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Gary Shteyngart's Misadventures in Air Travel

Air Travel

When I was told I was flying to an Indian literary festival via Kuwait Airways, I was ready to arrive in style. Emirates Airline, Etihad Airways, Qatar Airways—the region is known for its luxurious, pampered version of air travel. Perhaps Kuwait Airways would have a new Airbus A380 with an onboard lounge? High-thread-count bathrobes? Personal air butlers? In any case, I hoped the wine menu would have a nice dry Riesling to help me ease into a different climate, and, heck, some free spa products would be nice.

When I arrived at JFK, I approached a plane so tired-looking it might as well have been a Douglas DC-3. The blue and white livery sported nothing more than the airline’s name and an unidentifiable bird—speculation on the Internet ranges between crane, stork, falcon, and “big chicken.” Once aboard, I entered a retro color scheme combining the 1960’s, 70’s, and 80’s. I half expected the Persian Gulf version of the cast of Mad Men to appear.

The business-class seats did not fully recline. My seat creaked a couple of degrees and then called it a night; meanwhile a flight attendant gracefully dropped what looked like the world’s largest date on my armrest. This was not a good idea, as it attracted the world’s largest fly, which would buzz around the cabin and swoop onto my armrest for the duration of the flight, hoping for more oversize sweets. Dazed and confused, I reached for the drinks menu: “Diet Pepsi, Coke, 7UP…Variety of Flavoured Teas.”

Oh, God. Oh, no. Could this be a dry flight?

To answer my question, a video screen flickered to life to point out the direction of Mecca. Yes, this was a dry flight. I clicked on the Kate Winslet–Leonardo DiCaprio version of Revolutionary Road on my video player, but 20 minutes in realized it had been completely sanitized for a Kuwaiti audience. I kept racking my brain. Weren’t adultery and a botched abortion at the center of Richard Yates’s novel? All people seemed to do in this version was play with their children and eat halal meals together.

When we finally landed for a three-hour stopover in Kuwait City, I somersaulted off the plane and into the business lounge, which also did not have any dry Riesling or spa products (I was ready to drink hair tonic, as my Russian ancestors once did). I was informed that the entire country was, in fact, alcohol-free. As consolation, I was directed to the nearest Cinnamonster, a chain that seems to exist mostly in the lesser parts of Texas, Colorado, and, yes, Kuwait City. I paused outside the cinnamon-reeking franchise and then remembered something. Oh, right. I felt a twinge in my back. It was time to board the four-hour flight to Mumbai.

Air travel is hard sometimes, I know. And everyone loves to complain about it—the overbooked flights, the security-screening shoe removal, the lines, the food. But the truth is that air travel can be a cultural experience, even when—maybe especially when—things go wrong. Flying on the very best airlines, like Singapore or Emirates, may lead to placid boasts of onboard showers and Mario Batali–grade meals. But flying a bad airline can be far more interesting than your destination. Even Kuwait Airways, as dated as it seemed, had its sweet moments. Once, as I was squealing from back pain in my non-reclining seat, a flight attendant gently tucked a blanket over my writhing form. I was served high-octane “Arabic coffee” out of a golden samovar and given a Kuwait Airways computer mouse as a gift. (If only I still owned the Texas Instruments computer it was clearly intended for.) The fly and I eventually became friends.

Far lower on the food chain was Varig Airlines of Brazil, a once-proud national carrier I actually saw fade out of existence in 2006.

To begin with, I spent a pleasant day being tortured at the São Paulo International Airport. The crack security team was convinced that the half-dozen disposable cameras I had brought to Brazil (this was before the ubiquity of camera phones) constituted an explosive device. The hour-long search only ended when I produced the Brazilian version of one of my novels; my photo on the jacket flap led the teenage-looking soldiers to stand down. I was sure I would miss my flight, but fortunately it was delayed for three hours. Then six. Then 10. Finally, a bus came to drive the business-class passengers to a hotel behind a series of favelas.

A short, worried-looking man was sent out to address us in the hotel lobby. I was lost behind a scrim of tall American executives, but I thought the Varig representative’s speech went something like this: “Eh, the plane it no fly because we have no the moneys for the JFK.” Apparently, Varig had run out of the cash needed for landing fees. I figured if we all ponied up a couple hundred dollars we could make it happen, but that idea never took off, so to speak. Forty-eight hours later, we were strapped in to one of the storied airline’s last flights. I unlatched and propped up the heavy video monitor from my armrest, and it promptly fell off and landed on my knee. I’m sure my howls were heard as far back as the last row of the plane, but the flight attendants had other things on their minds. After my screams had turned into a kind of teary intermittent sputtering, one of them, hands on her hips, approached me with a sigh. “Would you like to change seats?” she asked.

And then there is my beloved ancestral airline, Aeroflot, which ferried my family and me out of the Soviet Union some 35 years ago. To be fair, Aeroflot has gotten its act together as of late, especially on transatlantic flights, where it uses modern Western aircraft and where flight attendants seem contractually obligated to crack one smile for every 2,000 miles flown.

Not so on the busy Moscow–St. Petersburg route. The security line at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport was held up as a gentleman who looked to be a World War II combat re-creationist tried to bring a foot-long hunting knife on board. We boarded an ancient Tupolev plane. Midway through the one-hour flight, during the ecstatic moment when a piece of cold mystery meat is slapped onto one’s waiting tray, a fellow passenger came back with some difficult news. “I think the bathroom exploded,” he said.

Indeed, a trickle of greenish liquid soon began to crawl its way toward business class. I set down my cold meat. “Devushka,” I said to the flight attendant. “Miss. There appears to be waste spilling into the cabin.”

The flight attendant looked as if she was in her early thirties, but working at the world’s goofiest airlines, with their ravenous flies, missing landing fees, and exploding bathrooms, surely makes for centuries-old wisdom.

“So lift up your legs,” she said.

And I did.

Right now, I’m on a different kind of flight: a Virgin Australia mega-haul from Los Angeles to Sydney. Forget about exploding bathrooms; there’s a bathroom for women only, and even the one for both genders gleams with care and pride. As we approach Sydney, the flight attendant scoots down and asks me if I enjoyed my flight. Get this: She seems like she actually wants to know. Yes, I say. I did enjoy my flight. In fact, I loved it. But for all its virginal luxury, will it ever be as memorable, as unique, as a miserable flight on North Korea’s Air Koryo? I don’t think so.

T+L contributing editor Gary Shteyngart’s new book is Little Failure: A Memoir (Random House).

Photo: Zohar Lazar

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