smoking 5Having flown the equivalent of several times around the globe, you might fairly expect that Iain Robertson is quite casual about air travel, with the exception that you could not be further from the truth. 

It has been part of my job to globetrot. While some people might believe that air travel is a joy, perhaps even a privilege, it actually took me almost twenty years and an average of 2.5 UK-return flights a week to become so heartily sick of the task that I am more prepared, these days, to tackle continental Europe by car, despite the time element. The reason for my ‘illness’ lies not in the flights themselves, although I have kissed tarmac on a couple of occasions, once following a miraculous landing in gale force conditions, after a troubled flight from Cork to East Midlands Airport, where the pilot somehow managed to alter the direction of travel from around 80-degrees to the intended runway, to where it should have been for landing.

The second occurrence was after an earlier faux-landing at Jerez Airport, when a sudden abort became essential, because the landing gear had not been lowered (…and I had not heard its customary ‘whirring’). The Gallic pilot took his evasive action, encircled the airfield but lined up for a re-approach at a steeply strange angle. I was convinced that search parties would find the contents of the A320 spread across several dusty Spanish fields. As we bumped to earth on full reverse-thrust (the runway at Jerez is only small), I swear that something let loose in my bowels. For good measure, after kissing the concrete, I forewarned our hosts awaiting on the apron that they should avoid most of Rows 11 to 13, as they might be a touch whiffy.

smoking 1To be fair, I have enjoyed some truly special flights. The vast majority of them were perfect and not in the least stressful. Yet, there were those odd occasions…such as the depths of winter exercise to northern Finland. Everything had been fine, up to the time of intended departure. Having experienced temperatures of lower than -40 degrees during the trip, I was unsurprised that our plane was not exactly ready for re-boarding and the return flight to Stansted.

When allowed to board, we were warned not to touch any metal, such as the handrails on the boarding steps, as there was a possibility of moist skin becoming freezer-burnt. We were also advised to keep wearing our winter jackets, as the plane had not warmed-up fully. Not warmed fully? Unbelievable! The cabin was sub-zero and our attendant informed us that all bottles of booze and mixers, apart from brandy, had ‘exploded’ in the low temperatures. Yet, the worst was to come. Eventually, the plane was taxied to the end of the snow-covered runway, where it was turned in readiness for take-off, only to enter an extended period of jet engine revving but zero movement. As tended to be the case with ageing BAC 1-11s, a ‘travelling engineer’ was summonsed to the cockpit and I subsequently spotted him hanging off the ailerons on the port wing…from which he slipped, less than gracefully and, as we discovered later, with a nasty compound fracture to his left leg.

The plane was returned to the apron. We were asked to disembark and were informed that a scheduled flight from Stockholm to Heathrow was being redirected the several hundred miles further north to uplift our now stricken group. The jet, it seemed, needed some fairly major surgery, much like its engineer, and was grounded by Finnish Air Traffic Control. When the Finnair flight (a Saab twin-propeller plane) arrived, I can tell you that its passengers were less than enthusiastic about us boarding, even becoming quite vocal about it, not least because prop planes have to fly along the coastline to take the shortest crossing to Blighty, which had only added almost five hours to their original journey time…

smoking 4Towards the climax of my flying history, I started to become increasingly ‘nervous’ about air travel. Apart from ‘getting the sweats’, which would make me look like a Roman Catholic priest subjected to an Operation Yewtree investigation, I would feel quite queasy during the boarding procedure. Once seated, the issues would subside, as I quite enjoyed take-offs. However, I would become highly jittery during the landing procedure, which became nightmarish at times.

On one scheduled Air Portugal flight from Heathrow to Lisbon, the attendant made an error with my boarding card. I should have been in Business but ended up one row behind, in between a very large, lisping and mostly humid Portuguese gentleman in the window seat and a very nervous Lisbon lady on the aisle side. It did not bode well, as the irascible attendant insisted that I should remain seated and not even attempt to discuss the issue with her.

When the dividing curtain was drawn in readiness for taxiing and to allow Business passengers to enjoy their complimentary glass of Bucks Fizz, I started to feel exceptionally claustrophobic. Then we were informed that the plane would remain parked a mere six feet from the withdrawn walkway until clearance was provided for take-off. We were told that it could be a 60 to 90 minutes delay. After around 20 minutes, I could tolerate it no longer. I unbuckled the belt and stood in the aisle.

It was at this point, I discovered that around eight of our 12-strong group had also been misplaced around the cabin. Needless to say, I was asked repeatedly, by the nasty hostess, to return to my seat, an instruction with which I was thoroughly unwilling to comply. When I felt that I could bear the oppressive feeling of enclosure no longer, I requested that the walkway be extended and that I be allowed to leave the plane. After much Portuguese spittle was ejected, permission was granted…however, eight of my ‘colleagues’ decided that they wished to depart the potential flight as well. In an incident that became known as ‘The Heathrow Eight’, I was declared as the ringleader and troublemaker. You have no idea how relieved I was to leave Heathrow that morning.

smoking 2However, I want you to think back to the glory days of Duty Free shopping and even being allowed to smoke on-board almost any chartered flight and even some scheduled carriers, such as Air Iberia, or Royal Air Maroc, which virtually declared non-smoking as illegal, let alone immoral. Usually requested to sit at the rear of the plane, we professional smokers were able to indulge without incurring the wrath of our non-smoking brethren.

It was feasible, because the climate control system would introduce naturally chilled air into the cabin and all stale and smoke-infused air was ejected in the usual, non-recycled manner. However, introduced partly to save on the costs of using conditioned air in the aircraft cabins, in the era immediately after the in-flight smoking bans were installed, air recycling became the normal practice, from the start to the end of the flight.

Much as large properties and office blocks can suffer from ‘Sick Building Syndrome’, much as private motor vehicles can store such nasties as airborne toxins, toxic moulds and bacteria within their air-con filters, airplanes are not exempt from similar, potentially lethal situations. Yet, the airline industry believes that it is and insists that its passengers can inhale recycled germs and filthy, unfiltered cabin air for upwards of three to six hours of flying time.

There are far too many cases of people entering an aircraft in the rudest of health, only to show signs of terrible airborne toxins a few days after their flights, once the ingested germs have taken a firmer grasp on the individual’s lungs and organs. While I might have the constitution of an ox, with several years of appropriately tarmacked personal airways (which tend to inhibit other germs taking a hold), I do feel so much better these days, when travelling by car, into which I can introduce proper fresh air.

smoking 3If smoking were reintroduced to airline cabins, at least the otherwise non-fresh air would be ejected and other passengers might gain from it. Bring proper air-con back into aircraft cabins, before we all die from the infrequently recycled alternative!

About Iain P W Robertson

Frequently being told to 'go forth and multiply', Iain P W Robertson's automotive wisdom is based on almost forty years in the business, across all aspects from sport to production, at the highest levels. He likes dogs and drives a Suzuki (not related).