kowtow.
HRH goes vegetarian this morning so I decide to eat like a queen and have the same: We start with standard plastic-wrapped assorted fruit on a banana leaf, coffee & cream, a wrapped Matterhorn Suisse cheese, bread from a basket with a pat of “Allowrie” butter. The main dish HRH and I enjoy is a fiery hot tofu, fungus, rice and Chinese cabbage. She gets extra chilli sauce from a silver cup, we get it in a tiny plastic pre-dispensed tub. The service concludes with four Imperial brand “Rosy” crackers, panna cotta and two chocolates.
After the food service HRH dives into the duty free magazine, first and not surprisingly stopping in the perfume section, then checking out the sunglasses. HRE continues sleeping as we fly up over Burmese ridges, or Bangladeshi, I don’t know, all of them barren of human development.
This Airbus A 319 must be old. The seat back pockets snap on and off. Not a modern look. One side of the seat back pocket behind HRH and in front of me just hangs there, unsnapped.
Coffee and tea are served in Drukair china and the napkins are linen, with the Drukair logo.
HRH buys a duty free bottle of Lancome perfume and a Bulgari perfume suspected to be Omnia Amethyste EDT from the Burgari Women Collection, and pays in cash in crisp, new Thai Baht. HRE has to wake up for all this reaching across, which is complicated by the crew having to fold their hands over their mouths while bagging up and delivering the goods.
During this period we learn HRH has a deep, raspy, smoker’s voice. In all the commotion HRE makes for the air vent above his head and apparently thinks he might have a go at some duty free himself, opening up the magazine. Finally he declines but now that he’s awake, he elects to have breakfast, making straight for the panna cotta. As time goes on HRE presents as an engaged and expressive fellow in a tight mustache.
Alas, and after all this, I learn that HRH is not a queen, or queen mother (or, in the case of Bhutan, where four sisters were married to the previous king, a queen mother’s sister). I inquire up in the galley.
Is HRH a wife of the fourth king?
No, the cabin crew tell me, she’s an Auntie of the 4th king.
(The reigning, fifth king, is Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck. His father, the fourth king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck abdicated in favor of his son in 2006.)
Auntie has a big black handbag with two gold handles and tons of rings on her fingers. HRE still sleeps as after the breakfast service HRH’s little standard issue airline pillow falls between her armrest and the wall and onto my camera bag. Unsure of the protocol surrounding Royal Pillows, I decide I’d better not shove it back up there, so I keep the royal pillow next to my own.
After a time HRH starts rooting around looking for it so I gingerly offer it up and get a smile, nod and Royal Thank You.
I’ve done all I can here. My day is done.
Assuming this is legit, and it appears to be – the Hotel of Doom seems to be out there in the distance – it’s most interesting. Pyongyang appears to have all the modern amenities … and almost no traffic.
This week’s United Airlines debacle raises questions besides the violation-of-decency-in-search-of-corporate-efficiency one. The Libertarian blog Reason makes a salient point under the headline Why Should Police Help United Airlines Cheat Its Customers?
Blurring the lines between private enterprise and quasi-law enforcement bodies makes me nervous. When it’s just you and me, hapless Joes trying to catch a flight, who really knows who has what authority in airports?
The men who hauled that United passenger down that aisle were Chicago Aviation Police, unarmed, sorta real cops who play “an important, supplementary role in keeping [Chicago airports] safe by overseeing access points.”
Would you know that at the moment they muscled their way down the aisle? Does it matter? Should you just instantly cave in forfeiture of your rights to anybody in uniform? It seems like that’s what the enforcement cadres would prefer, in the name of keeping you safe.
There are God knows how many entities said to be looking out for your best interests in airports. Homeland Security people, uniformed TSA people, your local police, anybody an airline or rental car agency or for that matter, TGI Fridays down in the food court might slap a uniform on. If the guy who drives the Marriott shuttle and wears the official cap yells and screams real authoritatively, what about him, too?
In a sympathetic article from many years ago, “Chicago-area airport security chief Jim Maurer” says “What I think is unique about airports is this is a business. And our job is to make sure that that business is conducted efficiently. We’ve got to get people in and out of the airport and we’ve got to get them to their destinations. There’s a whole different perspective.”
