Recently I had to fly from Auckland to Sydney after a long spell of not being ‘up in the clouds’ – or above them, assuming all has gone well at take off. Not a long haul trip, just three and a half hours across the ‘ditch’ as it is called in these Antipodean parts and a doddle for seasoned fliers. But waking on the day of my flight, I felt the creeping aero-angst that had been permeating my body and soul for the previous two weeks occupy and master my mind as well. ‘No way,’ I said to my partner, as she set down a cup of tea beside the bed before setting off for work at 7.30 a.m. ‘I’ll be back to pick you up at lunchtime,’ she replied, ignoring the subtext of my remark, ‘have your cases packed and ready – and make sure they’re not overweight!’
The reassuring trivia of flying: weight of cases, getting to the airport on time, saying farewell to loved ones, looking forward to the return, checking tickets, and (since 9/11) the palaver of ensuring there are no liquids, aerosols or pointy sharp things in your hand luggage – and no guns. But I was not reassured this dark grey autumnal morning as a strong north-easterly wind blew in the remnants of a tropical storm, awakening white horses in the Hauraki Gulf and sleeping dogs in my fertile imagination. There is only water between Auckland and Sydney, I thought; nowhere for an emergency landing should something go awry, nowhere to run to, nowhere to hide; nothing between trusting passengers and an angry Tasman Sea, but an inch of metal and miles of empty air. Come on! I exhorted, flying is the safest form of travel – you’re more likely to have an accident driving to the airport than flying from it. Yes, replied the angst merchants, with something approaching glee, but chances of survival in an aero accident are the lowest.
I drank my Darjeeling tea and pursued my other early morning rituals – ablutions, shower, shave, apple juice, muesli and teeth clean – hoping the merchants would retire, with the dogs, to their murky quarters at the back of my mind and cease trading in fear. But they kept me company ritual by ritual, making new and ever more fearsomely seductive suggestions as to why flying – the act of being unnaturally thrust up into the air by two gas-guzzling, flame throwing jet engines – did not make sense. They cornered me, harangued me and ground me down, and faced with their apparently incontrovertible and evermore convincing arguments that air travel was a from of expensive suicide I decided I would have to cancel and suffer the scorn of my son in Sydney, the anger of my partner at home, and the annoyance of those with whom I had work and social appointments.
Then a brainwave hit the fractured coastline of my mind. I picked up the phone and dialled Air New Zealand. It was an outside chance and there would be loss of face involved – an admission of weakness unbecoming to a man or woman – but it was worth a try. ‘Do you offer assistance for nervous fliers?’ I asked. ‘You’re flying today?’ a woman’s voice asked, unfazed by the question. ‘Yes,’ I replied, trying to keep the angst at bay. ‘I’ll put you down for Special Assistance,’ the voice continued without batting a glottal stop or repressing a chuckle. ‘Your flight number, please.’ No laughing out of court, no suggestion that I take a running jump onto a boat or train or submarine, just a matter of fact and encouragingly supportive offer of problem-specific help along with the instruction to announce my presence at the Air New Zealand information point ninety minutes before departure.
The angst remained, but retreated into the shadows, seen off by a surge of curiosity about what Special Assistance would involve and a sense that I was no longer alone with my fear, but out of the closet and glad to be scared – alongside all the other SA requesters. My partner returned at lunchtime as agreed and seemed surprised to find me now relatively sane and sanguine about the flight, no longer threatening retreat or accepting defeat by the angst merchants. ‘Have you taken a pill or something?’ she enquired, as she checked the weight of my suitcases – she is smaller than me in height, but stronger in the lifting department. ‘No,’ I replied breezily. ‘So why so perky all of a sudden?’ ‘Air New Zealand is giving me special assistance,’ I said. ‘What’s that?’ ‘I have no idea. I told them I was scared and they offered to help.’ My partner laughed a warm laugh and gave me a hug, ‘Funny Bunny.’
At the appointed time Funny Bunny, wobbling inside but with hatches battened down externally, presented himself at the Air New Zealand desk in Auckland airport with his partner. ‘Someone will be with you in a minute, sir’ said a cheery Maori woman, who looked like she had never experienced fear of anything anywhere. Moments later the someone arrived (an equally cheery Caucasian woman), and chatting all the while took us both to the priority check-in desk, dealt with the two check-in bags and told us to take a seat in a waiting area nearby. As I watched my suitcases disappear down the conveyor belt, I remembered another occasion, several years earlier, when I had chickened out at the last minute and the airline had been compelled to hold up the plane and remove my luggage. There was an incentive to offer Special Assistance to nervous fliers: get these guys on the plane and keep them there!
