by Radhika V. Bhogaraju
I remember the first flight that I ever took. I was about twelve years old and flew from New Delhi to Dubai with my mom and sister. It was my first experience at an airport, in an airplane, with travel and all the possibilities that it brings. I was so excited and at the same time kept feeling that this was unreal. I was going to miss the flight or get left behind, or the flight would get canceled. And to be honest, a lot of things did go wrong leading up to that flight. We misread the ticket and raced to the airport, thinking that we were going to miss our flight. Only to be told by the airport agent that the flight was scheduled for 12:30 the next day, not 00:30 in the middle of the night. That was my introduction to military time.
The next day, while on our way to the airport, my uncle’s car broke down. While he tried to figure out what was wrong and how to fix it, all I could think was that we were going to miss our flight. After what seemed like a long time of peering under the hood, touching this dial and that, the car re-started, and we were on our way to the airport again. We reached the airport and upon checking in at the airline counter, we were informed that the flight was delayed by three hours and oh, by the way, there is a terminal change. I just remember looking at my mom’s face and thinking we are never going to make this flight. She lugged our heavy suitcases (which were not designed to be travel friendly at that point) and told us to stay close to her. I remember clutching my sister’s hand, trying to navigate this sea of angry people, all shouting at the airline representatives. Somehow, we got on to the overcrowded airport transfer bus and spent another seemingly endless journey to the other terminal, again wondering about this surreal experience — will I ever get on the plane?
I wasn’t sure I was going to make that first flight. I kept expecting that this magical experience was going to be snatched away from me at the last minute. This flight would remain theoretical at best, the time that I almost flew to Dubai. We did finally board the flight and made our way to our assigned seats. My mom was exhausted and was just happy to be in an enclosed space, her kids next to her, unencumbered by luggage. My sister was looking around wide-eyed, exploring all the pockets at the back of the seats to ensure uniformity of contents. The nice lady in the uniform handed us a welcome kit that included a soft toy, some activity pages and color pencils. I remember clutching my mom’s hand in abject fear as the plane lifted off the ground. And just like that, we were in the air! I made the flight. No one asked me to get off the plane. In fact, the air crew were impeccably dressed, with a smile on their faces and handing me a juice.
Contrast this first flight experience with how we travel nowadays. For most of us, there would be no confusion of flight times, because the airline would have sent us at least three reminders; to check in, specify our seat and meal preferences and complete emergency contact information. If you happen to be a frequent flier, they would have all your information already, address you by name and thank you for choosing their airline again, while politely declining the upgrade request. There is so much that we take for granted about air travel these days. And so often, we focus on the inconveniences and unpleasant sensations that airport security represents, rather than the safety motivation behind it.
December 7 is marked as International Civil Aviation Day by the UN to “help generate and reinforce worldwide awareness of the importance of international civil aviation to the social and economic development” globally. As we pack our bags and get ready to travel for yet another flight, let’s take a moment to reflect how far we have come. Not too long ago, air travel was inaccessible, expensive, improbable for most of us. In 2018, 1 billion passengers flew domestically and internationally in the US. That’s billion with a B, 1 followed by 9 zeros and all the people that it represents. In the US alone.
I have taken many flights after that first one. My kids have taken many more, at much earlier ages. And I enjoy the wonder that they feel every time we are headed to the airport. At their age, every trip is an adventure — an airport waiting to be discovered, an aircraft waiting to be explored, one in-flight movie at a time. And I hope to recapture some of that joy for myself. Safe travels everyone.