Fear of Flying

The departure gate, before it got busy.

It’s been three years since we last flew anywhere. Covid has had us in repeated lockdowns and our country’s borders were closed for all but the most essential travel. Government officials excepted, of course.

Even within Australia, crossing state borders was fraught. And at times, even going more than 10 kilometres from home for anything other than shopping needed a note from the doctor (not your parents).

But now, even as Covid still wreaks havoc (only more quietly, no more daily announcements at 11 am telling us how many more have died) restrictions are opening up and travel is once more permitted.

There’s an important family gathering in Perth, WA. That’s Western Australia, folks. Not Washington state in the US. So we’re flying over.

Given past events and challenges, we decided to go over early to at least get within state borders before any possible lockdown. Not likely, but not taking chances. Besides, weather in NSW has been horrible for most of the year, we’d like to get away from it and explore a sunnier state.

Our Sydney weather has been surprisingly pleasant over the last couple of weeks. The unfamiliar blazing ball of light in the sky has even had me dusting off my sunglasses.

For the week before, our usual stringent family Covid precautions ramped up a few notches. Masks when around anybody else outside the home; dash in-dash out shopping trips; no social events. We wanted no chance of catching Covid to sabotage the trip.

We watched weather forecasts. We wanted no airport closures to affect us either.

As flights have been coming back, problems have been exposed in the check-in and baggage systems. It became prudent to pack at least one change of clothing, plus essential medications, in the carry-on bags.

Weather reports for Sydney were for continuing sunny weather. NOW the sun comes out!!?! But for Perth, a negative Indian Ocean dipole was already spelling wetter weather there and across to Sydney, with news of three severe low-pressure systems coming in just in time for our arrival. Oh, joy…

By the time our day of departure dawned, we were already on the road. Our son was doing his weekend bread run early, just for us, dropping us and our luggage at the railway station before collecting his cargo of fresh loaves for the return trip.

We aimed to get to the airport early, we’d heard the horror stories of check-in queues and long delays. But in the end, it all went fast and smoothly. I had packed my sewing bag (small needle, no scissors or unpicker) with my book so I could sew on the plane. Or read. Security let it through. We kept our masks firmly on and did our best to stay away from the crowd. But as boarding time drew near, the departure lounge was filling up.

Nearby shops provided some distraction.

Comfy bed socks from Peter Alexander. Covid chic.

Boarding at last! Time to enter the tightly-packed steel tube about to hurtle through the sky.

I’ve been on bigger planes. I’ve been on smaller planes. This one was cramped, and packed full of people. Airlines are apparently determined to get as many fares as possibly on board every flight, to make up for the last two-and-a-half-years’ losses. We were warned that the flight was short on space for carry-on luggage and some people might have to send their carry-on via a later flight. So much for our planning to carry urgent essentials so they could stay with us, I thought. But we were lucky, our carry-on wasn’t offloaded.

Sydney Harbour view as we headed for Perth. If you look closely you can see ‘the old coathanger’ (Sydney Harbour Bridge) and Anzac Bridge (foreground).

I’m short, I don’t have legroom issues, but this plane was a squeeze for me. I could barely fit between the armrests in my middle seat of three. Wearing a heavy winter jacket didn’t help. The window seat passenger arrived, and he was a tall bloke. A landscape contractor, I later discovered. He did not fit well either, his long legs had to be splayed in order to fit in the space. On the other side of me, Jeff’s long legs had to be pulled in every time someone walked along the aisle.

Safety instructions are different now. They also include rules about wearing masks, including the injunction to leave them on, between mouthfuls of food or sips of water.

The flight was expected to be about four hours. We were ahead of the forecast bad weather, they said. But we might meet it along the way. The worst of the blow would be after our arrival.

I just wanted to get it over with.

I spent the flight squeezed into my seat, struggling to find where to plug in my headset then struggling again to find the buttons I needed to access to work the darn thing. I wanted to tilt my seat back but no way could I find THAT button! Meanwhile, to my left and right, both were manspreading into what little remained of my space. It was an unfortunate necessity for them due to the small legroom. While I have no concerns touching thighs with my husband, I did find it awkward to be on closer leg-rubbing terms with a total stranger.

