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Flying while African

Zone 1. Here I was again. Somewhere in Europe waiting to board another plane to a destination in Africa. As usual, this Africa bound flight was originating from the most dilapidated terminal, in the middle of massive reconstruction, and the flight was to depart from the farthest part of the airport. Nothing new here, with the aircraft I’m likely to depart on most likely being older than I am. I guess this is what they call flying while African.

Having achieved elite status on several airlines by flying 200 plus days a year for as long as I can remember, I’m always given the privilege of boarding a plane first with other “elite” flyers. Of course, with the exception of elderly passengers and children.

Standing in line, in zone 1, an elderly passenger in a wheelchair was escorted ahead of me. As she turned her head backwards towards me, she smiled. I tried to guess where she was from, the Ivory Coast most likely, but Burkina or Mali were also distinct possibilities. Her French accent wasn’t giving anything away.

I could see from the lines on her face that she had been through a lot. She looked very frail and was traveling alone. I thought to myself, in her condition this must not be easy.

Boarding commenced and they wheeled her to the plane in front of me. She carried what looked like a bag of food on her lap and the attendant was pushing her wheelchair with one arm, and pulling her carryon with another.

As we proceeded down the jetty, and approached the door to the plane, the cabin service director asked her if she could walk to her seat. I don’t think she understood the question. Within a fraction of a minute the wheelchair was pulled out from under her and she was left with her bag of food and handed her carryon.

She seemed perplexed. The cabin service director (CSD) told her she was in row 63 and directed her to go straight. Two steps forward and she quickly struggled with both the items she brought onboard.

The CSD motioned a flight attendant to help her. The attendant approached the older lady took her bags and gestured her to follow. She gently touched the attendant’s hand and uttered a faint “merci”.

Then it all started. As soon the elderly lady touched the attendant’s hand, she screamed at her, shouting “ne me touchez pas“, don’t touch me. The woman was horrified. She turned to me teary eyed not knowing what solicited this reaction.

Yes, I know this is the era of the corona virus, and yes I know how difficult it is

to be a flight attendant. I’ve gotten to know many of them over the years. But, this lack of empathy was uncalled for.

As the elderly lady followed the flight attendant down the aisle she went two seats forward and sat on the window seat to her right. The flight attendant very aggressively told the lady that this was business class, that this was not her seat, and she was holding up the other “premium” passengers.

I could take no more. I went around the middle seats, approached the flight attendant, and told her the seat the elderly lady was sitting on was my seat. I told her she could stay there and took the women’s trolly and put it in the overhead compartment. I took the plastic bag from the attendant and gave it to the elderly passenger. I told the older lady “tu peux rester ici”, in the shaky French I could muster. The lady looked at me confused and clearly exhausted.

The flight attendant now turned on me and said the plastic bag needs to be in the overhead compartment as well. I did my best to explain to the elderly woman that she should take what she needed from the bag and I would store it in the compartment for her. She grabbed what looked like medicine and a bag of soft food and I proceeded to put her plastic bag in the overhead compartment.

I exchanged boarding passes with the flight attendant and proceeded to row 63. This was pretty much the end of the plane and I squeezed myself into the old lady’s assigned economy cabin seat. This was going to be a long six hour flight.

After all the passengers boarded, the cabin service director came to me and asked me if I wanted to move back to business class. I was relieved being a man on the taller side. But, there was a catch. I had to pay for the upgrade. He told me it would be 600 Euros, about 100 Euros an hour, for more leg space. At my age, it would be a good investment, I figured.

I said yes to the offer, thanked the CSD for making it, and he took me to the seat behind the elderly lady who now occupied mine.

After take off, the CSD came to me and said “Dr. Sherif, I see you’re a platinum card holder, welcome aboard. Would you like to pay cash or with your credit card”. The passenger next to me, who I didn’t know said something like “really, you’re going to make him pay for having a heart?” The CSD pretended not to hear him.

I gave the CSD my credit card and he reappeared again with a machine that he said wasn’t working. Oh boy, I thought it’s back to the end of the plane for yours truly. I didn’t have the requisite 600 Euros in cash with me.

Once this was explained, the CSD said he could see in the system that I had enough miles for an upgrade. “Would I be willing to use those miles”, he said. I replied, “gladly”. My neighbor again was not amused and said something in French to the CSD that I couldn’t understand.

The CSD disappeared again and came back with the same machine and a form for me to sign. Lunch was now being served. The same flight attendant in question was asking the elderly woman what she wanted to eat. The elderly lady said “rien, merci”. The flight attendant then said in French, “c’est gratuit”, or it’s free, with a tone that was about as condescending as anyone could ever be. The elderly lady now embarrassed quietly said “poisson s’il vous plait”.

I was just about to lose it with the flight attendant, and the CSD noticed. He tapped me on my arm, grabbed his form back, and said the machine to deduct the miles was broken too, and that I could stay where I am. I accepted the gesture and said nothing else. I knew the flight attendant was going to get some pretty strong feedback from the CSD at the appropriate time.

The CSD then went the extra mile and set my table and personally served me lunch. Smart of him to disengage me from that flight attendant.

This crisis seemed over, the belligerent flight attendant disappeared from the aisle, and I adjusted my seat to the sleeping position. It was then I realized that no one had shown the elderly lady how to put her seat down, or to use her TV monitor. I approached her again, and in my broken French, asked if she wanted to recline her seat. She said, “juste un peu”. I helped get her seat in the position that made her comfortable and then asked if she wanted to see a movie. She said with a very low voice that it would make her “lui donner le vertige”. I understood and went back to my seat and slept for the remainder of the flight.

When we landed the older lady remained in her seat to await assistance. I could see the CSD telling her this just before the plane descended. When the plane came to a full stop, I retrieved my bag, and I was standing next to her as she remained seated. She held my hand and asked me in French if this bothered me. I made sure to say absolutely not, that I was honored to hold her hand. She then told me in broken English that she’s old, but she’s not sick, as if to reassure me. I smiled and told her I too was old, and just a little “malade dans la tête”. She laughed. She said in French “tes parents t’ont bien élevé”. Your parents raised you well. The man standing behind me said, “I agree”, out loud. As I walked off the plane, the CSD gave me a thumbs up. I understood why.

For the rest of the night, I had a feeling of absolute serenity for how I behaved on the plane. I thought to myself I would have gladly sat in economy for six hours, or paid the 600 Euros requested by the CSD, for this small good deed. When the elderly lady touched my hand, she made me feel blessed. She made me feel like the kind of man my parents raised me to be. They say one good deed deserves another which maybe bad for my circulation in future, but most definitely good for my soul. I guess they call this flying while African, when your heart is a carryon not checked in luggage.

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