I slumped in the cold, steel chair at the airport, with clammy hands and a sprinting heart, my headphones pulled across my neck, waiting for my flight to be called. Ding ding ding sounded the tannoy: “This is the last call for BA055 to Johannesburg. All passengers, please make your way to the boarding gates immediately.”
That’s me! I thought, as I jumped up and ran towards the long queue ahead of me. I waited patiently in line as the same message sounded, twice. While I wasn’t nervous about missing my flight – there were so many people still filing through – I was terrified of settling in for the journey. I’d chosen an aisle seat, towards the front of the section, weeks before, and I’d been meditating and visioning my way through the anxiety. Everyone has their quirks (or so I tell myself) and one of mine is a stunningly impressive, intense fear of flying. I’d rather face a wild beast in an amphitheatre, gladiator style, than get on a flight. I’ve been on ‘fear of flying’ courses (which made it worse), I’ve had Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), I’ve taken tranquilisers. I’ve tried everything. I’m still terrified.
I stood patiently in line clutching my passport and ticket, my hands trembling. When I eventually reached the front, the cabin crew member looked at my ticket and asked me where I was going. “Johannesburg,” I replied, rolling my eyes audibly. It was that moment that I realised I was standing in a queue to Sao Paulo. I spun on my heels and sprinted towards the next (rather empty) boarding gate, the group of Brazilian cabin crew yelling “run, run!” behind me – as though they were cheering on an Olympian.
As I reached the desk at the correct gate, my details were checked with an air of irritation, and I was taken onto the flight. I was the last passenger. I clunked my way to the back of the plane and then headed over to my seat as casually as possible. There, at my magical seat of meditation, visioning, payment and planning, I found a woman with one child on her lap and one in the bassinette in front of her.
“Oh sorry, I think you’re a little lost, that’s my seat,” I told her with a shy grin, hoping to prevent any embarrassment on her part.
“It might be,” she replied, “But I have two kids I’m traveling alone with. I’m not moving.”
“You don’t understand,” I continued, “I need to sit in that seat. It’s a bit of a life-or-death situation. I know it sounds ridiculous, but I can’t sit anywhere else.”
The seat-thief did not move. She averted her attention and continued soothing her child. I called the cabin crew. I told them I’d paid for that seat. I told them I’d need to get off the flight if I couldn’t have that seat. I told them I was terrified, that while I knew I was sounding like a difficult person that I was actually just a very nervous flyer. While they empathised (by telling me they empathised) they didn’t force the seat-thief to move. Instead. They found me (ME!) another seat – on the other side of the aisle.
As I slumped into my new seat. The seat I hadn’t meditated over. The seat I hadn’t visualised. The seat I hadn’t spent a lot of money booking. The plane erupted in applause. I was mortified! Tears started to catch the bottom of my eyelashes. Just as they were about to fall down my cheeks, the passenger next to me leant over and whispered “I hate flying too. Totally unnatural to be in the sky, is it not?” I nodded and smiled. He and his partner were travelling to South Africa for the first time. They were hugely excited and had all the questions about places to go and things to try. When we went through turbulence and my breaths drew short, they told me funny stories and distracted me with their travel tales. They were amazing.
I didn’t manage to sleep on that flight but I did manage to feel ok. I managed to breathe and focus on the joy that lay ahead of me, rather than the difficulty behind me – while glaring at the seat-thief disapprovingly from time to time (she deserved the judgement, she’d also go on to steal my pre-ordered, seat-specific vegetarian meals throughout the flight). I’ll always be thankful to that friendly Mancunian couple who invested the beginning of their holiday in helping a really anxious person, get by.
As we landed and I skipped into the arrivals hall to find my whole family with balloons, giant smiles and wet faces, I was so grateful I’d stayed on the flight. I watched the seat-thief pass me with her children. I watched her walk off with a man who didn’t look all that pleased to see her, and I felt a moment of sadness for her.
I left that flight thinking that if I could be anything to anyone struggling, I’d be the cheery Mancunians. The world would be a brighter place if we extended empathy (and a little humour) to those who cross our paths, whenever we have the privilege to. It costs nothing and it feels damn good too. As I hugged my family and gasped at the ‘bigness’ of the little ones, I noticed two pale, familiar faces pass me, with giant grins. Everyone wins when we start with kindness.