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Thursday, April 19, 2012

Seat Recline and Air Rage: My story

This blog post contain words that may not be suitable to all ages, and may offend some people.
If you are easily offended, please don't read this blog entry!

It is not everyday I get asked to write about a personal experience on my blog. Today's story was thanks to reading this tweet:
@APEXmary: Do Passengers Have the “Right to Recline?” http://t.co/btZi8HwE
The link points to a blog post on Boarding Area by Angelina: Do passengers have the "Right to Recline?" and it mentioned "two passengers even got into a fist fight in-flight over a reclined seat, which prompted an emergency landing in 2010." 

Now those of you who do not like to read long stories, skip to "The Flight From Hell!" As for @9V-SKA and @APEXmary, I must torture both of you by asking you to read the whole story!

The Right to Recline? The argument goes both ways!
The "Right to Recline" is something that has irked me in my over the past 15 years of my 30 years of flying around in economy (Yes! Economy! That's where you feel the airline's genuine product culture!). You're still eating your dinner with a nice small wine bottle and suddenly the person sitting in front of you slams the seat back into full recline, hitting the (not empty) wine bottle at such an angle that it became a projectile onto my forehead and oozing red wine all over my lap. Luckily this only happened to me once, but at one stage, tea and water were frequent flyers when I'm sitting! I quickly learnt that more often than not, your meal tray can be pulled towards you to prevent such a mishap, but you'd only do that outside mealtimes because you're also reclined.

I've always tried to be courteous when it comes to seat reclining. Whenever I want to recline, I recline slowly. If I have someone who asked me not to recline because he or she is still having a drink, I do point out that the tray can be pulled back towards them. They're usually thankful being informed of such a feature, but when they're not, they usually let me know when they've finished so I can recline.

It's all about courtesy. It's too obvious, but...

The airline for my Flight from Hell!
Good service, bad passengers,
Building up to "The Flight from Hell!"
Back in the 90s, I usually make 2 round-trips a year between where I went to school, the UK, and home, Indonesia. I used to try out different airlines, and my favourite choices were Cathay Pacific (where I'd take the morning flight from Jakarta and spend the day at gate 1 in Kai Tak and watch the runway action until the last flight to London), or SAS (who had the best galley parties for insomniac passengers!)... yes, those were the days. One airline came along promising the best service in the sky, and it had footrests and PTVs in economy. It was Emirates. The routing in the early days was kinda hell-ish. CGK-SIN-CMB-DXB, and then DXB-LHR, or the other way around, served by the comfortable but damn slow A300-600s and A310-300s.

Emirates operated the A300-600 to
London Heathrow in the 90s until
A330s and B777s replaced them
The flight back from Heathrow to Jakarta was poorly timed for my liking. There was an LGW-DXB flight, on an A310-300, but it was full on that day, so I had to settle for the LHR flight which was a midday departure out of Heathrow, so I had to leave very early from the south coast, to London Gatwick, then catch the bus to Heathrow. After the first hop, you arrive in Dubai like you do today, at some un-Godly hour in the morning at the dingy old terminal, and then catch the always crowded multi-stop to Jakarta, and always at the end of the easterly departure bank... ie: the sun had risen by the time you leave!

Morning coffee was always required to get to Emirates to fly home. One day, I had too much coffee, leaving me wide awake until very near the end of the hop to Dubai. Deboarding by stairs, one would be greeted by armed soldiers next to the buses, only to be greeted by smiling but armed soldiers with loaded and cocked sub-machine guns saying "Good morning, welcome to Dubai, that way please!" Dubai's old terminal (now terminal 2) back then, was quite spartan. You have a huge duty free shop, a restaurant, and few overpriced coffee shops, and very few seats for the hub-transfer bank hours.

I recognized a few passengers from my previous flight going to Jakarta, most of them were backpackers heading out to some un-touristy parts of Indonesia. As more and more flights from Europe came, backpackers and students, attracted more backpackers and student to congregate together while waiting for the flight to Jakarta. No sleep for the weary!