And, judging by the procedures employed from now on, there was also a clear understanding in the SA team members minds of the worst moments for an aero-phobic: going through passport control and security and waiting in that morbidly named ‘departure lounge’ – spirits depart, living people leave, and many an angst case backs out in that last minute lounge when bags are on board but the body is not. After ten minutes of waiting and quiet encouragement from my partner, a uniformed Chinese man (Air New Zealand, like Auckland, is multicultural as a matter of course) appeared and pointed to a staff-only lift. ‘I will take you to the plane now,’ he said, picking up my hand luggage and adding, with a nod at my partner, ‘time to say goodbye.’ A marginal slip-up there, since angst-cases dislike the word good-bye (God be with ye) in the plane-boarding context preferring euphemisms that indicate temporary rather than possibly permanent separation, but his linguistic slip was more than compensated for by his discreet and solicitous manner. ‘See you soon,’ I said kissing my partner on cheeks and lips. ‘See you,’ she replied. ‘I’ll wait in the car park until you’re airborne. Good luck!’ I nodded, joined the man in the lift, waved and then the doors closed. I was on my own.
But not in the way you are normally on your own after crossing to the other side in an airport. No fluster as I faced down the x-rays, no ‘what do I do here’ at the hand luggage check, no getting one’s bags in a twist. In quick succession my minder took me through passport control and security (reminding me to remove my computer from its case, and scolding the customs team if they showed the slightest sign of impatience as I repacked), across the wasteland of duty free shops and other ‘boarding-side’ distractions and on to the designated departure lounge. Here my fellow passengers were, as usual, sitting in serried ranks their faces blank or long, bearing or dreading it, mobile to hand, earphones to ears – some ready to jump up and be first to board, others resigned to a long wait. ‘This way,’ said the SA minder, taking my arm. With practised movements he propelled me past the waiters, nodded at the official by the gate, held my ticket to an e-reader and swept me on through the short expandable tunnel that leads to the plane itself. No waiting, no time for second thoughts, no standing in a queue – to board or not to board, no longer the question.
At the plane’s entrance, he handed me and my hand luggage over to the cabin staff – one male, one female – already alerted and prepared for my arrival, shook my hand and departed. The cabin staff smiled and indicated an open door to the left just inside the plane’s entrance: ‘The Captain would like a word,’ they said in unison. It was the flight deck and there, facing me in his shirt sleeves with one leg sprawled over the pilot’s chair, was the plane’s captain. ‘Good day, Richard, welcome aboard! Thought you might like a look around, see how the bugger works.’ I gazed at the dials and dashboards not sure whether they made me feel more or less scared and listened as the captain gave an impromptu commentary. ‘These old crates’ll get you anywhere,’ – something reassuring about the word crate, less fragile and temperamental than a state-of-the-art machine – ‘I call them the Fords of the flying world, tough and reliable.’ He banged the joystick and gave me a broad grin. ‘Any questions?’ ‘Which way will we take off,’ I asked, the only question I could think of to ask, ‘to the West, towards Australia?’ ‘No, to the East, into the wind, then circle back over the city and out into the Tasman.’ He sounded more like a mariner than an airman, a captain keen to get up, up and away and into the great blue yonder. ‘Thank you,’ I said, taking a last look through the cockpit window at the runway from which we would soon be taking off. Special assistance was special with no stone left unturned to make you feel at ease and in safe hands; a thorough grounding in aero-normality and matter of fact-ness leaving little to chance or a phobic’s febrile imagination.
And they weren’t quite finished yet. As the female member of the cabin staff who had greeted me led the way down the aisle, she turned and whispered, ‘I’ll bring you a beer as soon as the safety belt lights go off. All right?’ I nodded and as we drew level with my seat allowed myself to be positioned in place and have my seat belt fastened by the male attendant, like a child being tucked into bed by his parents. My luggage was placed in an overhead locker, the controls of the TV explained and my seat adjusted to a comfortable position. And then, and only then, the other passengers – whether first, business, or just plain economy like me – began to board.
Take-off was fine, the turbulence tolerable, my mind in the hands of the aircrew not the merchants of fear, and during the flight the two attendants took it in turns to check if I was feeling all right, congratulated me when we landed in Sydney and hoped to see me again soon. I texted my son: ‘The Eagle – well, your Dad – has landed’. ‘Well done, Dad!!!!’ came the reply.
Well done, Special Assistance. But don’t try this unless you’re really aero-phobic – or a very good actor.