Sure is a different perspective. We’re not enforcing laws. We’re making sure business, like United Airlines’ business, is conducted efficiently.
So why are they called police? Why are government bodies in service of private profit-making?
I was flying around doing reporting trips for my book Out in the Cold in 2015, and once after returning from the Arctic, I found a card the size of the customs form inside my bag.
“Notice of Baggage Inspection from the Department of Homeland Security: To protect you and your fellow passengers your bag and its contents may have been searched for prohibited items. At the completion of the inspection, the contents were returned to your bag.”
They say “may have been.” I’m pretty sure that if they didn’t open the bag I wouldn’t have found the notice inside. You figure?
“If the TSA security officer was unable to open your bag for inspection because it was locked, the officer may have been forced to break the locks on your bag.”
May have been.
“TSA sincerely regrets having to do this, however TSA is not liable for damage to your locks….”
Of course not.
The Department of Homeland Security claims their entitlement to the inside of your property in the name of your security. This is unsettling because what might they need to seize next to keep you safe? Your social media passwords?
Unsettling too because this week cops can haul you bleeding from your paid-for flight. Note that after auditioning all the other options, United CEO Munoz finally apologized, but no enforcement organization I’m aware of has distanced itself from the Chicago Aviation Police.
You just wait for the day that TGI Fridays cop splays you out on the floor on account of your complaint about the cold fries.
YOU’RE IN THE AIRPORT. I’M HERE TO KEEP YOU SAFE.
Also published here on Medium.
When a constituency has been beaten down for long enough a crystallizing moment can prove fatal. Beware tonight, United Airlines. Beaten Down: Airline passengers. Average seat pitch formerly 35 inches, 31 now. Fees, fees and more fees. United Airlines, already last in customer satisfaction, richly deserves the pain coming from it’s just really ugly, unforgivable police action today.
The frowning, sometimes dimly-qualified, testosterone-pumped enforcement cowboys whose gauntlet you must run these days to all the airlines’ friendly skies may wish to think otherwise, but the interior of an airplane is not a war zone. Although you wouldn’t know it on this day.
Honest now, most likely United Airlines chairman Oscar Munoz, like a thousand other captains of industry, kissed his wife and kids and obeyed traffic rules this morning on the way to the office. There is no reason to believe he did anything besides look after his shareholders’ interests right up until, entirely outside his control, an incident occurred on board one of his planes waiting to leave O’Hare airport.
Mr. Munoz’s company needed four of its employees to be somewhere other than Chicago and all of the passengers declined to volunteer their bought and paid for seats for the airline’s benefit.
The airline tried to bargain with its customers. The first offer? $400. No takers. The second? $800. Again, no takers. People gotta go where they gotta go. Interesting to note: rules are, passengers are eligible for up to $1,350 for such a disruption but United Airlines apparently decided not to offer more than $800. They preferred to enlist strong men to haul a paying passenger from his seat instead.
It would appear that in the wake of the incident, after a wavering moment of incipient decency in which Chairman Munoz called the incident “an upsetting event to all of us here at United,” the chairman tilted awry by calling the bumped passenger “disruptive and belligerent.” Said he, the airline agents “were left with no choice but to call Chicago Aviation Security Officers to assist in removing the customer from the flight.”
The passenger declined to be forcibly bumped from a flight he had paid for with money or airline miles, because the airline thought a better use of his seat was to transport its own employees. (And answer me this, why should police abet the airline in the airline’s wrongdoing?)
A single event won’t usually overtake a career. On this one, Mr. Munoz, who was under fire just last week for denying passage to teenage girls for wearing leggings, just might get caught up in the deluge. Sometimes, a constituency beaten down for long enough will rise up. Sometimes a big enough misstep from the loftiest heights can lead you over the corporate cliff.
Even while I have written just now, I see 2310 new Tweets with the hashtag #United. Since Mr. Munoz kissed his wife and kids this morning, I wonder if he may have kissed his job goodbye.
“The plane was really small and so I figured, would that make it to Australia?”
Dutch student Milan Schipper on transferring through Toronto on his way to the wrong Sydney.