Strong winds shake the plane and rain sheets off the wings and streaks down the small windows as we sit on the runway waiting to take off. The 737 engines ramp to a high pitch roar. My five year old daughter sitting next to me suddenly grabs my hand as our plane accelerates, faster and faster down the runway, throwing us back in our seats.
The plane rocks with the storms powerful crosswinds as it lifts from the ground. My daughter stares at me wide-eyed and her face drains of color. Two seconds in the air and the plane drops ten feet. A quick collective gasp ripples through the cabin. My daughter is now china white and statue still.
I squeeze her hand in both of mine and tell her everything is fine and try to believe it. The plane pitches and tosses as it climbs through the clouds. Moments feel like hours as my mind plays out crash scenarios, and quiets only after the captain comes on announcing we’ve reached our cruising altitude of 35,000 feet with the promise of a smoother flight ahead.
Sunlight blazes through the windows. Above the clouds in the boundless blue our plane steadies. The collective sigh is almost audible.
Calm warms me just as my daughter announces she’s going to be sick, leans forward and throws up. Rancid chunks of egg and pancake from the morning’s breakfast soak her shirt. I stroke her head and back with one hand while frantically searching for a barf bag in the mesh pouch on the back of the seat in front of me. Two Sky Magazines and an Emergency Procedures brochure, but that’s it.
My daughter cries, ashamed, and tries to hold back throwing up more but I encourage her to let it out, though I’m helpless to contain it. Bile covered clumps drip from the armrest, her lap, and her seat to the floor. My husband sits across the isle and I ask him to go get a stewardess and a bag of some sort. He unbuckles his seatbelt and makes his way down the narrow isle to the attendants collecting snacks and drinks onto a metal serving cart.
Moments later my husband is back with five sheets of paper towel. No bag of any kind, and no stewardess. Apparently when he alerted them of our situation they told him he could find paper towels in the bathrooms.
I unbuckle my seatbelt and stand, take the sheets and start cleaning the mess. Five small squares of thin brown paper isn’t going to do it, so I ask my husband to go get more, and again request he summon assistance. He comes back with another handful of paper towels. Alone.
My ire rises. I leave my husband the task of caring for and cleaning up our daughter. The plane rides level and smooth as I make my way down the isle toward the back of the plane where a steward and stewardess on either side of the metal cart are passing out snacks. I inform them of my situation and ask for their help, or at least a bag of some sort. Both curtly assure me they’ll get to me when they can and tell me to return to my seat, as ‘federal law’ says passengers can not be standing when the fasten seatbelt sign is still on. As I turn back up the isle to go back to my seat a little bell rings and the seatbelt sign goes off.
It takes quite some time to strip and clean my daughter. I dress her in the only shirt I have available- the one I’m wearing. I feel cold (and naked) with only my sheer camisole. I clean the seat, the armrest, and am on my knees for another 10 minutes cleaning the smelly mess off the floor. My ire grows to anger when the cart stops at our row and the stewardess asks me if I want chips or cheese and crackers. I want to spit at her. Again I ask her for a bag and indicate the pile of soaked paper towels I’ve collected on the floor. She pulls a small plastic bag from a cabinet in the metal cart and hands it to me without comment. I glare at her as she moves on.
My husband fills the bag with the messy towels to capacity. Appeals for additional bags are ignored and eventually I go to the kitchenette and get them myself. The stewardess refuses to dispose of our waste and tells me where to throw it away myself. I have to get up to ask for water, for some crackers to settle my daughter’s stomach, for blankets and then I’m told to search the overhead compartments to see if there are any left. At no point during the six and a half hour flight does anyone respond to our request for assistance light, nor inquire as to my daughter’s welfare though I’d reported her ill.
The plane finally lands and we all shuffle out. The crew stands by the curved doorway with smiles and standard quips. The captain is young, good-looking, smiles broadly at me and nods. Three stewardesses and the steward stand together. They smile at me, then down at my daughter who stumbles along in front of me tripping on my long sleeve shirt that fits her like an oversized nightgown. Both women thank us for flying with them, then their eyes drift to my husband behind me and their smiles remain as they repeat the phrase to him.
I manage to refrain from flipping them off as I hustle my child off the plane.
I’m halfway up the collapsible corridor with my family when I ask my husband to wait for me with our daughter at the top of the gangway. Before they can question me I turn away and head back toward the plane. There are just a few passengers still exiting and I make my way around them until I’m standing in front of the cabin crew.
I tell them my name, that I was on their flight, and that my daughter threw up shortly after take-off. Then I ask why, after repeated requests, they did not offer any assistance. They look at each other, then at me, and then the captain speaks. If I have a complaint, he instructs, I should write a letter to American Airlines.
I just want an answer to my question, I insist.
His eyes narrow, his handsome smile evaporates. He tells me under the Homeland Security Act if I don’t exit the aircraft immediately he’s going to call airport security. I stare at him. He’s serious. I’m too scared to laugh. I glare at the attendants one last time, shake my head and leave the plane.
My recent flight experience is typical of late. I hear complaint on complaint about the growing lack of service, and often the down right rudeness of most major airlines these day. Consumer advocacy groups are forming against them. Even if these groups manage to push through legislation defining acceptable conduct for airlines to adhere to, the problem, systemic to our society today, runs deeper than that.
We can’t legislate people to care.
Recognizing and responding to each others needs is a personal choice. It is also a global imperative for humanity’s survival.
Extremists from the outside are not all we should fear.
Indifference is the terrorist within.