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 The Brancatelli File

joe ONE NIGHT,
ONE FLIGHT


BY JOE BRANCATELLI

December 10, 1997 -- Fat Boy the Frequent Flyer was in a bad mood.

Three hours before his departure and a two-hour drive from the airport, his car wouldn't start. Eighteen panicked calls later, he still couldn't get a cab. Desperate, Fat Boy woke his wife and cajoled her out of her sick bed.

"Maybe this trip isn't meant to happen," she grumbled as she pulled on some clothes. "I mean, you worked all night, you haven't slept in 48 hours. Maybe you should just stay home."

"I'm sorry, dear," