Thirty years ago on a flight from Vancouver to London I dropped a pen. Bending to pick it up and leaning into the aisle as I did so I collected a drinks trolley in the back of the skull.
OPINION: The trolley was travelling at a respectable clip and I was later told that the collision was audible in business class. But neither I nor the trolley was seriously damaged and the stewardess went on to pour me one of the most impressively stiff gins it has ever been my pleasure to ingest at 39,000 feet.
The safety briefing for that flight all those years ago made no mention of drinks trolleys. Rather it consisted of a short informative demonstration of the use of lifejackets and oxygen masks, conducted in dumb show by an embarrassed cabin crew. In the years that have followed live cabin crew have been supplanted, to their evident relief, by video, and that video has grown in both length and complexity to such an extent that when hopping from, say, Nelson to Wellington, the safety briefing now lasts longer than the flight.
But one part of that briefing has barely changed in all those years, the bit about preparing for take off by stowing hand luggage securely, putting the seat back in the upright position and folding the tray-table away. (Quite what threat is posed by a tray table that has not been folded away I cannot tell you, but I have never been sufficiently tempted to find out.) This three-part coda to the safety mantra acts like the Lord's prayer in church. Everyone is so familiar with the words that they have become aural furniture, the meaning of which there is no need to attend to. The whole acts as a vague invocation against disaster, a bid to propitiate the god of gravity who must surely feel offended every time a 300-tonne plane takes leave of the sure and firm-set earth and lifts into the sky a freight of creatures whose proper habitat is down below.
Last week I flew to Auckland and discovered that the safety prayer had gained an extra verse. We still had to fold away the tray- table, but before doing so we were urged to check that no little children's fingers were in the way. And if you were on the same flight and within earshot of seat 11D I apologise for the howl of anguish that I was unable quite to suppress.
You see, in all the years that I have been catching planes I have heard many children scream - so many indeed that, if I ever run an airline, children will travel as freight - but never once have I heard a child scream because it had its fingers trapped by a tray- table.
Nor, to be frank, can I readily imagine such trapping taking place. The tray table lies bang centre in its proprietor's field of vision. Anyone folding the thing away would have to be spectacularly inattentive to fail to notice that a child had somehow placed its fingers in danger, or else spectacularly cruel. And in neither unlikely case can I imagine a recorded message making the least difference to the proprietor's behaviour. So the warning was needless.
Moreover it was aimed at the wrong person. For if a child on a plane is so young that he or she cannot appreciate the danger inherent in a folding tray-table, then, call me old-fashioned, but the wellbeing of that child, and of its fingers, seems to me to be the responsibility, not of the fare- paying passenger, but rather of the adult accompanying the child.
But the main reason I howled went deeper still. It was the assumption implicit in the announcement that I and everyone aboard the aircraft was an imbecilic infant.
This is not a new assumption. It has been around for many decades now and growing by the day. It can already be found elsewhere in the safety briefing, for example, in the words, "in the unlikely event of an emergency". The word "unlikely" is like a baby's pacifier, placed there lest at the mention of emergencies we collapse in a moral funk.
The implication is that we need to be warned of every possible danger in this hostile world and simultaneously consoled that mummy won't let it happen to us. To which I say pfui. I am an autonomous adult. And in order to learn how to become one we all have to collect, from time to time, the drinks trolley of misfortune in the back of the skull. Only thus can we learn how to avoid it happening twice.
- The Southland Times