Most people you fly with are unmemorable. They sit down, strap in and get on with whatever it is they do to pass the hours in the air. Unless they become overly drunk or aggressive — which I have read about but never seen — there is no reason to think of them again. I’m sure they feel the same about me.
But as you fly, you begin to notice common quirks and behaviour that some passengers engage in. These groups make up flying’s mini-tribes. Here are some I have noticed.
1. Mr IT Department This is the passenger who, the instant the seatbelt sign pings off, pulls down his table and sets out his stall. A laptop, a tablet to plug into the laptop, a phone, or even two, to plug into those, and then a set of wireless headphones clamped on his ears, the blue light flashing. He now goes about his task with calm purposefulness: a click here, a shift of handset there. What is he doing with all this computing power? Is he monitoring the situation below, ready to step in from 35,000ft if the Pentagon or GCHQ go down?
2. Ms Wolf-at-the-Door This passenger also takes out her laptop and flips open the lid the moment we are airborne. That is the last time she raises her head. She hammers away at her keyboard throughout the entire flight. Spreadsheets, bar charts and wodges of text appear, are clicked away, are returned to and revised.
What on earth is going on? This is not a PowerPoint presentation she is preparing. It is too frenetic for that. Something momentous clearly awaits her on landing. Administration or Chapter 11 is imminent; possibly a hostile bid that needs repulsing.
All offers of food are waved away. The only refreshment she accepts is a stiff drink, from which, pausing momentarily from her critical task, she takes a sharp, urgent sip.
3. The Night Watch When it’s black outside, the blinds are down and the cabin lights are off, most of the passengers lie comatose. Sprawled across seats, blankets under seat belts, eye masks across faces, they are oblivious to the world. Some have their mouths laxly open, a few are snoring.
But a handful of passengers are awake: watching movies, reading in a needle of light or stalking the aisles and enjoying the odd stretch. There is an unspoken recognition among them: they are the ones who cannot sleep, and who do not understand all those who find it so easy.
Every few hours, kind cabin crew members appear among the Night Watch, wordlessly proffering trays with plastic glasses of water or orange juice. Of all flying’s mini-tribes, I know this one best, as I am one of its longest-standing (or reading, or film-watching) members.
4. Wonder Bladder These are the travellers who settle into a window seat, turn their faces away, curl up and go to sleep, which is how they stay until it is time to land. But their flight-long sleeping is not the most remarkable thing about them. No: it is the fact that not once, on an eight-hour flight, do they ever get up to go to the toilet. They truly are marvels of nature.
When the crew wake them up with an order to return their seats to the upright position as we prepare for landing, they look a little disheveled and grumbly. They are all young, of course, but they really shouldn’t be so cross. They will discover, as the decades pass, that they will be wandering down the aisle to join the toilet queue more often than they can currently imagine.
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