How Amateur Flyers can enrich your travel experience

I read a trip report on flyertalk.com last week that essentially dragged "amateur" flyers over the coals and tarred them as irritants who exist simply to spoil the day for so-called "road warriors". It made me quite nauseous. What sickened me more was the sycophantic reception that it received from the "elitist snobs" there.

Now I don't fly as much as most of the posters there claim to. I barely scrape together enough miles every year to qualify for top tier in only a couple of alliances, plus I can only make limited use of my remaining non-rev benefits. Nonetheless, I am familiar enough with the logistics of air travel to muddle by without usually raising the ire of the seasoned "road warriors".

A few days ago I headed out on a routine trip to Singapore, the class divide between the "haves" and "have nots" fresh in my mind. I resolved to keep an eye on my fellow travelers and find out once and for all if peaceful co-existence was possible. After all, there are a million "amateur" flyers out there that we always see, but never observe.

The following is a small collection of the profiles of some fellow passengers I encountered on this short 5 hour flight to Singapore. Some folks I actually spoke with, others I simply observed or overheard. But every single character actually existed the way I have described them. Like bit characters in a movie, they were always there, unmemorable in their individual capacities but essential to the overall experience.

I arrive at Mumbai airport about 2 hours before my midnight flight. Typically, the curb at Terminal II-C is teeming with people at this peak hour, with cars stopped 3 deep to discharge their human cargos. A harried police officer with sweat pouring down his face energetically gestures and whistles in vain to get traffic moving faster. He is ignored completely but he redoubles his efforts with the shrill whistle. Finally, a shuttle bus driver from a vague airport hotel has enough of that infernal racket and pulls away from the curb, opening up a space for me to slide in. I say a routine goodbye to my dad. I'll be returning in only 3 days.

As I walk into the airconditioned cool of the building, I look back at the fond farewells taking place at curbside. A elderly woman in a light blue saree is giving her blessings to a son. He appears to be heading off to a job in the Middle East judging by the large cardboard boxes on his luggage cart festooned with colourful nylon string and labelled with name and destination in huge permanent marker letters. As the son walks away, I watch the mother lean on the railing. The look on her face is a perfect mix of pride and sadness as she watches the boy she raised walk away from his childhood to begin life on his own. He disappears through the doors and she bows her head, fighting to keep her composure. A daughter gently leads her back to the waiting taxi.

The Singapore Airlines staff at the entrance to the First/Raffles/Star Gold area check my documents with a smile and welcome me by name. Checkin is smooth and painless and I make sure that my frequent flyer number is in the record. At the counter to my right, a European backpacker is laboriosly filling out a Krisflyer application form. Meanwhile, the line behind him is stagnating and folks are getting restless. I think for a second how this seemingly annoying delay is actually a ritual of initiation that will transform him into the newest member of the hallowed club of impatient semi-permanent denizens of the sky. I smile at the cruel irony.

Onward towards immigration, where I run into the Air India crew bound for Abu Dhabi. One of them recognizes me and we chat as we head to the checkpoint. He had been interrupted in the middle of dinner and pulled out for this flight, a horrible 3 day pattern with layovers in Chennai and Kochi. At the counters we go our separate ways, him to the crew line where he simply signs the GD and me to a waiting officer who adds yet another stamp to my well worn passport. I ponder for a second how many passports crewmembers would need if they actually were stamped in-and-out of every country, but the mental mathematics exhaust me.

Next stop, the lounge. Finally, a sanctuary for only the closest acquaintances of the modern-day Hermes himself. I help myself to some snacks from the buffet and relax with a Coke while engaging in my personal snobbish indulgence of sizing up people's luggage tags. The white haired academic in the corner is sporting SAS Eurobonus Gold. Ooh, PPS Solitaire for the man with the laptop at the desk. The lady in the designer outfit waves her red First Class boarding pass prominently as she talks loudly on her cellphone, trying to shame us lesser mortals who have entered only with economy class tickets and Star Gold status. I try to watch CNN's coverage of the Riyadh bombings as she rattles on with a faux British accent about how "absolutely horrid" her hotel had been.

