For a long time I had a serious fear of flying. The first trigger would be the moment I unzipped my suitcase to start packing, and from then I would feel nauseous, dizzy and like I wanted to run around screaming, all at the same time. I would pack the evening before to alleviate anxiety in the morning but of course I wouldn’t sleep properly, so the tiredness would end up screwing me over. As the flight time approached I would be shaking, and when I was on the plane there would be tears, panic attacks and much clutching and sweating. I apologise to anyone who travelled with me during that period.
Then I discovered tranquillisers. I ended up popping these magic pills before the airport, at the airport, on the plane, on the flight. Recreationally. Only kidding! I just got enough to travel each time, but the problem was, they never knocked me out as much as I wanted them to, so I decided to combine them with gin. Hint: don’t do that. Alcohol and tranquillisers are a really dangerous combination. As my GP sensitively put it when I told him about this, “you want to be careful love, or you’ll do a Whitney Houston.” So after I contemplated the dangers of slipping away in my sleep and mentally raked over a couple of incidents I’d rather forget it was time to do something about The Fear. It was a lot more likely I’d do myself serious harm trying to self-medicate, basically. What a tool.
Anyway I did get over my fear, and people often ask me how I did it, so I will tell you. The first thing I did was learn as much as I possibly could about flying. When you’re scared of it, one of the main issues you have is all those noises, bumps and sensations in flight, not to mention the question of HOW DOES IT EVEN STAY IN THE AIR!?? There are books that can help you with this. I recommend Cockpit Confidential by Patrick Smith. I wouldn’t say I’m the world’s greatest fan of turbulence still, but I do know it doesn’t mean the plane is going to drop out of the sky. I also know what all those sounds mean, and they no longer freak me out. The second thing I did (which I’m afraid isn’t an accessible option for most people) is that I started flying all the time. A couple of weeks ago for example, I took five flights in one week. After a while, I just couldn’t be bothered being scared any more, because anxiety and fear is really exhausting. I still have a couple of gin and tonics or bloody Marys on a flight, and there was one major freakout this year during some particularly bad turbulence (I had to call the attendant who talked me down) but hey, I’m doing good. I’m also now an expert at recognising the signs in others and so I once helped a woman through a panic attack. A proud moment.
Anyway the reason I am telling you this, apart from the fact it might be interesting or helpful, is that I now find myself in a place where I am fascinated by flying. It’s that weird borderline thing that happens when you’re scared of something, or repulsed by it. A bit like the so called fine line between love and hate. I became very interested in all aspects of aviation and started reading more books, watching the flight paths outside my window and becoming a little bit geeky. I cherish my model A380. I know. That’s actually not a joke.
When I went to Malaysia recently, I was really excited about the prospect of going behind the scenes at an airline catering facility. Is it the little compartment trays that we love so much? Well partly, but I think it’s also the element of surprise and the fact that people like to have lots of little bits and bobs to nibble at. There’s also not much else to do in flight, so the food is more exciting than it should be. The worst food I’ve ever had is short haul with Middle Eastern Airlines. I present to you the sandwich we were served. Manky lettuce, soggy roll, squeaky reformed meat.
The best I’ve ever had has been with Etihad and Malaysia Airlines although both in business class I’m afraid. That isn’t a guarantee of quality, by the way. On a recent BA flight I had both the economy and business class meals (a long story involving a large Mexican man and too much brandy) and the economy option of vegetarian curry was rich and fragrant with curry leaves (I was amazed too), much better than the lump of dry, grey steak they served in business.
The Etihad business class meal: champagne before take-off, proper glasses and plates, decent enough mezze and a huge lamb shank. The pasta wasn’t bad either. If only it were like this every time. Sigh.
On Malaysia Airlines, they have garlic bread. Garlic bread! It’s all soft and squishy and pungent, not dry and dusty as you might expect. There’s also a famous satay trolley in business class, which is really, genuinely excellent. I saw them being made in the catering facility on a grill, which is lit 24 hours a day, burning 120 kilos of mangrove charcoal in that time. It’s manned by rows of people flipping the sticks and fanning the flames. In one day, they will produce 18K sticks of satay. I don’t know about you but I was hugely impressed by this grill. I’d expected sad little oven-cooked bullets of meat, but this was bouncy and well flavoured (having been marinated overnight in turmeric, shallots, onion, ginger, lemongrass, galangal etc.). On board the sticks are re-heated and a rejuvenating marinade is brushed on with lemongrass, before it’s served with a peanut sauce. Malaysians are very proud of their satay.
The catering facility was fascinating – so much repetition. Hundreds of dinky croissants waiting to be baked, or containers ready for filling. Each facility is used by many different airlines, and there are stations with screens telling the workers what to put in each box. There are vast freezers, ovens like wardrobes and shelves which remind you uncomfortably of trying to move boxes of flat pack without starting an argument. The quality ranges from sad looking Richmond style sausages at one end of the scale to fridges full of caviar, smoked salmon, confit and truffles at the other.
The executive chef told me about the difficulties of designing new dishes. We all know the spiel about tastebuds not performing at their best at altitude. At 30K feet we appreciate salt and umami, so that’s what they try to give us. The menus change often and work in cycles, so the team will look at what is new, what the food trends are, what the demographics of the passengers will be and what they can afford to serve. It’s a delicate balance, particularly once you add in the difficulties of scaling up and reheating at 30K feet.
So which are the most challenging items? Green vegetables are very tricky, and also noodle dishes which turn to gooey clods. There are some dishes which have been trialled again and again but just don’t work. German cuisine has apparently been a problem. I can imagine. Why persist? In business or first class there are more options as the crew are trained by the chef to be a lot more hands on with the food (as with the satay for example). With economy class, it’s just a case of re-heating. All staff get a one day training session, but apparently some need to be taught to recognise a carrot.
All fascinating stuff. I’d go again actually, but like I say, I’ve become the First Officer of Nerds when it comes to these matters. So now I want to know some things from you. Definitely the best and worst airlines meals, please! Definitely not any in flight horror stories involving near misses, smoke, fire or anything like aborted landings. Ta.