Sunday, August 1, 2010

The Kangaroo Hop

The Kangaroo Hop is a euphemism, and a pretty good one, for the brain mulching experience of flying long-haul between Australia and Europe. When the route first became feasible in the 1930's the number of hops required was measured in dozens and the travel time was measured in weeks. It was an experience reserved for the elite and they travelled in an opulence that even today remains unobtainable for the majority of travellers. The modern version has two hops, taking a day and a half. Hundreds of thousands of people fly the route every year. To many, the Kangaroo Hop represents a coming of age, a family reunion, returning home, or just the cost of doing business in Oz. Whatever your reason for flying, it's as much an emotional journey as a literal one. It brings out the best and the worst in us. So here are a few little observations to get you in the mood. Bon voyage!

The Unfortunate Bits

It takes about 7 hours of actual air time to fly from Sydney to Singapore, and another 13 from Singapore to London. It depends a lot on prevailing winds and more than a little on how many war-torn countries you fly over. For each hop, add an additional hour of aluminum-tin-can time for boarding, disembarking and getting lost on the taxiways. On my last trip, we had a 15 minute delay in Singapore because the airline had to remove the bags of a passenger that had over indulged on the previous leg. Then the pilot announced a further 20 minute delay due to missing our "slot over Afghanistan". There's no end to the list of delay excuses, from the mundane to the absurd. Yet another hour is spent in the airport, between check-in and boarding, and it can take an hour to deplane and exit customs. Airports calculate that their shops make about one US dollar per hour per waiting person. And unless you're quaffing the free stuff in a private lounge, there's not much else to do.

Let's add it up: 20 hours in the air, another 2 on the ground and 2 in the airport. Twenty-four hours one way. Forty-eight hours return. That's the absolute bare minimum. Longer layovers are common and there's often connecting flights at either end. My personal average is about 36 hours one-way. Another personal stat is that one in six flights have something go wrong. "Go wrong" means a delay of an hour or more, lost luggage, cancellations, diversions; there's quite a few variations. Short of a death in the family, or moving house, the Kangaroo Hop is one of the worst things that you can do to yourself and your family. It's an excellent thing to wish on your enemies.

For the duration of a long-haul flight on the average airline, in fourth class, your personal space is about 75 cm (30") long by 44 cm (17.5") wide. If that doesn't sound very big it's about to get smaller. To begin, the length that you possess for the next 14 hours is the distance from a fixed point on your seat to the same point on the seat in front of you, the so called seat "pitch". So you lose a good 10 cm to the seat itself. If you're anyone but a small child the only way to stretch out is to half slide your bum off the seat and contort your knees under the seat in front of you. Try to avoid waggling your smelly toes in the crotch of the person in front of you. It's disconcerting. There are various complicated metal parts in the way to prevent this, but it's possible. It should also be pointed out that the exercises that the airlines politely suggest you perform during the flight, to prevent deep vein thrombosis, are only feasible if you're likely to be forbidden from riding a roller-coaster. Further reducing your space is the tactically located storage pocket, full of drivel laden advertising magazines wanting to form an intimate relationship with your kneecaps.

Now for the width. In the fourth class of a 747 you're given 44 cm, and 5 cm of that is your armrest. I say armrest, singular, because only one armrest is counted toward your space allocation. In the centre of long-haul jets there are 4 seats, 5 armrests, and 10 elbows. Part of greeting your fellow travellers is the initial jostle for armrest space. There's also the V leg that men adopt, instantly projecting their knees and masculinity out into your coveted personal space as soon as they sit down. If you're a wider kind of person, you'll find it difficult to even clamber into a non-aisle seat.

The latest generation of personal in-flight entertainment systems are amazing. I remember when your only choice was a couple of vanilla Disney movies on a fuzzy shared screen with pneumatic headphones. Now you can bury yourself in movies, shows and music for most of the flight. But they come with their own unique frustrations. The screens are small and dark. They are too bright if you fall asleep and not bright enough to watch. Occasionally you'll get an entertainment system that's completely kaput, and no amount of cajoling from the flight crew can revive it. Always bring a good book!