Just before the boarding hour, I head through security to the gates. I don't bother taking my laptop out of its case because Indian security doesn't require that. Unfortunately, the "road warrior" in line ahead of me doesn't know this. He tries to be proactive and is curtly told by the screener to put it back in its case. He holds up the line as we wait for him to comply.

I walk up to the boarding door and start up a line while the agent gets ready to announce boarding. The first call goes out for First, Raffles, Krisflyer Elite and Star Gold passengers. A young fellow passenger no older than 21 and carrying his Krisflyer Silver Elite card rudely pushes me aside and says to me in Hindi, "side pey khade ho jao. Yeh sirif Elite card vale key liye hai. Tumhara baad mey hoga." ("Get out of my way. This is only for Elite Card holders. Your turn will come later.") I let him pass without a word and followed quietly behind him, discreetly showing my higher status to the agent. At the split in the jetway, I take the second door for Economy Class and make my way to seat 32G. The kid takes the first door despite a green Economy Class boarding pass, probably to demonstrate his importance. I am already seated by the time he walks by en route to 57H. I wonder what deficiency he is trying to compensate for.

The couple in 32ABC appear to be honeymooners. The wife is very excited about their trip to Cairns and is busy sorting brochures. She dumps a box of thank you cards on the husband to "start signing". She thinks it will be "so romantic" if they can mail them out as soon as they arrive in Australia. He obviously disagrees judging from his facial expression, but has learned enough in his short marriage to not argue. He halfheartedly signs a few and then distracts himself by looking out the window, twirling the pen between his fingers lazily. She is too engrossed making mental purchases from the KrisShop inflight catalog to even notice.

Everyone is soon aboard. I have the entire center section 32DFG to myself. We push back and taxi to the runway. There is a family in 32HJK consisting of a father, mother and 6 year old son. I discover in a later conversation that they are emigrating to New Zealand. The father's face is a portrait of simultaneous worry and relief as he sits stiffly in the aisle seat and studies the safety card. The son holds onto the bottom edge of the window with both hands like only kids can do and presses his nose up against the pane. The mother protectively envelops the child with her arms, peering over his body at the bright lights of the terminal building in the otherwise dark night. We begin our takeoff roll and are airborne several seconds later. As the city lights come into view, the mother tells the son to "wave bye to Nani (grandmother)". Her voice chokes for a second as she realizes the enormity of what her little family is about to undertake but she steadies herself and takes a last look at the country of her birth before we enter the clouds. The father lets out a long breath and reclines his seat with a conviction that only the finality of liftoff has lent him.

I skip dinner and sleep most of the flight, stretching out across all 3 seats. I awaken near Malacca with just under an hour left. I am able to freshen up before the cabin lights come back on and make my way back to the seat as the crew distribute landing cards for Singapore. I notice that the man in 33G behind me is confused. He is dressed in an old ill-fitting suit with a tie somewhat off-center. As I walk past, he taps my arm to draw attention. He explains in broken English with a Sinhalese accent that he is on the way to Singapore to take up assignment as a crew member on a container ship, but his English isn't good enough to understand the rather confusing landing cards. Would I be willing to help him? He scoots over to 33F and we work our way down through both immigration and health cards. I note with interest that his Sri Lankan passport lists his place of birth as the civil war-torn northern town of Jaffna. Once we are done, I ask him how the situation is over there nowadays. His face brightens up for a second as he thinks of home and he tells me that his wife and daughters are finally moving back now that the ceasefire is in place. He pulls out his wallet and extracts a tattered picture of a poor but proud family dressed up in very colourful outfits in front of a temple. He points out his son who also works aboard a ship, struggling to find the correct syntax to express his pride in the boy. The seatbelt sign pings to signal our descent and I take his leave, secure in the knowledge that I will have a new friend on hand should I ever happen to visit Jaffna someday.

We land at Singapore a few minutes early and taxi to our gate. As we emerge from the plane, a smiling Singaporean health official welcomes us and ensures that we pass through the thermal scanners on the way out. I walk through the familiar corridors of Changi and notice hundreds of anonymous "amateur" faces going about their own business. I reflect on the handful of folks that for a brief moment were no longer anonymous to me and how different this routine trip had been simply by observing or interacting with them. I know that my travel experience was enriched by these "amateurs". You should try it sometime too.


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