The President expressing his disdain over the quality of nuts offered on Sri Lankan airlines this week brought back memories of my first flight. I was 20 years old, and it was 21 years ago.
Undergraduate study in Delhi beckoned, but I was more excited about something else. Listening to my parents and my elder sister speak of flying growing up, and reading copiously on the dynamics and science of flight ever since I can remember, I was far more excited about the passage to Delhi by, than what I would be doing there as a student. My father, upon leaving the house, retreated mostly to silent prayer and meditations. Mom said she wanted an aisle seat, a preference arising from easy access to the loo. I chose to sit next to the window, and couldn’t care less for profound prayer or painless passage. A window seat remains to this day my preferred choice. All I did on the flight to Delhi was look out the window, disappointed that the seat parallel to the wing offered little by way of a line of sight to the ground. However, I saw for the first time the sky from 40,000 feet the air. A gradual gradation of fiery hues, an almost cloud sky and an indistinguishable horizon marked only by the rays of the setting sun escaping, giving way to the blackest of black, dotted occasionally by stars. It was magical. I craned and contorted to see, hear and take in everything – the various hydraulic noises, the whine of the engines as they powered up, the waving ailerons as the pilot did pre-flight checks, the blinking cabin lights before it went dark, the pressurisation, the sound of the air-conditioning kicking in, the unintelligible announcements over a tinny loudspeaker heralding the progression on to runway, and finally, take-off. I loved the sensation of being pushed back into the seat and the slight turbulence as the plane took off, which in hindsight would have been terrifying for my father.
Air travel over twenty years ago was glamorous if you sat near the cockpit. Further behind, in Economy Class, it was far worse than a long-distance bus. The legroom was terrible. The food was awful. The service was terrible. There was no TV at the back of the seats. No charging ports. Meals were vegetarian or non-vegetarian but tasted so bad, it may have been the same food with just different labelling. All this was before smartphones, wi-fi and social media, when the now quaint habit of reading something printed on paper was the preferred means of spending time on board. The flight took over three hours. The story upon landing and the trip into Delhi – involving a steering wheel that came off in the hand of the driver, a van in a ditch, luggage of others with us that had dropped somewhere on the road and spending a sweltering night on the terrace of a house, would require a separate column or perhaps several. But the afterglow of the passage to Delhi, and its sheer magic for someone who had never experienced flight before lingered on. I used to look forward so much to my annual return home for the holidays, not so much for what I knew awaited me back home, but the experience of flight.
Before the devastating attack by the LTTE in 2001, and the resulting security that added to the hassle and theatre of getting into the airport, Katunayake resembled a village market. Easy to get into, poorly marked displays and signage, congregations of people for no discernible reason in various locations, mountains of suitcases, a pervasive and general state of confusion, idle officials who were also the most vociferous, an embryonic at best concept of lines to check in and all manner of arguments. In short, it was a confusing, surreal place, that operated on the unique and indescribable tropical logic of movement – the endless flow of people towards the general direction of counters, immigration and boarding gates. My father’s meticulous preparation spared us from the chaos around the area where the embarkation cards had to be filled. I cannot recall what we did in the airport once the formalities of checking in were over, but distinctly remember wandering around with my mother in search of a functioning toilet for women. There was nothing to do – no lounge we could pay and get access into. The airport itself was much smaller than what it is today – no air-bridges, no coffee shops or Pizza Hut, and a duty-free I recall recoiling from because of horrible lacquered wooden elephants, puppets, demon faces and of all things, brass lamps on display. The passage to the aeroplane, perhaps to give Sri Lankans one last experience of home, was on a crowded, derelict bus, where the operating principle around safety seemed to be that the more people you packed in, the more they would all be protected in case of an accident. I remember holding on to my mother because she couldn’t find anything to hold on to as we lurched our way to the plane.
I still have my tickets from that first flight. This was before the age of stubs. The original ticket had multiple copies of travel details, much like a chequebook. What the passenger was left with was the last page. The carbon copy is all in red, with relevant information meticulously handwritten. What appears to be blue and red coloured hieroglyphs mark seat number and the passage through various checkpoints. There was no automation anywhere – no e-tickets, no online check-in, no mobile passes. Ink, rubber stamp and paper marked one’s passage, from the counter, checkpoint and country.
Much obviously has changed. Much, however, remains the same. Our airport remains a terrible place for anyone not travelling in Business Class. I have resorted to tweeting to MPs responsible for tourism and aviation, capturing photos of what in 2017 deplorable conditions were like in the waiting areas of the airport. Immigration officials are most often absent. When present, they are morose, rude and inefficient. Luggage services are from the 80’s, and on one occasion, part of the carousel came off and lodged itself in between the suitcases. There is no convenient, comfortable and coherent public transport infrastructure that connects our international airport with the city, or beyond. The single highway to and from the airport has a chokepoint in Kelaniya so bad that one often spends more time in traffic to go home, than a short-flight from any neighbouring country. Staff at the airport are uniformly rude or vary their helpfulness based on how one is dressed. The announcements are often only in Sinhala and English. Migrant workers are treated horribly. Chinese comes before Tamil in some displays. The waiting areas are chaotic. The public toilets are hellish. People are still packed into buses to go to aircraft. The waiting areas on the ground floor are unchanged from the time I took my first flight two decades ago. And besides all this, our national carrier is an egregious embarrassment – with eye-watering losses, mismanagement, corruption, nepotism, inefficiency and every imaginable managerial incompetence rewarded by ever greater misuse of public money.
The President’s concern over the quality of nuts served on board is misplaced. There are more significant problems that would be far more obvious to him and those in power if they used the airport as millions of others do – instead of being whisked to and from it as VIPs. I absolutely love flying to this day, but with equal passion, hate flying into or out of Sri Lanka. The best part of coming back or flying out, if during the day, is seeing our country’s wonderful, verdant beauty from the air. Everything else is diabolical. There are more important things than nuts those in government can turn their attention to if they really wanted to improve our national airline and international airport, as the first and last impressions of Sri Lanka.
The best part about home shouldn’t be the joy that comes from leaving it behind.
First published in The Sunday Island, 16 September 2018.