Sleep. We bemoan sleep when it doesn't come, but when it does come we're not conscious to enjoy it. I'm one of the restless fidgety types that you don't want to be next to long-haul. In turn, I'm insanely jealous of those who can apparently sleep in any preposterous circumstance or position. It's beyond my comprehension how people can sleep on planes. You're not even horizontal! In fourth, no matter how you arrange your various appendages, something is always digging into a hard bit of plastic, or needs more support. On rare occasions I sleep briefly, usually after being awake for 30 hours, having a glass of wine, and while trying to watch a really bad romantic comedy. Actually, there's very little to compare to the joy of falling asleep when the Flight Tracker says you are over Myanmar and waking up to find yourself over Turkmenistan. It means you've just mentally erased two hours of tin-can time. That joy is only a little abated by discovering that you bruised yourself in a place you didn't think possible, and drooled all over your neighbour's shoulder. In the old days you occasionally had an empty seat next to you. Or if you were very lucky, a whole set of 4 seats in the centre. It doesn't happen often now that airlines have such tight margins. But if it does, consider it equivalent to a business class upgrade.

There are conspiracy theories suggesting airlines deliberately reduce oxygen levels to aid sleep. Aircraft cabins are designed to maintain a pressure equivalent to an altitude of about 2,400 m (7,100 ft) at cruising altitude. At higher altitudes people start feeling sick. Maintaining lower altitudes puts stress on the aircraft due to the pressure differential to the outside. Newer planes maintain lower equivalent cabin altitudes (1,520 m in the A380) and also maintain a sane humidity level. Oh, and by the way, on an A380, everyone can hear you snore.

Flight Etiquette

A combination of tolerance and good manners keeps us all sane when forced to coexist in each others armpits. Over the years I've noticed an unwritten etiquette for long-haul flights:

Keep your legs and feet to yourself. One of the finer points of long-haul etiquette is to ignore any accidental contact between feet under the seat. Don't let your knees spread further than the armrests. Don't dominate both armrests, but sharing an armrest is okay and sustained contact between arms may be tolerated, particularly while sleeping.

Don't recline your seat until after the first meal. When the seat in front of you does recline, recline yours as well. The whole system works best if everyone reclines at the same time because you can't breathe between a reclined and unreclined seat. Return to upright before the second meal and stay there until landing.

Toilet etiquette is crucial. Don't loiter *in* the toilet. Loitering around the toilet is ok, but make sure those around you know that you're not waiting. Use the "attendant call" button if there's no toilet paper. If you're in an aisle seat, you have the responsibility to get up often to give your non-aisle companions a chance to get up. If you're in a window seat, you have the responsibility to try and hold on until your companions get up first. I was once in a window seat with a disabled person next to me. I swear my bladder never recovered.

By all means talk quietly to your neighbour. It's polite to exchange pleasantries while waiting for take off. It's also expected that you discuss, with relief, the conclusion of the flight. But you can remain as quiet as the grave for everything in between. During the flight don't get up and talk to someone else standing in the aisles, particularly when the lights are dimmed. I don't want to hear about your marriage problems for 3 hours.

Close your shutters after the first meal. Don't open them if there's direct sunlight, even for a second, you'll flood the entire cabin with light. Open them again before landing. Irrespective of the time of day, airlines encourage sleep during the long middle section of the flight.
Yes, the alcohol is free! It's okay to ask for a glass or two of your preferred poison with your meal. You can even request another later in the flight. But in economy you will start to get disapproving looks from the aircrew if you ask for more than that. Beware: the combination of normal long-haul de-hydration, the reduced air pressure, and lack of sleep all combine to make for restlessness and really rotten hangovers. One of my worst flying experiences was in business. They kept topping up my glass unasked, with a very nice red. I over indulged and felt horrendous for the next 10 hours when I might have been sleeping. I've seen people barely able to stand after a flight, needing a luggage trolley to prop themselves up. I've also seen people refused boarding and left stranded in Singapore.

