One forgets that an airliner is a workplace for its crew and that conditions differ markedly from one type of plane to another. I was amused, on Monday night, when I flew on a Boeing 787 (Boeing’s latest), from London to Kuala Lumpur to hear that the cabin crew call it the Binliner, rather than the Dreamliner. A dream it may be for the passengers but for the crew, they said, it was cramped, ill-equipped and prone to break down (though not in life-threatening ways).
‘It is our workplace,’ one of them said. ‘People don’t seem to realise that.’
Don’t get them confused…
It reminds me of a line in Alan Bennet’s withering monologue – Bed Among the Lentils – which excoriates the pretensions of an ambitious Church of England vicar. A sympathetic flower-arranging parishioner goes on about how the altar is, after all, his workplace, and must be treated with the utmost respect.
Monday’s flight to KL was my first in the new 787 (the 787-9 model, in case it matters), and I enjoyed it, inasmuch as one can enjoy a 13-hour flight. Air pressure is apparently set at about 6,000 feet in the 787, lower than for most other commercial long-range jets except for the A380, and that, the Boeing publicists tell us, means that you don’t feel like a wrung-out rag on arrival. I took a well-known prescription sedative before I slept, so I actually felt more cheerful than I usually do on a Monday night (I only take these particular pills once or twice a year for overnight flights). The plane is also quieter than most, though the wings, I notice, bend upwards alarmingly, equally on both sides, so probably as planned.
I chatted, as I usually do, with the crew (how they must hate passengers like me when there’s so much to get done in their workplace, especially when there’s inadequate space and equipment to do it in and with).
If I’m on British Airways, as I was, I tell them how I once heard the Captain make that fateful announcement ‘Will a senior member of the cabin crew please report immediately to the cockpit.’ Even as I heard this, some years ago, on a Boeing 777 somewhere above the mid-Atlantic, I sensed from the strain of the Captain’s speech that we were in trouble. There was smoke in the cockpit, we were told later, when it was safe for us to know it, and we were diving down in preparation for ditching the plane in the cold December waves of the north Atlantic Ocean.
We didn’t ditch, as you might have guessed, else I think it unlikely that you would be reading this, but it was a scary procedure. And the crisis didn’t end there. Once the smoke had dissipated and all the electrical equipment in the plane had been switched off (no hot breakfast on that particular flight) it turned out we only had just enough fuel, at low altitude, to limp into Shannon airport.
I tell this story to all the cabin crew. So often, in fact, that a few months ago I found I was telling it to a crew member who’d actually been working on that flight. She confirmed that it had been touch and go. Most crew, though, have never heard these awful words (and I hope you haven’t either), though on Monday night, one of them had heard it just once in 25 years of flying when some sausages had burst into flames. Most of them hoped they’d never hear it.
I’m always cheering for Airbus when it comes to the passenger airliner wars. There isn’t much of the patriotic Brit or European in me, but I like us to beat the Americans when it comes to the order book for larger commercial aeroplanes. And in my experience, there is no better plane for a very long flight than the Airbus A380. It is quiet and so spacious that you can hear passengers chatting, even sotto voce, ,from a distance of ten metres. But whether it is good to work in, or fly, I have no idea at all.