I’ve been handing out a lot of superlatives in the last week or so, so now it’s time to reflect on what didn’t go so well on my 2011 travels.
I’m happy to report that there were only a few contenders for the Worst Experience title; unlike 2010, where I seemed to be a germ magnet, I didn’t projectile vomit in an airport or get elevation sickness or sniffle my way through a city. I didn’t even miss a flight, which is amazing considering some of the tight connections I pieced together during my fall travel binge. I can only hope that 2012 goes as smoothly.
Still, every frequent traveler hits a bump at some point. And for me, the worst experience of the year came on my Air New Zealand flight from LAX to Auckland in early November.
My husband and I had tried, unsuccessfully, to buy an upgrade into Premium Economy on the packed flight. When it didn’t come through, we shrugged it off, as we at least had aisle seats. Longhaul flights don’t scare me; while 12 hours and 40 minutes is an eternity in the air, I figured that my friend Ambien and the airline’s top-notch in-seat entertainment system would get me through.
Then I boarded. When I came to my row, I looked down, confused. An immense woman had taken up residence in my seat – and she didn’t seem keen on moving.
I pointed out the row number and told her that she was in the wrong place. She grudgingly moved over, keeping the armrest up as she struggled with her seat belt. When she couldn’t fasten it, the flight attendant came by with an extension. After she was buckled in, I put it armrest back down, but it didn’t help with boundary problems. The woman’s body spilled over the armrest, to such an extent that I couldn’t sit straight in my own seat.
And thus began the endurance test. Once we were in the air, I lifted the armrest on the aisle so I could at least try to sit straight. But that configuration put my feet in the aisle, vulnerable to getting stepped on (and tripping others). I looked over at the girl on the other side of my oversize seatmate. She, too, was sitting sideways and looked uncomfortable (although she was considerably shorter and smaller than me).
When the flight attendant came by and saw how I was wedged in, he looked aghast. “Tight squeeze, there,” he said, sympathetically. “Is there anything I can do?” I suggested that he move me, but he checked and the plane was full. He did bring me some extra mini wine bottles. “Maybe this will help,” he said. “I’m so sorry.”
They didn’t. Although she was squeezed in on both sides, my seatmate had no problems falling asleep – and she listed toward me. The heat from her body radiated. I could smell the B.O. When I got up to walk around, she encroached further. I could only get back in the seat by raising my armrest.
Lord knows, I tried to be a good sport. I’m not exactly a small person and I’ve felt the animosity that some people have toward larger women. But around hour 11, with the prospect of sleep far from reach, I lost it a bit. I put my head in my hands, leaning over to Don who was seated in the aisle seat across from me. “I can’t handle this,” I told him. “This is absolutely the worst.” When we arrived in New Zealand, I couldn’t get off the plane fast enough.
Luckily, Premium Economy seats were available on the flight back, so we paid $500 each to upgrade. The experience couldn’t have been more different. We had plenty of room, with great service and amenities. Finally, I felt, I was experiencing Air New Zealand the way that everyone else had.
I’m not writing this piece to cast more hate toward the obese. And I’m sure that my seatmate didn’t mean to make my life miserable; I can’t imagine how embarrassed I would have felt in her situation. But, at the same point, I had a much more unpleasant experience than other people on the flight, because of her. I’ve come to the unfortunate realization that the only way to ensure that something like that doesn’t happen again is to always try to upgrade, either through miles or money, on international flights, at least if I don’t score an exit row seat.