I love flying. I love everything about it; people-watching at the airport, shopping for duty-free, running to the gate in response to the last call for boarding… Once in my seat I trawl through the in-flight literature, tossing aside the safety instructions and devouring the pages of still more duty-free shopping that I have no intention of buying. I search for the menu to make my choices; the in-flight meal being the highlight of my trip. I’ve never flown business class, but whilst I would undoubtedly appreciate the luxury, I think the experience would lack the quintessential allure of flying for me. I can eat my dinner from a china plate at home; I use real cutlery, real glasses at home… What I adore is the novelty of my airborne picnic; the plastic knife and fork, perfectly packaged in a paper napkin with my spoon and my sachets of salt, pepper and sugar. I love the anticipation of waiting for my meal, as the trolley trundles slowly up the aisle, delayed every few minutes by another passenger on their way to the loo. And finally, when my tray is placed in front of me, the mouth-watering delight of my miniature feast; peeling back each tinfoil lid to reveal a Lilliputian roast dinner, the ubiquitous cheese and crackers and an unidentifiable, cloyingly sweet dessert. Once I have finished, I gain nearly as much delight from re-packing my tray; stacking the pots neatly inside one another like Russian dolls.
Flying solo is my ultimate luxury. The freedom to kick off my shoes and go to sleep, or bury my head in a best-seller with no residue of guilt at my anti-social behaviour. Doing nothing for several hours is a luxury in which I could never indulge at home, where there are e-mails, phone messages, shopping, cleaning, cooking… all demanding my attention.
As with so many things, however, there is a fine line between heaven and hell, and this line is crossed as soon as one introduces children into the equation. Flying with children is a whole different ballgame; a descent into a hell involving the exact antithesis of all that I love about my solo flying experience. First you negotiate the snaking check-in queue, with your over-sized buggy, over-stuffed baggage and over-tired children, snatched from their beds because someone once told you it was easier to fly overnight with small children.
Next comes the hurdle of security; folding buggies and stripping coats from reluctant arms in order to pass through the detector arch which will undoubtedly locate the missing pen-knife you caught your child with some weeks back, and shoved in your trouser pocket out of harm’s way. Your bag is pulled aside, so you shuffle across, a child on each hip, to retrieve your belongings, take a sip of baby milk to prove you’re not a terrorist, and explain away the hundred-weight of raisins, cheerios and cheese triangles necessary to placate the children during the flight.
Forget the perfume counter, the next hour is taken up with toilet trips, feeding and distraction tactics. All this before you’ve even reached Gate 27, where the airline – in its infinite wisdom – invokes their policy to board families first. Far from being helpful, all this serves to do is to use up not only your children’s (already limited) attention span, but also your diversionary toys, your aforementioned stache of snacks, and your sanity, while you wait for the remaining passengers to board.
The actual flight is three and a half hours of purgatory. A nappy filled just as the seat-belt sign lights; a tantrum over your refusal to allow them to jump on the seats; an air-sick child who won’t use a bag… You daren’t accept a hot coffee with a child bouncing on your lap; you’d kill for a gin, but you already have ‘unfit mother’ stamped on your hand luggage. The in-flight meal comes and goes; your tray is already in use as a colouring desk.
The air around your neighbouring passengers is thick with disapproval. You’re torn between bribing the children into submission, and your desire to demonstrate some redeeming parenting skills. Forget the latter; bribery will win out.
Finally, when you think it will never end, and you have long since exhausted your reserves of chocolate, nursery rhymes and self-respect, the plane will land. They say it is better to travel hopefully than to arrive; perhaps just occasionally it is better never to set off. Or better still, to leave the children with Grandma, and travel alone.