By Mukurima X Muriuki
When I boarded British Airways flight 783 from Heathrow to Los Angeles earlier this week, I was looking forward to an intimate moment with Dr. Martin Luther King’s first published book ‘Why We Can’t Wait.’ What I did not know is that I would (be forced to) wait a little longer to get started on the book. So I settled in my chosen middle seat, which meant the aisle and window seats were yet to be occupied.
My attention then shifted to the book but before I could locate my previous last paragraph, something else drew my attention:
‘You going to have to stand up.’ The voice of a woman roared.
At first, I thought it was directed at someone else but much to my surprise, the order was actually aimed at me. A Caucasian woman, probably in her late 50’s was glaring down at me. There was a man standing by her side, perhaps her husband or a relative. He was a tall, gangling and with no beard. He wore black curly hair, had a set of blue eyes with a matching big, oval nose. With a deep timbre, he informed me that the aisle seat was his. Before I could say anything to him, the woman barked again, and this time I had no doubt who she was talking to:
‘That is my seat,’ she said brusquely, pointing towards the window seat.
I looked at her, worked up by her shouting accompanied by a condescending voice. My face contorted with rage and fury; I wanted to say something but I composed myself, enough not to say anything because I could feel if I did, my voice would crackle with anger. I breathed in. I breathed out.
With an angry frown creased on my forehead, I shot up and moved to the aisle, giving her the space she needed to do what she needed to do. By now, her cacophony and belligerence had caught the attention of other passengers. As they watched the unfolding mini-drama, one passenger who stood rooted to her spot on the aisle, seemed not to comprehend why the woman, who looked dignified from the outside would behave in such an uncouth way.
As I continued being on the receiving end of the woman’s bile, it was evident that other passengers had been rendered speechless by her unwarranted rebuke. One middle aged guy was bold enough to weigh in and condemn her rudeness. But she was not the kind to budge.
Now, let me digress a bit and describe what most of us have felt but cannot fully put into words.
Inside my body, an enormous rage was building up; you know that chocking almost physical thing you feel building up from your stomach up your internal organs until it rests, well not exactly resting but doing press-ups in your throat? I could feel the urge to menacingly approach the woman, and well, you know what that means. The urge to say something unpalatable was overwhelming but I held my tongue. At least up to this point. Truth be told though, it was a mixture of anger and humiliation.
The woman took her seat alright as I stood transfixed at the aisle for a few seconds before returning to my position, now next to her. In a sense I was stuck in between her, and the other gentleman-her companion, whose body was now resting on the aisle seat.
Now, it easy to imagine the tension that was already hanging between us.
My grandfather would tell me that a boil can never be cured unless opened to the natural medicines of air. Besides, was Kenny Rodgers not right: “Sometimes you have to fight when you are a man! Okay, not that kind of a fight, my dignity and integrity had been trampled upon and I needed to restore some order!
I turned to her and being as polite as I could said: “You look mature enough to know the simple phrase-‘Excuse me.’ Nonetheless, even if that expression is alien to you, I just want to say; never, ever, ever, shout at me again if our paths, God forbid, ever cross. I have no idea what you have against me, but I have some bad news for you. You will not do that to me. I will not allow you to head in that direction. And I don’t care who you are, where you come from, or what you do.’ ( I was itching to tell her that I am the grandson of Wambui who does not tolerate nonsense. I was about to tell her that I am from the clan of Umbui and the house of Mbogo Njiru, and we don’t fear any man or woman for that matter. But, I chose not to. That would be my last resort).
At first the woman seemed a bit shocked. But she was not done yet. She had some more vitriol for me. This time, she was poignant that I did not belong. That I was not deserving or entitled to fly next to her!
‘You are a piece of shit.’ She volunteered.
Alright, that’s it I thought!
‘You know this is an eleven-hour fight. And if you think I am a piece of shit, then be prepared to take on the pungent smell of shit for the duration of the flight. Oh, before I forget, I have to remind you that you are a tall tower of crap,’ I retorted.
What I found bewildering was the male companion choosing to to drink from the fountain of silence as this verbal exchange was going on. He was not saying anything. Not for long though, because he was called into action when the woman commanded him to fetch a member of the cabin crew, ostensibly to come discipline the black dude, or perhaps have me kicked off the plane. He may have found this as a worthy idea, well, granted that he wasted no time to expedite the task so ordered!
For a moment I actually thought I was in trouble. He returned with a male Cabin Crew member, whose tag name read “Gordon Wilson-Cabin Crew Services Director.’
I waited to see how he would handle the situation. Was he a good troubleshooter; negotiator perhaps? He paused for a few seconds and obviously avoiding contact with my rage-filled eyes, begun:
‘eerr… sir…uuumm…this couple would like to sit together. Would you. Would. Would you mind if I give you another seat?’ He stammered.
I stared at him, allowing the fire from my exasperated soul to consume his own conscience. And I could tell he was getting uncomfortable. It was never going to be easy for him. After all, I was the one who had been wronged!
‘What! Are you kidding me? I asked, while reaching out to my inner strength and boldness.
‘Have you already taken sides? I see. Come on, tell, me. What did this gentleman relay to you that you believed without hearing my side of the story? Is this the British Airways policy at its best-you know, punish the ‘good’ guy and leave the ‘bad guys’ laughing and coasting in unwarranted victory? I protested
“I understand…..’ he tried to explain. But he did not finish explaining what he understood because I politely cut him short:
“You understand? What do you understand? I asked Mr. Wilson.
‘Please. Just give me the chance to make it right.’ Mr. Wilson begged.
I eventually took my hand luggage and decided to give him a chance to follow through with the “BA policy.” I was tired by this time and I had no energy to keep pushing back. To be sincere, I was ready for whatever outcome.
I followed Mr. Wilson, and to cut the whole story short he offered me a seat in a very elegant cabin and the attendant service.
This however, is not about where one sits on a plane. It is not about economy, business, or first class. It is more than that. It is about fair and humane treatment that passengers ought to treat fellow passengers with.
While I laud the leadership shown by Mr. Wilson and the British Airways crew in de-escalating the tension, there is no denying that this opens up debate on what options an airline has in cases where one set of passengers decide to bully, harass, or humiliate others who they perceive as not worth, or lesser human beings.
What I will never know is whether the man and the woman went home claiming victory? When asked by their children how their flight was, what did they say? What about me? What should I say?
In addition, where does the airline draw the line in terms of fair treatment of customers? Do airlines have a way of punishing, in future, such rogue customers? Do airlines ever follow up with its clients who are victims of such behavior?
Two hours into the flight, Mr. Wilson came to check on me and we talked for about 3 or so minutes. He was apologetic about what I had gone through and confessed that all along he knew what had happened, as a crew member had witnessed the debacle.
On the flip side, maybe this woman had been annoyed by the man and decided to vent on another man! Tsk. Tsk. Maybe they had a bad holiday or they had an argument-Who knows! I could have been a little understanding, but then I think there are many other people who get treated in ways worse than I was by a passenger on a plane, but they have no outlet to vent or express how angry or humiliated they felt.
Mine is the pen. I can only express myself through this medium and hope that passengers can be more a bit more kind. After all, everyone is fighting a battle we know not about.