If you do get stranded, don't panic. If you're in transit on a single booking it is the airline's responsibility to get you to your destination, no matter what the route. Many airports have transit hotels and travel insurance will cover some of the cost even if the airline won't. But if you succumb to the lure of the budget airlines, and take a trip with multiple bookings, you can truly get left high and dry when things go wrong.

The Classes

I've been privileged to fly the Kangaroo Hop in each of the four classes. Admittedly, I was only six the last (and only) time I flew first, travelling with my parents on a work posting. I've flown all the other classes more recently, but most usually, like everyone else, I travel in fourth.

I keep referring to fourth class. It's otherwise known as coach, economy, cattle class, anchovy class, or whatever other creative name your particular airline gives it. It's crap. No matter what you call it. In the old days, meaning before 2000, it was the third and final class. Then the airlines saw the demand for something in between economy and business. They called it "Premium Economy". It has become the new third class, relegating the majority of us plebs to fourth. Somehow, as a reasonably successful middle-aged worker, I seriously resent going *backwards* in the class system. But I shouldn't complain, air travel is still out of reach for many. However, fourth class is where your personal space is almost zero, the crew can be rude to you, and the airline looses money on all the discount tickets.

Premium economy, or third class, or "The Way Economy Used To Be", is sort of tolerable for a long-haul flight. It's roughly the same as domestic business class. You gain about 4 cm of width and 10 cm of length, depending on the airline. You also gain a bit more seat recline and a leg rest. On some airlines the food is a little better, or you get first choice of the economy food. And the crew treat you as fellow human beings. A little known benefit of premium economy is that there are relatively few seats. The cabin is quieter and your upgrade chances are better. But given the choice between third class or fourth with an empty seat next to me, I would choose fourth.

Second, or business, is a quantum leap. Some of the major airlines offer seats that recline absolutely flat. This is a *big* deal for those of us that require the horizontal position for sleep. The food is worth eating, the wine is worth drinking, and the crew will actually volunteer to help you (maybe not with a spring in their step). You pay 3 or 4 times more for second, while occupying about 2 to 3 times more space. Business is where airlines start to make real money. Airline execs love the free advertising when economy passengers are forced to walk past all the champagne guzzling second class passengers while boarding. Second class is amazing, but it's not worth a month or more of my income for a single trip, unless someone else is paying, hence the name I guess.

First class. I can't tell you much about first. If you're a first class passenger reading this, go away, none of this applies to you. The A380's have introduced the concept of the private cabin for first class passengers. Sex is frowned upon but otherwise first class passengers can behave pretty much however they like. First class pricing is somewhere between second class and a hiring a private Jet. The latter is around $4,000 USD per *hour*. You figure it out.

Not So Obvious Tips

The Holy Grail of air travel is the Upgrade. Your friends will regale you with tales of amazing and unexpected upgrades, but they never happen to you. The bad news is that the only assured way to garner upgrade favouritism is to fly a *lot*, sticking to one of the big airline alliances with whom you have a frequent flyer membership. If you're not offered upgrades, you can spend points to upgrade yourself. Two return trip Kangaroo-Hops in Fourth Class is roughly worth a one-way Business upgrade.

The good news is that I have a couple of cheaper upgrade tips. The first is to purchase full priced tickets to be at the top of the upgrade list. If you fork out for premium economy you end up with a not-quite-astronomical chance of a business upgrade. There are more business seats than premium economy, and a lot of people trying to shuffle up from fourth class to premium. You can ride this wave up to business. A more cost-effective tip is to ask at check-in if there are any last minute upgrade deals. Airlines increasingly hate empty seats and will fill them all any way they can. If they over book on fourth class they will offer upgrades at a significant discount on the advertised prices. This still isn't cheap, but $500 USD for a business upgrade Singapore to Heathrow might make you think twice. Next, get a surname near the top of the alphabet. My wife swears this is the reason behind a couple of my upgrades and is why she married me. If none of these work for you, and you're desperate, and you've already boarded your full flight.... break your tray table. If you can't eat they have to move you; and if your class is full, you have to go up. This happened to me once. I swear that my tray table genuinely collapsed on me without my assistance. The smart guy next to me convinced me not to try too hard to fix it. He knew what was in it for him. I got moved to premium economy with a barely suppressed grin on my face.

