Elder Flying Unaccompanied

The queue snaked back from the gate about 100 metres, going nowhere fast.  I sighed as I joined its tail.  I should have stayed in the lounge a little longer, but I’d been silly enough to assume that “Your plane is now boarding” actually meant “Your plane is now boarding”.  It was a large aircraft, but by the look of it the flight was going to be chock-a-block.  At least the trip from Brisbane to Sydney was a short one.

My attention was captured by an unaccompanied elderly male wandering up and down alongside the line, looking bewildered.  Stopping, flummoxed, about two metres from where I was standing, he tried to orient himself.  He looked at the gate number, illuminated in the distance, then looked at his boarding pass, surveyed the line and then looked from side to side as if hoping someone might explain this puzzling situation to him.  He checked again.  Gate, pass, line.  You could see the squeaky old cogs turning but his mind’s wheel was refusing to spin: no mental clarity was forthcoming.  Nothing.  He stood – mute, lost and confused – waiting to be rescued by someone… anyone.

Well, not quite anyone.  A heavily bearded man of Indian subcontinent descent, sporting a garish T-shirt and carrying a well-used backpack was passing by, and upon seeing the confused elder, veered out of his way towards him.  Evangelical zeal lit up the man’s dark, hooded eyes, but before he was able to espouse a single word of whatever fuelled his passion, his target barked, “Leave me alone.  Don’t bother me.  I’ve lost my plane.”

It was the kind of dismissal even a tolerant individual might be provoked to utter if his or her dinner was disturbed by a cold caller with an Indian accent, but coming from the mouth of this, admittedly mildly distressed, gentleman, it came across as plain rude and maybe even a trifle racist.  Quiet titters of disapproval radiated from the line at the outburst.  Most of my fellow line-mates were surreptitiously watching the spectacle, but all feet remained glued to the spots they’d claimed for the past ten minutes or so.

Crowd psychology is a funny beast.  If an individual had chanced upon this poor man who had “lost” his plane (which seemed, by the way, a rather difficult and unlikely belonging to misplace), he or she would more than likely have tried to help, but in a herd, each member surrounded by numerous others, no one seemed eager to step forward, or rather step sideways out of the line, to come to his assistance.

I bucked the trend.  Leaving my bags behind – I was not altruistic enough to risk losing my place – I approached and politely asked the gentleman if I could help.  Grateful, he showed me his boarding pass and explained his dilemma.  I wondered whether I would have been summarily dismissed if my skin had been brown or if I’d been wearing a Muslim headscarf.  Was I being unfairly judgmental by suspecting that the man would have been unfairly judgmental?

But I digress.

“I’m on the flight to Sydney leaving from Gate 22 but there are people in the way,” he said.

I gently explained that we were all lined up for that flight.

“I know that, but I’m flying business class. Where is the other line?”

“I think we’re all boarding this flight together.  Hopefully.  Eventually.  At the moment it appears that no one is boarding at all.”

The man joined me in the line, oblivious of the 10 metres of patiently lined-up passengers waiting behind me.  No one complained about the queue-jumping.

Stepping impatiently from one foot to the other, he stayed mostly silent except for letting forth the occasional complaint about the service.  “There has to be a better way of doing this….  They can’t just keep us standing here like cattle….  They announced that the plane was boarding – why isn’t it boarding?”

If I hadn’t known better, I would have thought that he’d not only never flown before, but had never watched TV or movies containing stories about air travel; I would have assumed that he’d been completely out of touch with how the modern world of transportation operated.  On reflection, “out of touch” is probably exactly what he was.  I had a strange urge to ask him if he knew the price of milk.

I made a couple of attempts at small talk but they were abruptly shut down.  It occurred to me that this may be a man with early dementia – a man who had become confused and frightened when put in an unfamiliar situation.  If so, why did his loved ones let him travel unaccompanied?  Or maybe he was just a cranky old bugger who was having a bad day.  Hard to tell.

After nearly fifteen minutes we had finally shuffled to the front of the queue.  I turned and said, “Goodbye Mr. Howard.  I hope you have a pleasant flight.”

He nodded briskly and replied, “Thank you for your assistance.”

My how the mighty have fallen.  Our former PM having to line up with us plebs!

Now if he’d been seated where I was – near the rear toilets and jammed between the window and a massive smelly wall of flesh which spilled over and under our shared arm rest – Mr. Howard just might have begun to appreciate the joys of air travel for the commoner.

Or perhaps not….