Visitors view the economy class section of a Boeing 787 operated by All Nippon Airways, at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.
Visitors view the economy class section of a Boeing 787 operated by All Nippon Airways, at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.

The horrors of economy class

By Brendan Seery Time of article published Mar 14, 2014

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Johannesburg - What’s the definition of relief? When the cabin crew closes the door and you realise, after half an hour of lip-chewing suspense, that the seats next to you will remain empty for the flight.

You all know what I am talking about.

You sit, huddled in your economy class hutch, casting furtive glances at the procession of people who lurch down the aisle and wonder which of them you will be imprisoned with for the next 10 hours.

Will it be the enormous rugby player, with biceps and thighs the size of heifers?

Or the slob in the dirty shirt which, as it hangs over his trousers, he uses to wipe his hand after smearing something on it from his nose?

Or even the harassed mother with hyperactive kids?

What it never, ever, ever is – if you’re a male, and I can only speak from the male perspective – is the gorgeous blonde with the perfect smile and the legs which should be licensed as a possible threat to public order.

Flying economy class is the modern equivalent of Chinese water torture: slow and agonising.

And it’s all pretty much the same, despite what the airlines would like you to believe.

The average economy seat is about 17 inches wide and has about 31 inches of legroom.

Even on the Airbus A380 super jumbo (operated to South Africa by AirFrance, Lufthansa and British Airways), the extra space is above your head.

If you want to compare the various seat widths and pitches (distance between them), go to the excellent website,

Veteran flyers will tell you not all seats are equal.

If you have a strong bladder (and don’t need to go to the loo often) and wish to avoid people climbing over you, then a window seat is what you should go for. It also provides a little extra space for bits and pieces and a place to rest your head.

The aisle seat, by contrast, allows you to get out easily to go to the toilet, but you have to put up with others climbing over you. You are also in danger of being jostled by everyone heading for the loo.

If you’re travelling as a family, the airline will normally put you together, usually in the middle section. It’s not bad; I’d rather be stepped over by my wife or my kids than a stranger with halitosis – or worse.

The problem is that these days, airlines have cottoned on to the fact that people like to reserve special seats – and they have started charging for the privilege. This is a comparatively recent revenue-grasping innovation.

It may still be worth booking through a travel agency (even more so if your flight is part of a tour) because they may still have the clout to reserve seats.

This doesn’t apply to all airlines – and I would be interested to hear which ones are the most accommodating when it comes to reserving seats.

But let’s say you’re stuck in an arbitrary seat in the middle of the middle section – how do you manage?

The best way to cope with flying long haul is, I have found, to do it repeatedly. It really does get better with repetition: there is gain after the pain.

When I first started flying to Europe on freelance projects about five years ago, I was tortured by the 11-hour flight.

I couldn’t sleep; I tossed and turned. I got hot, then cold. I got indigestion. Now, I realise that, in a Zen-like way, this too shall pass. And I relax a bit.

However, that observation applies to the direct European flights – by carriers like SAA, BA, Virgin, Lufthansa, Air France, KLM – which are all 11 hours or less. If you fly on the Middle Eastern carriers – Etihad, Emirates and Qatar – you get amazing prices. But you also get long journey times because you fly via their hubs in the Gulf.

And flights to Asia and the States are also tough because of the jet lag involved.

On one trip to London, I thought I would save money for the company I was working with and asked the Flight Centre consultant to book me on Emirates.

It was exactly 24 hours from the time I drove out of my gate in Joburg until I met the company chief executive in Kensington, London, at 4pm London time.

By that time, I was almost useless and he sent me off to sleep, while we only started business the following day. Had I used a direct carrier, I could have worked from about 9am London time that day.

However, if you’re on holiday, and on a budget, then time is not so precious. In fact, in a perverse way, it is quite pleasant being dog-tired when you arrive, knowing the time is your own, and the near-euphoria from lack of sleep is a bit like being in love.

And you don’t go on holiday to sleep. You can catch up later.

There are those who say you should eat before you fly and decline the food on offer, which normally only arrives two hours after take-off (and late into the night) – and that you should just drink water and avoid alcohol.

Me? I eat and I have a bit of booze… I find it helps me to sleep. Don’t forget that staying well-hydrated (as the experts recommend) means you will visit the loo more often – and that’s inconvenient at best and uncomfortable at worst.

Then: watch the video, or listen to the music?

To each his or her own – but I take a book, which I start at take off, go through with pre-dinner drinks then resume after supper. I find it is less attention-grabbing than watching a movie and, because of that, it helps you unwind quicker when you need to sleep.

Then, I normally take a jersey to keep myself warm. You never know what cabin temperatures will be like – sometimes they’re too hot. You can always chuck off a jersey, but if it’s cold, the thin supplied blankets are often not good enough. Some people take blow-up headrests and use eye blinds. Never tried them myself, but friends swear by them.

I also find that looking at the “moving map” is a good idea. You see how far you’ve come and how close you are – and you’re reminded that you’re crossing half the globe for an adventure.

And that’s what travel is about.

l I’d love to hear your strategies for coping with economy class. - Saturday Star

E-mail me at [email protected]

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