An Emirates A310-300 departing Dubai
When boarding time came, us insomniacs had to fight through passengers bound for Colombo, mostly labourers going home on holiday (with all the usual fuss, hustle and bustle, and aggravation). Once the sun was up, we were on our way for the short-ish hop to Colombo. Again, no sleep no matter how hard you try. The flight was full, and you don't want to miss breakfast after a long wait in Dubai.

How to go from London to Jakarta on Emirates in
early 90s. Note the stop in Colombo!
Back in those days, the stop in Colombo was a mess as usual. 75% of the passengers would leave with a lot of noise, and leave a messy cabin behind for the equally noisy cleaning crew to sort the mess out (and they're good at it!). Us transit passengers have to say on the aircraft, so I got to know where my fellow insomniacs were sitting nearby, and we chatted throughout the transit. 

After reboarding, the cabin was full yet again! Want to sleep? No chance! Lunch was served, and it was midday for the passengers joining from Colombo, so they were all chatty. No rest for the weary... again! But, the crew welcomed us to join them for a chat in the galley outside meal hours (where one can appreciate the extra quantity of drinks carried on board), but, fatigue eventually won the day. One by one we would return to our seats, suddenly overwhelmed by the desire to do anything to sleep. I slept as soon as I got back to my seat (and reclined it of course!).

Unfortunately, it was time to descend to Singapore. "Oh God! Is there really no rest for the weary?"

The cabin crew who got to know the "plight of the insomniacs" through the galley sessions, knew were needed nothing but rest. They were kind enough to put our seats upright for us, and checked our seatbelts. "Don't worry sir, you just rest. We'll be changing crews in Singapore, I'll let the incoming crew know of your situation and you can stay on the aircraft to try and catch more rest," one flight attendant told me while putting my seat upright and checking my seatbelt. He even kindly asked the passenger next to me (I was sitting on **G, inboard of the starboard aisle) on F to use the other aisle to let me sleep. How very nice of Emirates back in those days!

The next thing I remember was the cabin being relatively empty, with the cleaning crew being told to not make a huge noise (inevitable with their vacuum cleaner, but they were quiet otherwise), and I saw one of the outgoing flight attendants pointing her hands at the incoming crew at the now sleeping insomniacs. 

The Flight from Hell!
Boarding time again... I had to make way for the new passenger now occupying seat F, before trying to doze off again. She was an old lady, who asked me why I looked like a bus just ran over me. I quickly explained, and she nodded, offering me to tell the crew for me whether I wanted another meals and drink service. I can't help but look at the passengers flowing in...

Emirates A310-300 in Singapore
A South Asian man arrived at the cabin session, making a lot of noise asking where his seat was. "Dear God, please don't let him be the passenger sitting behind me!" The curse was inevitable! 

As soon as he sat behind me, he called, "Hellooooooo! Stewaaaaard! Can I have a drink please?" I feel cursed... very cursed! He must have asked for something like 3 drinks before the aircraft even took off!

After we were airborne, I tried to recline my seat. A noise came from behind me and my seat back shook. "Hellooooooo! Sir! Can you put your seat forward please?" Use your imagination for the accent! And quickly followed by a chime from the F/A Call Button, which he pressed but still went loudly, "Hellooooo! Stewaaaaard! Can I get a drink please?" He asked for a beer.

As soon as we reached cruise altitude, I tried again. The same reaction, me seat back shook, followed by, "Hellooooooo! Sir! Can you put your seat forward please?" Quickly followed by the F/A Call Button chime, followed by "Helloooooo! Stewaaaard! Can I get a drink please?" He again, asked for a beer. 

A little gas cooker began heating my pressure kettle when the male flight attendant delivered him the second beer, and said to him, "Sir, can you put your seat back forward please, we're about to start meal service."

Only one word came to my mind... "Bastard!"

