E is for Economy Class

You know the safety routine given on every airline in the world? To adopt the brace position, by leaning on the seat in front of you “if you can reach it.” It’s about this time in the flight, when we still haven’t taken off, that I feel like either screaming in frustration or laughing hysterically. Are they serious? IF you can reach the seat in front of you? Is there anyone over 5 feet who can’t reach the seat? At this stage my knees are already firmly wedged against the seat pocket in front of me (filled with the essentials – a book, tissues and bottle of water), I’m uncomfortably twisted to one side so as not to be cuddling up to a stranger next to me, and I’m probably engaging in a small but important battle of the elbows to lay claim to an armrest.

The problem with living in New Zealand is that this position is guaranteed yours for a minimum of three –four hours to get to Sydney or Melbourne. More likely in my experience, the flight itself is going to last at least 9 hours (to Singapore) or 11 hours (to Hong Kong or Bangkok), or worst of all, 14 hours to San Francisco. And often with the prospect of transferring to another flight for another 5 hours (to get to Washington DC) or 12 hours (to reach Europe).

In fact, over the years I have spent more time in economy class than in most destinations I intend writing about. A quick calculation suggests that I have spent around at least 1384 hours squished up in international economy class.

That’s almost 58 days. Eight long weeks of my life.

If I’m lucky I have an aisle seat in an exit row. That is bliss, but rare. Or an empty seat beside me (I fought tooth and nail, with the help of a flight attendant once, to protect the only spare seat on the plane on Air Canada), or even in front of me (which gives priceless extra centimetres of knee room). But if I’m unlucky, as on a flight back from Bangkok once, I’m in the middle of the row, surrounded by drunken Aussie accounting executives on their way home from a conference, seated next to the ringleader who, as he took his seat, shouted out “is every body happy??!”

Travelling with my husband is a mixed blessing. I can snuggle up to him and not be embarrassed about being unable to avoid touching my neighbour, given that my shoulders are wider than every seat in economy I’ve ever sat in. But he is an armrest hogger, and likes his space at the expense of mine. When I travel alone, as I did for 10 years on business, I can enter my own little defensive isolation bubble and tune the world out.

Essentials for surviving long haul economy class include:

 Assertiveness. When the man asks if he can move into the seat beside you, say no. It’s the luck of the draw and the survival of the fittest on economy class, and if you’re lucky enough to get an extra seat beside you then you’re a fool to give it away.

  • Be quick. Although increasingly rare in these days of low margins and packed aeroplanes, there might be a free row of seats. Grab it if you can. But you have to be quick!
  • Be alert. When the flight attendant asks the guy in the row in front if he minds if someone sits in the spare seat next to him (which is right in front of you), as happened to me on Cathay Pacific, speak up. An empty seat means no reclining into my space. So, I mind. More importantly, my knees mind.Vietnamese champagne
  • Alcohol. A lot of people don’t drink on flights, especially business related. But I’ve found that one glass of wine at dinner can ensure I drop off for a few precious hours sleep. Preferably not champagne like this though, which was a Product of the Viet Nam Nitrogen Fertilizer Corporation (if you look closely you’ll see I’m not joking).
  • An eye mask. In economy class the lights are on much longer than in business class, and there are more people walking about. All this can distract you and keep you awake.
  • Disposable airline socks/slippers. Many people swear by the compression travel socks to avoid the appropriately-named economy class syndrome (deep vein thrombosis), and reduce ankle swelling. I just like the feeling of being able to pad around in socks that I can throw away at the end of the flight. The Singapore Airline business class ones are good, as they have a more solid sole (important on long bumpy flights as the bathroom floors deteriorate). So if you can, scrounge them from anyone who has travelled business class and has some spare sets.
  • Research your airline on-line, and check your seat allocation prior to departure. Check your stopover airports too for facilities– a shower after 12 hours on a plane with another 12 to go is a lifesaver. In economy you’ll have to pay, but it’s worth it.
  • If possible, travel an airline with a good entertainment system, with individual screens, computer games or a choice of movies/TV shows. I always say that a few hours playing Tetris on Singapore Airlines takes my mind off the pain in my knees, my back, my butt … for a while anyway. Most long haul airlines have good systems these days.
  • A good book. Light reading. Heavy literature is not good for a flight, when oxygen supplies are restricted, nor is a large bulky book which won’t fit in the seat pocket in front of you. Our well-travelled bookclub has a special category for this type of book – it must be light (in all senses of the word), amusing, engrossing, but long enough to last a long haul flight, so avoid books with large print too.
  • Puzzles. If you’re a puzzle type person or sudoku addict like me … anything to take your mind off the interminable hours stretching out before you till you can breathe fresh air again.
  • Careful seat choice. Ensure you don’t get a seat at the front of the cabin. This is where they put babies and young children who are likely to make noises (poor parents!), and also if you are tall there is no room for your legs to stretch out. I always specifically ask for a seat at least 5 rows from the front. If you are far enough away that you cannot see into the business class cabin, it also reduces the envy steam-out-the-ears factor.
  • An aisle seat. This will ward off any claustrophobic tendencies, give you space to spread (at least stretch out your feet and one shoulder!). Most importantly it enables you to get up and walk regularly. Important for trying to avoid economy class syndrome, and to do stretches to help your aching back.
  • Toothbrush and facial cleanser, and a change of clothes. At least then you can feel fresher when the flight ends.
  • Lots of water. Some airlines are great about giving you water on long haul flights; others suck at it. If you have a bottle (which these days has to be purchased once you’re through security), get it filled up regularly by the cabin crew.
  • Don’t work.If you’re on business, you may feel an obligation to work on the flight. But don’t! You won’t be able to open your laptop, concentration will be difficult, and you’re enduring one of life’s modern tortures for the sake of your business. Why even bother trying?
  • Low expectations.There’s nothing worse than being stuck in economy if you’ve travelled business class before, and you’re feeling resentful about it or hoped for an upgrade.Face it, it’s not going to happen.Keep expectations low!
  • Most importantly a positive attitude. You can and will survive this, you can’t fight or do anything about the situation you’re in. So relax. And let’s face it – how often do you get the chance to just be yourself, alone with your thoughts, no phone calls, no emails, no children or partners or household chores beckoning?

6 thoughts on “E is for Economy Class

  1. Mali, this is wonderful. Thanks so much for writing it.

    I don’t remember ever hearing someone say “if you can reach it.” Perhaps a small house cat couldn’t reach it.


  2. I definitely don`t think you should work unless you`re upgraded to business class. That only seems fair.

    I remember one story I heard about how a flight attendant was becoming frustrated at the lack of attention people were giving to the safety demonstration. When it came time for the oxygen mask demo, she put it over her breast instead of her mouth and nose, just to see if anyone would notice.


  3. IB: The “if you can reach it” seems to have appeared over the last few years. I always think they use tiny people in the videos too, to make the economy seats look bigger. Now I’ll want to see a small house cat whenever they show it!

    B: My hope is you’ll win the lottery and never have to travel long haul economy class!

    Helen: I always feel slightly guilty about not watching the safety demonstrations, but I’ve never seen that!!


  4. I know this post is from ages ago, but it made me laugh. I always wonder what the point of the brace position is anyway – maybe I’m unduly pessimistic but I don’t think its going to make that much difference how you sit if the plane crashes!

    Also, I used to work with an Aussie who got the doctor to prescribe sleeping tablets for his flights home – he just knocked himself out.


  5. Sushigirl, my husband cheerfully informs me that the brace position is the one most likely to protect your mouth in the event of a crash – enabling body identification from dental records. I’m not sure if that is true or not – he’s such an optimistic soul!


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