We managed the meals, and a couple of glasses of juice. It was tricky, but we didn’t spill anything. I gave up on trying to do any sewing. I had no elbow room. Reading my book was enough challenge. I dropped my pencil at one point, and had to do without it for the rest of the flight. No way could I reach down there. Not without evicting both my fellow passengers and getting down on the floor.

Through the flight there were increasing announcements of our delayed arrival. Turns out the bad weather had sent its advance party, and we had a strong headwind. The flight eventually took five and a half hours. Cabin crew kept coming round to tell people to put their masks back on, and my brain was visualising Covid viruses floating freely around the cabin.

As we were coming in to land, the cabin crew urged me to tilt my seat back to the upright position. I was surprised — I hadn’t realised that my squashed thigh had been pressing against the seat tilt button on the armrest.

When we arrived we chose to wait in our seats while other passengers impatiently waited in the aisles for the next twenty minutes. Our fellow passenger continued to browse through catalogues of earthmoving equipment. We chatted a bit more. “I’m a FIFO worker,” he told me. [That’s Fly In, Fly Out]. “But this is my first flight to WA in years, I’m off to see a mate up north. I’ve been nervous of flying, with Covid. Hate it. Especially crowds.”

At last the crowd cleared and we had space to get out of our seats, grab our bags from the overhead locker, and get off the plane. It couldn’t happen fast enough for me.

It took another hour to get our bags, and after all the stories we’d heard, we were delighted to claim our own once more. It was a short walk to the car hire place, that process was much quicker.

It was cold, windy and damp, but the forecast torrential downpours weren’t happening. Yet. We’d rung Aunty Meg who said she’d made a batch of her famous creamy vegetable soup for us.

We got to Aunty Meg’s in mid-afternoon. She welcomed us with a fresh cuppa and a welcome chat. I got out my sewing.

The wind rose outside but the sky was still clear. It would be a cold night, but we’d be warm inside. Aunty Meg put the heater on, then commented, “It’s two hours later for you. I’ll put the soup on to heat up.”

Just then, the power went out. “It’s been doing that all day!” Aunty Meg remarked. “What a nuisance! The whole neighbourhood has been having momentary drop-outs in power.”

But not this time. Aunty Meg called the neighbour. “Is your power out again too? No?”

“Maybe you should check the fuse box,” Jeff suggested. “In case it’s a circuit breaker or something.”

With nothing to look at inside, all three of us traipsed out to the fuse box. We could smell burning plastic and could see sparks arcing across the circuit breaker, which hadn’t tripped. It should have. Jeff found something inert and used it to force the main breaker switch off. The sparks stopped.

“I think I see the trouble…”

It was a Sunday night. We rang emergency electricians and found nobody available. Aunty Meg’s previous electrician had moved ‘up north’ and she eventually found a new contact who was unable to attend that night but would be out first thing.

The power company came out to inspect, said it wasn’t their problem. “A good thing you managed to shut it off so promptly,” said the power company electrician. “The way this was installed originally, fire could have gone up into the ceiling, you could have lost the house.”

Meanwhile, nobody was going to have any soup so Aunty Meg and Jeff went searching for easy takeaway to eat by candlelight. I stayed and waited outside, where there was still a little light to read by.

It was a cold, dark night so we went to bed early. I’d used my phone briefly to connect to the internet and get emails. My battery was getting low. Meanwhile Jeff charged his in the car.

Next morning we were up and dressed early when the electrician arrived. We’d been able to tell him what had happened and what model of board components we had, so he arrived with the right parts and within fifteen minutes, we were back with power and light.

Expert on the job. Aunt Meg has a new favourite electrician!

“It’s good it happened yesterday and not today,” he told us. “With the three big blows coming in, I’m going to be real busy for the next week, from tonight.”

The next night Aunt Meg’s daughter and family arrived from the UK. The big blow had hit hard and the airport terminal was in darkness. Most flights had been diverted, but with a plane low on fuel after a long haul, they made an exception.

Despite all this, Perth is really a very welcoming place. And at least we were here, not trying to cross the country by plane, in a narrow metal tube packed with mask-wearing people.

Masked and ready to fly again. With trepidation!

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