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An airplane adventure that’s more than just a travel story

30 september 2011, 13:01
0

Transaero Flight 202 from Kiev to Moscow on September 27 should have been routine.

It didn’t turn out that way, thanks to a passenger who put his selfish interests above the rest of those on the plane.

Unfortunately, the guy was sitting next to me at the time – and me being American, and a curmudgeon to boot, I called him on it. It quickly developed into the most unpleasant moment I’ve experienced in 40 years of flying.

The bad vibes started when the guy, a Russian in his early 30s, continued to use his cellphone after the pilot announced that passengers should turn off their mobiles.

A flight attendant walked by and asked him to turn it off, and he replied in Russian: “Yeah, yeah.”
Then he continued to talk.

A second attendant asked him to turn off his mobile, with the same result: “Yeah, yeah” and noncompliance.

Then, just before the plane’s wheels left the ground, a third attendant asked him to turn off the cellphone. He said he would but continued talking after the 737 was airborne. The only reason he stopped using the mobile was that the plane’s ascent cut off the connection.

I was doing a slow burn as I watched him ignore one flight attendant after another. It wasn’t his conversation that was bothering me. It was his total disregard for other passengers’ safety.

There is a reason why pilots ask passengers to turn off electronic devices on takeoff:  to make sure the devices’ signals don’t disrupt vital airplane systems.

Although I was tempted to say something about his refusal to stop using the mobile, when the plane’s takeoff broke his connection, I figured there was no point to confronting him: The cellphone was no longer usable.

So I sat back for the hour and 15-minute flight.

We landed in Moscow without incident, with passengers applauding the pilot for a silky-smooth landing.

Within seconds of landing, however, I smelled smoke.

I looked around to try to spot the source of the smoke and was astounded to see the Russian guy puffing away on a cigarette as we taxied toward the terminal.

“What the hell are you doing?” I yelled. “Put it out!”

“It’s an electronic cigarette,” he responded as if he were a jailhouse lawyer.

“I don’t care if it’s King Tut’s diamond-encrusted golden hookah,” I said. “Put it out!”

Thoughts of Richard Reid flashed through my mind. He’s the Jamaican-born, British-naturalized terrorist who tried to bring down an American Airlines flight over the Atlantic in 2002 by using a match to light explosives in his shoes.

The guy next to me probably wasn’t a terrorist – just an idiot – but I wasn’t going to take any chances.

As he argued with me, I pushed the call button above my head. A flight attendant rushed up to ask what was the problem. I pointed to the cigarette in the Russian guy’s hand and the smoke wafting around him.

She asked him politely to put out the cigarette. Instead of complying immediately, as 99.9 percent of passengers would, he responded with his jailhouse-lawyer argument about it being an electronic cigarette.

She then insisted that he put it out, and I could see him scrunching up his face in thought, trying to decide whether to comply or continue defying her.

At that moment I decided that if he didn’t put it out immediately, I would physically take it away from him.

A few passengers on the Richard Reid flight prevented a potential disaster by pouncing on Reid to keep him from lighting more matches after the first couple failed to ignite his explosives. I was determined to take a similar tack with this jerk sitting next to me.

Finally, and grudgingly, he put out the smoke. I half-expected him to retaliate against me for invading his “personal space,” but he didn’t. He sat still, saying nothing.

When our plane stopped at the terminal, a Russian woman about 23, who had been sitting two rows ahead of me, asked me what the commotion was about.

I explained, and she clucked in a sympathetic tone: “Please don’t be angry. There was nothing you could do about it.” In other words, there was nothing I could have done to have stopped the guy.

“That’s where you’re wrong, Miss,” I said. “Believe me, I was going to stop him.”

Her resigned reaction to the wrong that had just occurred was almost more upsetting to me than the incident itself, and I discussed it later with an American friend who has spent a long time in Russia.

“They have a term for it in Russia,” he said. “it’s called bespredel. It means that people can do exactly what they like and get away with it. No one will stop them.”

When that kind of lawlessness is prevalent, my friend said, people become cynical, believing they can’t make a difference, that they’re always at the mercy of the evil forces in society.

I have no doubt that the guy who lit up the cigarette on my flight escaped without even a handslap. If it had been a Western airline heading for a Western city, the pilot would have radioed ahead to the control tower – and police would have been waiting at the terminal for the guy.

 As I reflected on what had just happened, I concluded that Transaero 202 was not just a story of a flight. It was also a commentary on different world views.


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