Couchfish: A Personal History of Flying

Couchfish: A Personal History of Flying

Please give me this one flight + membership giveaway!

As this Couchfish leg, from Kuala Lumpur to Medan, will be the only flight of the entire itinerary, I thought I’d write a bit about flying. Also, for a bit of fun, I’m giving away eight annual subscriptions (worth US$70 apiece) to Couchfish—all you need do is tell me the answer to any one of the photo quizzes below. Answers are only accepted here, in the comments—not on Twitter, email or by postcard. First correct answer for each wins.

The crackling AirAsia voiceover is in my head as I lever myself into my legroom-free “window seat,” and it feels like a lifetime ago that I took my first flight. In fact, it just about is. I was a young kid on an Australian domestic route, I don’t recall where, but I can imagine the thrills. Flying!

My planes all had legroom. Thanks Mum for the album! (Note, this photo is not a part of the competition!)

As a child, like many who were lucky enough to fly at a young age, it was a pretty exciting event. By the time I was on the verge of teenagerdom, I’d flown overseas for long stints in South Korea, Japan and Italy, among others. I was a well-travelled teenager, that’s for sure.

The highlight of those years of flying was a first class trip (my one and only) from Rome to Sydney. It was just my two younger sisters and me, heading home ahead of the folks. I remember that another kid in the pointy bit of the Qantas 747 had a boomerang. One of the flight attendants entertained us with it, throwing it inexpertly around the cabin. I can imagine the social media outrage now “Qantas staffer appropriates culture and endangers children—AT 35,000 FEET!” Life was different then.

Quiz 1: Where is this? (Province will do if nobody guesses the town, as this one is quite obscure—it is probably not where you are thinking!).

We had a stopover at what was then Bombay and I asked the boomerang-wielder if I could disembark. Sure, she said, and I wandered the airport alone for an hour or so while they gassed up the plane. It was the first time I had set foot in South Asia, and even though I stayed airside, I already had the bug big time.

Through these years I developed an obsession with aircraft. While living on a South Korean island, I made toy airplanes out of cardboard, colouring them in with the various carriers’ insignia. Looking at the photo I can make out a KLM DC-10 and an Air-France concord—I aged better than both of those. Today, my son is an avid plane-spotter—he recently started selling a calendar of his best pics—no, this isn’t a sponsored post! But yeah, genes—strong stuff.

Quiz 2: Which specific airport this is?

Later, when I headed off on my first solo trip, I was on what was then the tried and tested Continental Thai RTW. First stop was Hawaii, and we flew on February 29, arriving before we left Sydney thanks to the time line. I joke that we aged four years in half a day. Today, pretty much any flight leaves me feeling like I aged four years.

On the same trip, after cashing up in London for a spell, I made my way to India. I flew Thai and they deposited me in New Delhi at an ungodly hour, leaving me to spend six hours in a novel-worthy scam. Still, the flight was direct and painless. For all its detractors, I’ve always found Thai to be a carrier that mimics its country near perfectly. The good, the bad, and the ugly, of course.

Quiz 3: Where is this flight on the way to (not from)? Specific destination please! (Thanks Exacto for the pic!)

Later, I was in Pushkar, doing the typical India backpacker circuit. I met a French guy on the guesthouse roof and we traded flight tales. Flying and its stories were a quintessential part of breaking the ice between travellers. Sometimes the tales got pretty tall.

He’d left from Paris with Aeroflot he said, with stops in Moscow, some other Russian town, Kabul and then New Delhi. At the second Russian stop, crates of munitions were loaded into the cabin where a section of seats were missing. They were later unloaded at Kabul. Given the Russian Afghanistan adventure had finished a couple of years earlier, I’m dubious, but it made for a good tale. It also made me feel like the tourist given my direct Thai flight took a little less than the 40-odd hours his did. His was cheaper though—therefore he was the better traveller. Or so the logic went in our 20-something brains.

Quiz 4: Which specific airport is this. This one is easy so be quick!

