Register Tuesday | June 25 | 2019

Irish Cowboys of the Skies

Discovering the airborne fun-wagons of the world’s “least favourite” airline

Somehow it doesn’t feel quite right paying less than a Euro for a plane flight, however short that flight may be.  Could be the excessive cost of the hour-long passage from St. John’s to Deer Lake, near Rocky Harbour where I used to live (almost $700 return, taxes and charges included), has got me thinking that if airfare doesn’t induce a sudden nose-dive into paroxysms of financial anxiety, then it’s not really travel—or not safe travel, anyway.  To bring you up to speed: I spent part of last April in northern England, and from there booked a flight to Dublin on the Irish-based carrier, Ryanair. An English friend warned me about the self-proclaimed Low Fares Airline before I ever bought a ticket; he had had a bad experience, apparently, and wasn’t planning on a follow-up.  Now he’s something of an anti-Ryanair propagandist, an advocate of any carrier but them.  During the cab ride to the airport he told me heartening tales of dodgy safety standards and soused pilots being pulled off planes just prior to takeoff.  This, of course, triggered a vague memory of an investigation I’d read about in the British press a few years previous—something about pilots being forced to fly well over the legal number of hours per week. I must admit that I’m a bit of a nervous flyer these days, and have been ever since I had a panic attack on a transcontinental flight a few years ago that seemed to me to be an impending cardiac event.  Now every time I board a plane I anticipate another such spell, though I haven’t had one since.  I suppose it would be easier to load myself up on Ativan or some more potent tranquilizer, but I actually enjoy flying and would hate to dull the edges of the experience.  Like many backseat aviators, it’s the landing bit I’m not so keen on—specifically, those wobbly landings during which the plane suddenly drops several feet out of the air only to be kicked from underneath by pockets (no—duffle bags, storage sheds) of turbulence. As a child traveling with my parents I was once on a flight that hit the tail-end of a hurricane.  I remember two things quite clearly: being utterly convinced I was going to die, and being terrified when a stewardess fell into the lap of a nearby passenger.  Her trolley, meanwhile, rolled partway down the aisle before catching on a seat corner like a drunk steadying against a wall; it vomited trays of half eaten food and cups onto the floor.  My father did a convincing impression of someone who was unconcerned; my mother looked petrified but played it cool.  I can’t remember my brother’s reaction, but he was probably reading.  If the galaxy collapsed, he could keep on reading. So it was that with my heart fully occupying my throat I strode across the tarmac of Leeds Bradford International Airport, toward a plane that would ostensibly carry me to the Irish capital.  I say ostensibly because the way my friend had been talking during our taxi ride, we were just as likely to pitch down mid-Atlantic.  They load you in both nose and tail of the plane, these Ryanair attendants.  You’re left to pick your own entry point.  And having boarded, you are then informed that seating is entirely open, pick your poison, but please find a seat quickly as we hope to keep within our twenty-five minute turnaround time. My seat, as it turned out, was across the aisle from, and just behind, a bachelorette party of about twenty members—a gaggle of Northern English women fizzing with imported lager and pre-debauchery excitement.  They had brought along some sort of hen party game.  A deck of cards assigned each woman a task to be performed over the course of their wild weekend.  One middle-aged lady was asked to undo a man’s zipper with her teeth; another woman had to crawl under a bar table and bite a stranger on the leg; a third was ordered to mount said table and flash her breasts at the room.  Our flight took off, carried on a wave of raucous laughter. The pilots, Captain Patrick Foran and First Officer John Furlong, soon had us up at cruising altitude.  Through my window just behind the wing, I could see the Irish Sea, so calm it could have been wet pavement, the sun striking it, at times, in such a way that the surface appeared to have a skin like scalded milk.  Passing ships ploughed arrow-headed furrows in the water.  The plane’s wing shuddered in the wind and my heart jumped in my chest.  Meanwhile, the hens clucked at each other and told dirty jokes, kept trading seats, laughing bawdily and shouting out whenever turbulence shook us about. It was like a frigging carnival.  I’ve never had so much fun on a plane.  It felt like so many childhood school bus trips, everyone loaded up on sugar, giggly, excited, and incapable of sitting still.  The hazard-yellow colouration of the headrests and overhead storage compartments (while seated, this alarming hue is all that you can see as you look down the long tube of the cabin, despite the fact that much of the interior is decked out in a sober blue) didn’t even bother me too much.  The manic yellow seemed positively festive in the context of this airborne fun-wagon. Ryanair has had some bad press since its founding in 1985.  They’ve been in trouble with the Irish Airline Pilots’ Association for insisting their crews maintain the aforementioned twenty-five minute turnaround time, thereby imposing undue pressure on an already high-pressure occupation.  They’ve also been lambasted in the British press for charging a man with cerebral palsy £18 for the use of a wheelchair, for making pilots and cabin crew pay the cost of their own training and uniforms, and for kicking nine blind passengers off a 2005 flight from Stansted Airport to Italy. The UK-based Disability Rights Commission has criticized the airline for a 33 pence levy it now places on every ticket purchase to cover the cost of accommodating disabled passengers, saying that the fee results in a total income far in excess of associated costs.  Perhaps most damningly, in 2006 The Guardian reported the results of a world-wide poll naming Ryanair as the world’s “least favourite” airline. All that being said, I’m here to blow a little smoke up their cargo hold.  Ryanair’s Boeing 737-800 series may have no seat pockets, no drop-down trays or reclining chairs; the airline may charge you for every single piece of baggage you lug aboard, gouge you on refreshments, and shove you on and off the plane like a crowd of unruly schoolchildren, but the flights are cheap, goddamn it.  And you can’t put a price on the sort of entertainment value they provide.  Forget in-flight movies or the new personal media consoles Air Canada flights are sporting these days. Give me the human zoo at 20,000 feet: the delirious passengers, the lilting voice of Captain Foran coming through the P.A. system, the hilarity of a lottery ticket sale just before final approach, the bachelorette half-standing on her seat having to be told by a laughing steward to sit down and put her belt on (“we’re landing, ma’am”), the hawk-dive into Dublin International, the solid uppercut of the landing strip and the ballistic urgency of our taxi to the terminal.  Give me the Irish cowboys of the skies every time, their rodeo-wild energy, their six-gun showmanship.  Or bring me death—failing that, a couple of Ativan to take my mind off it. Mark Callanan is a poet and critic marooned on the island of Newfoundland.