Since the annoying idiot behind added more insomnia to my plight, I decided to take the meal service. Guess what, the flight attendant told him again, to put his seat back upright. Yes, he reclined it again while he wouldn't let me recline. Again, the word that came to my mind was.... "Bastard!" 

When he was asked what he wanted to drink with his meal, he replied loudly, "Excuse me?"
"What would you like to drink sir?" The flight attendant repeated with a slight increase in volume.
"Oh, yes!" He replied loudly, "Beer please!"

Once the cabin crew serving the meals went into the galley a few rows behind, I heard a crunch, a Singaporean woman gasping, followed by, "Excuse me sir, I'm trying to have my meal. Can you please put your seat upright?"

I can feel my blood begin to boil hearing that. The woman called the flight attendant and asked for another drink because she said she dropped the drink. She was still trying to be nice to the bastard by not telling the crew what really happened. During the meal, eye contact was established between me and the fellow insomniacs sitting around me. Hand gestures were made and soon a kind of a sign language conversation went on discreetly which went roughly along the lines of:
"Hey, the guy sitting behind you is an outright bastard," gestured the guy from Zurich two rows in front of me on seat J.
"Yeah I know, what can I do?" I replied.

Before long, me, the passenger from Zurich two rows in front, two English girls two rows behind on J and K, and two German guys on A and B two rows in front, were in a hand gesture conversation. I think they had enough with this guy shouting around.

Even before the meal trays were collected, the bastard asked for another beer, again, very loudly with his, "Hellooooo! Stewaaaard! Can I have a beeer please!"

His beer was consumed quite quickly and was finished when the trays were collected. He asked for another beer and the flight attendants said they'd get him one as soon as they're done with collecting the meal trays.

I tried to recline my seat again, and he said, "Helloooo siiiiir, I told you ! Put your seat up please!" Of course, with his customary shaking of my seat back.

If he didn't shake the seat back
I would have settled for this!
I looked around at the other insomniacs. Cut-throat gestures were made. Insanity caused by raging anger now boiled through me. The two German guys nodded they were ready. The Swiss guy nodded and I heard him unbuckle his seatbelt. He looked at the two English girls, and nodded at them as if he was replying to their "we're ready" signal and their I heard one of their seatbelts was unbuckled.

What would be the right time? How am I going to do it without being guilty. A devious plan driven by fatigue and rage was made. I was to wait until a flight attendant was walking by, then I would recline my seat and let history take it's path. I signalled the Swiss guy to notify the other accomplices of the plan. Not long after I got an OK from everyone else through the Swiss guy, the male flight attendant walked from the front cabin section towards the rear galley. It was time...

Let history take it's course...
I reclined my seat... and waited. My seat back was not shaken as expected, there seemed to be a moment of silence until...

A fist landed on my head followed by, "I told you not to put your seat back!"

Never let your anger exceed this
on board an aircraft! Believe me!
I exploded in an instant! He had assaulted me! This was perfect! I stood up, turned around and lunged at the bastard, strangling him and shouting, "why do you have to be such an annoying bastard and not let me have a rest! I have been awake for 24 f***in hours being stuck in a plane, stuck in an airport with no spare seats for me, and I just have to end up sitting in front of you, you f***in bas...." I never completed the sentence.

A fist grabbed my shirt and pulled me back until I slammed into the seat in front of mine. It was the male flight attendant. 

"Excuse me, SIR! I will deal with this, not you!"

Fortunately, this did not happen in the end!
I looked around the cabin to see where my cavalry reinforcements were. To my surprise, 1 female attendant blocked the two English girl shouting, "you two! Sit down!" then pointed at the Swiss guy, "you sir! Sit down!"

On the opposite aisle another male flight attendant blocked the two German guys, shouting, "You two! Sit down! Everybody sit down!"

They had the situation under control. My revenge had failed... history failed to take it's course the way I had wanted. I was devastated, and collapsed on my seat in despair. I have failed.

A little bitter sweet... victory?
The male flight attendant, had a good scolding session at the bastard.

