How to Survive Economy Class

It's all about the strategy

Words: Lee Tulloch

If Long Haul Flying, Economy Class, were an Olympic sport, Australians would be unassailable champions.

While other nationalities complain about the agony of sitting in a plane for five or six hours, we stoically sign up to twenty-one hour marathons, most of the time stuffed into ridiculously narrow seats with our knees around our ears.

As with Chinese high divers and Soviet water polo players, recent generations of young Australians have been bred for the Long Haul. We’re all getting broader in the beam. That’s not because we’re eating too much sugar – it’s Nature’s way of giving us some extra padding for those hard, thin economy class seats.

Like getting in shape for a Triathlon, there’s years of preparation involved. We start out with shorter trips, say Melbourne-Noosa or Sydney-Alice Springs, and then work up to Bali or New Zealand, before a conditioning dash across to Phuket or Disneyland and then the ultimate challenges, London and New York. The prize is a crescent-shaped neck pillow in a Winnie The Pooh pattern.

I’m in training for an economy class flight to Europe right now.  Having been occasionally mollycoddled in the pointy end of the plane, I know full well that I can’t take warm doonas and amenities kits for granted father back in seat 45C.  Down there, I’m on my own.

So it’s all about strategy, from seat choice to what to bring on board.  If I don’t take it seriously, I may find myself hungry and freezing to death in a middle seat, staring at a glitchy entertainment system, with nothing to read, no sleeping pills and a thirteen-hour flight ahead of me.

I don’t care for the much-coveted bulkhead, as it’s usually near a noisy galley or the baby bassinettes.

Seat selection is critical, which I try to do well before I fly. (Although the Gods of flying do love to mess with you here by creating an unscheduled change of aircraft and the lottery of re-allocation.) I consult Seat Guru and always choose an aisle. There may be extra room in the window seat, but in the middle of the night, if I want to go to the loo, I have to hoist myself over lumpen, immovable bodies. I prefer to have them climb across me. Besides, my feet appreciate a bit of a flex in the aisle when there isn’t a food trolley hurtling down it.

When I fly with my husband, we each take an aisle across from each other, so that neither has to sit in the dreaded middle seat on a 3-4-3 configured cabin. I like that seat to be forward in the aircraft, so that I can get off more quickly. I don’t care for the much-coveted bulkhead, as it’s usually near a noisy galley or the baby bassinettes.

My carry-on is lightweight and I’ve learnt to stash in it a change of clothes – delays do happen. I pack elastic socks to help prevent DVT, a neck pillow and my own comfortable eye mask. I bring along a wool or cashmere shawl that can double as a blanket, because I’ve never met an economy blanket that’s warm enough, and I wear layers of clothes for when the A/C turns alternately Arctic and Saharan. The shawl also works very well as a burka when I don’t want to engage with the passenger next to me.

I bring a medicine kit, for headaches and gas and any other consequence of bad food/poor air/noisy fellow passengers/sitting for hours. I have enough sleeping pills to knock out an elephant, although I usually only take one. Noise cancelling headphones are excellent. My plastic ziplock bag contains toothpaste and toothbrush snaffled from a Business Class trip, hand sanitiser, moisturiser, nasal spray, eyedrops and perfume. Wet wipes are handy for when I invariably knock over a drink on my kindergarten-sized tray table or spill stir-fry down my front. (I always wear black.)

I generally assume that the entertainment system will break down, so I travel with plenty to read. I bring a few health bars in case they don’t serve the meal quickly enough.

But the most important preparation is psychological. It’s crucial not to let my heart sink when I board and see my allocated seat. I try to be positive: ‘How cosy!’ ‘That nice large person next to me will keep me warm!’ ‘I don’t like windows, anyway’ and so on.

Despite all this, I may not sleep a wink.

Long Haul in economy may not be an elite sport, but we all deserve medals for doing it.

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