Quite a few people will pop a tablet or three to help them sleep their way through a long haul flight. Others will partake copiously of the free wine, or a bit of duty free they bought or brought on board. A word from the wise: all of this increases the risk of dehydration, deep vein thrombosis (DVT) and just generally feeling like you were hit by a Jumbo instead of flying in one. I once tried over-the-counter sleep-aids. I didn't sleep a wink and my legs kept bouncing up and down like jackhammers. It drove me and my neighbours nuts.

Drink lots of water. The air conditioning systems in anything but an A380 will leave you parched and crawling to the nearest mirage of a vacant toilet. It's like crossing a 10,000 km desert. It's easy to get trapped by the window where you can't get to water. The tiny bottles they give you get me through about an hour. Take a large and *empty* bottle through security, and fill it up on the other side. Speaking of A380s, they have the opposite problem. You can get rained on from the ventilation system. I speak form experience.

A corollary to the previous tip: Go to the toilet when you can. A favourite game pilots play is "let's leave the seat-belt sign on for as long as possible after the slightest hint of turbulence". I swear they forget to turn it off. And there's always a rush around meal times.

Speaking of turbulence, if it bothers you, try and get a seat as far forward in the aircraft as possible. The tail wobbles more than the front. It's no coincidence that first class is right in the nose of the aircraft, which is also much quieter.

Travel light. Get what you need for the entire flight in your hands before you sit down: water, a book, decent headphones plus adaptor, and nothing else.You don't have much storage space in your seat. Half decent noise-isolating headphones make the movies much more enjoyable. Ear-buds work better than the expensive noise cancelling models. Take a light bag. Use it to store your shoes in the overhead locker before you sit down. Retrieve your shoes before you have to buckle up for landing.

If you spot consecutive empty seats while waiting for take-off, grab them. Don't ask. The crew will tell you to wait until you're airborne. Do wait until you the doors have closed, then it's first in, best rested. I once met a guy that swore by asking for a seat preference in the centre four seats at the rear of the aircraft. His theory was that those seats are the last to be allocated, so you're a little more likely to get a set of four seats to yourself. That might have worked until recently.

Everyone seems to covet the exit row seats. I don't quite understand that. The exit row seats on 747s and A380s are very different from your typical domestic flight. They are full sized doors with full sized exit access. If you ask, or pay, for exit row seats on a long-haul jet don't be upset to find yourself in the party spot right next to the dunnys (Aussie speak for toilet, particularly small smelly ones).

The Up Side

Flying long-haul in economy is a mind-numbingly terrible experience. Don't doubt that. Airlines are refreshingly frank about this as evidenced by the lack of sexy TV advertising showcasing fourth class cabins. Why do we tolerate such an awful experience? Actually, tolerance is one of the many qualities that shine through in the belly of a fourth class nightmare. Economy passengers show extraordinary forbearance toward each other. And you meet all kinds of people you wouldn't normally talk to. My personal experiences include faith healers, gospel preachers, newlyweds, and one trip from SFO to SYD a few days before the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras. And catching up on the latest movies is a bit of a perk.

Bear in mind when you're in that darkest of spots, four hours into a twelve hour flight, stuck between the fattest guy in the galaxy and the scariest kid in the universe, that you're there for a purpose. You are travelling for a worthwhile cause. It's a big trip of discovery, a business deal, a honeymoon, the family holiday, or whatever. If it isn't a big deal, how can you justify all the penguins that will suffer from your share of the CO2 emissions? Keep the destination in mind, sit back, and enjoy the flight.

By Douglas Aberdeen.
Published under Creative Commons Attribution License.