"Listen, sir," he told the bastard in a threatening tone, "you have caused enough trouble and inconvenience to the crew and other passengers. Now, I will get you another drink, but it's going to be just one glass of water. Everyone on this flight might just appreciate you being quiet for the rest of the flight and not complain about other people because everyone has had enough."

The bastard was thrown back on his seat, and it seemed like the whole cabin cheered and applauded the flight attendant. It was a little victory for me. He told me, "you can recline your seat now sir, but I will get back to you on this."

The cabin crew left the aisles as that flight attendant went forward to the front cabin section... "He would get back to me on this?" I thought to myself. Oh boy, I'm in trouble now!

30 minutes of agonizing wait
It wasn't long before the Inflight Service Manager (purser), the Captain, and the male flight attendant appeared in front of my cabin section. I saw him explain to them what had happened, then they all disappeared again behind the business class curtain. The aircraft then descended. We were coming to the end of the flight. I didn't feel relieved, I was worried. My worries were confirmed when the flight attendant stopped by my seat on the way back to the galley, "Sir, can you stay behind after landing please."

The Reckoning!
As soon as the aircraft reached the gate, I stood up to get my bag from the overhead compartment. My fellow accomplices were looking at me as if they were sorry history didn't take our course. The bastard did nothing but gave me a silent angry death stare. I had little choice but to ignore him and sat back down... and waited. I waived goodbye to the three accomplices in front. The bastard then left and a few people walked by until the two English girls each gave me a pat on the back before moving on.

The male attendant came along on the opposite aisle, and called me, "The Captain would like to see you now."

I joined him on the left aisle, and walked to the front. I felt like a convict walking towards a court room. Just as I entered the business class section, I saw a police car outside. I'm in trouble now.

The front row felt like a court room. Back in those days, the First Class were simply larger seats with larger PTVs and more space. The purser was sitting down on the left, another cabin crew were sitting on the right side of the cabin, I was told to sit in the middle. The captain was the judge and the purser was like the court room note taker.

As the captain opened his mouth... I was expecting the worst.

"Mr. Soejatman, on behalf of Emirates Airlines I would like to apologize for what happened," the Captain said.
"I beg your pardon?" I just wanted to make sure I didn't hear him incorrectly.
"As the Captain of this flight and on behalf of Emirates Airlines I would like to apologize for what happened. I have heard the explanation from the cabin crew and what they were told by the previous crew. Now, before I decide whether or not to make a report out of this, I would like to ask you whether you would like to report that gentlemen there?" He pointed to the bastard, on the jetbridge, with two airport security guards on each side. "If you decide to make a report, I will hand off the case to the police waiting outside with the reports from the crew, but since we have to fly back to Singapore, please decide quickly."

I weighed my options. Pressing on with the report would mean I have to go to make a statement on board, and then on the ground, probably at the airport security office, before making a repeat statement at the airport police station. I have been awake for over 30 hours by then, and my body was screaming the world "SLEEP!"

"Thank you Captain. I have to praise the action of your crew today and for your generosity in offering to make the report. But, no, I don't think I will be making the report. I just want to go home and sleep."

The Captain said he would note the occurrence nonetheless if the flight ended up being delayed. He told the ground handling agent to let the bastard go. The security allowed him to leave before they told the police they were no longer needed.

I shook hands with the crew involved, thanking them, before the Captain asked the ground agent, "take care of him."

The Aftermath
The ground agent escorted me through immigration, baggage claim, and customs. She was wondering why I didn't want to proceed with the report and press charges.

"Ma'am, if you've been awake for over 30 hours stuck in two airplanes, including not being able to sit or sleep whilst transfering, you'd feel the same as I do. I just want to go home and sleep!"

My father met me outside customs and he was wondering why I was being escorted by a ground agent. I told him I would tell him later (but I never did until he passed away a few years later). I just wanted to go home... or did I?