Once I picked up the Thailand bug, I bounced back and forward between Australia and there. I wouldn’t fly domestically as it was too expensive and I was happy to save 82 baht even it it meant 82 hours on a rathole bus. I did do one regional flight though, a Biman run from Bangkok to Singapore. The flight hit a bad air pocket and we dropped like a stone for what felt like way too long. When the flight bottomed out, the oxygen masks deployed. I remember thinking at the time that a ticket on Swiss was only a few dollars more. At least I was going to die on a flight that had leg room.

It was a few years later that Tony Fernandes bought debt-ladened AirAsia and reinvented it—and legroom. The slogan “Now everyone can fly” rang true, and more than any other single event, it changed how people travel in the region. Flying changed too—the legroom sure as hell vanished.

Quiz 5: Which airport is this. Look carefully!

I flew more and more, bouncing around the region in a manner that would have been financially impossible for me only a few years earlier. With flights often cheaper than a bus ticket, millions of others did the same. The joy I once got from flying began to fade as it became more of a chore—not that that stopped me doing it—I just whined more.

In the year before the pandemic hit I was through KLIA more times than I care to admit. I once flew from Bali to Bangkok for a night to catch up for beers with an old friend who had returned from the States. I started running into friends who were travelling as much as me—at some random airport. Of course I should have known better, but I was far from the only one.

Quiz 6: Which airport is this? Many clues in the photo!

Towns which for decades had required considerable travel to reach were now within an hour of Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur or Singapore. Hubs that saw tens of millions of inbound tourists—some trickle down was inevitable. Smaller overland travel hubs began to wither as more flew than took the bus, removing the need to overnight or transit in Nakhon Nowhere. Taking a weekend break to Luang Prabang, Siem Reap or Hoi An, became totally workable. Despite being ill-equipped for the influx, these town, and many others like them, exploded. Southeast Asia’s travel map was being redrawn faster than you could say carbon emissions are cooking the planet.

As more and more flew, flying became less and less comfortable. Buying a ticket became an exercise in discretionary charge avoidance. How the hell can a seat be an optional add-on?

Quiz 7: Which airport is this. Easy peasy!

Statistically, flying may be safe, but in a region not famous for aircraft maintenance, the statistics loomed. I met a guy who had survived three crashes. Then we lost friends in a flight disaster in Java. Then I met another who’d also survived three crashes. What are the odds of that? There’s two people I have no interest in flying with—ever.

More recently, as the planet rotated from slow roast to charcoal baby, awareness grew. Flight-shaming started to grow legs. People started to better consider the external costs of jumping on a jet plane. Not only the environmental vandalism, but also what flying was doing to destinations.

Then the pandemic came and near everything stopped. It seemed fitting I was on one of the last AirAsia flights from Kuala Lumpur to Bali. Little did I realise, that as we sailed over the near-endless palm plantations, it would be years before I was airborne again.

Quiz 8: What airport is this flight on final approach to?

Over those years there’s been plenty of talk. Talk about reducing discretionary flying. Talk about making travel more sustainable. Talk about encouraging people to travel locally. Talk about catching the train—like in Laos, where it is almost as fast as the skyrocketing inflation. By and large though, it is just that—talk.

I hope though, that through the last 300+ flightless entries on Couchfish, I’ve shown there is little reason to get on a plane once here. It’s a small step in my making up for flying to Bangkok for that night on the town. Or so I’m telling myself anyway. Please though, grant me this one flight.

I’ve been on final descent for a spell now. The northeast coast of Sumatra slid underneath a few minutes ago as we line up on final to Kualanamu. I can almost feel the humidity and smell the clove cigarettes through my window. Tomorrow, Medan.

A quick update on the answers so far—I’ve added a clue (the country) to each of the ones not yet guessed—seems people are struggling with Indonesia!

1: Clue: Indonesia

2: Ban Lung, Cambodia

3: Clue: Laos

4: Chiang Mai, Thailand

5: Clue: Malaysia

6: Clue: Indonesia

7: Bali, Indonesia

8: Clue: Indonesia

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The Couchfish podcast. Following a day by day itinerary through Southeast Asia—for all those people stranded on their couch.