As we walked to the car park, I saw the beer drunken bastard again. He was being met by a couple of religious looking guys. Hardline Islamists and alcohol don't mix well, unless you're that bastard I guess. As he saw me, it was my turn to stare back at him, and gestured at him, "I see you had a good drink!"

He promptly looked the other way before his companions saw me, ushering them to walk with him. I had the last laugh that day.

What I did on the flight was probably not the right thing to do. In these days, doing what I did would probably mean both me and the bastard be handed over to the police on arrivals. But the moral of the story is, a little courtesy can go a long way, provided you don't insist on your counterpart replying in kind.

Since the incident, I have never met another passenger as outrageous as the bastard. Whilst most are courteous, at least the selfish ones I've met since, are not as bad.

The next time I flew Emirates, they added some flights a week that would skip the Colombo stop which made the trip much bearable. Service on Emirates back then was excellent, but after one more flight with them, I never flew them again until last year, by which, Emirates crew seemed to have come from a different planet from the crew I met 20 years ago.

Last year, I flew Emirates again. It was full as always, with the expected eclectic mix of passengers from the regular traveller to first timers, from the courteous to the selfish. The crew attitude had changed totally. Gone are the attention and care... you should be grateful if they give you a genuine smile. The ones giving death stares seems to be the crew now. I discovered that by accident when I left the toilet and accidentally bumped to a crew member bending down to stow a tray on the bottom part of the trolley, to which I received a death stare equivalent to the bastard's death stare I received 20 years ago.

How time has changed... (although some things don't...)

Disclaimer: Events and occurences on the flight 20 years ago may have been incorrectly recalled, and some aspects changed for dramatic effect.


  1. Excellent read! That bastard has totally ruined it for you totally, so glad that justice prevailed and yeah if I were you, I would have done the same as well. That bastard should thank his lucky stars that he was not charged. If it happened today, he would no doubt be locked out without any chances.

    Can't imagine myself flying on an A300/A310 for that many hours! You are right about the aircraft, they seem to take forever to reach the destination. Those were the days!

  2. By the end of the journey, all I wanted was sleep! Had I been able to catch some sleep, I would have either ignored the guy, or pressed charges!

  3. Ba----d: Dawww, Stewaaarrrddd! Can I haavva beer? Daaww..
    Me: I got something better- 1500 milligrams of Haldol i.m. injection!

    1. If that is available as a dissolving pill...
      Naaaah... I might end up abusing it on undeserved victims instead!

    2. Haldol is available in pills, short-acting injections, and long-acting injections (depot injections or deconates).Haldol is an "old-school" (typical) antipsychotic drug used for schizophrenia. You would hate it big-time, and rightfully so. Persons with severe mental illness often "cheek" their meds- holding the pills in their cheeks until they spit them out.

    3. "Hellooo Steward! can I have..."
      "Sure..." FA dumps a Haldol pill in the beer, "Here's your beer sir..." (with an evil grin from the rest of the cabin).

  4. While the person should never have assaulted you, you were being rude reclining your seat when the tall person behind you asked you to stop. I am tall and on long flights, a reclining seat pressing against my knees is horrendous. The older I get, the more pain I feel in my joints because of some uncaring, selfish and self-centered person as yourself. If a person tells you that they are not comfortable because you are reclining your seat, you should keep it upright. The argument that a person seeking reasonable and unpainful legroom should pay double or three times the ticket price works the other way for those who want to recline their seats in coach class. Most people, when asked, do not recline their seats. You, however Sir, are a jerk and despite the overreaction of the person assautling you, you assaulted him by slamming your seat against his knees by reclining. Which assault happened first? Yours. One airline polled and found the 90% of people who travel coach want the seats to be bolted against reclining in coach. Take a hint, bring back courtesy and quit assaulting tall people with your seat. You are the person who is doing the wrong thing here. The slap on the head was just a poor way of showing the pain you had caused the person behind you by assaulting him.

  5. Love it! I love the look of the powered shades...one thing I would love to have. Guess I better go back and read that post!big man recliners lazy boy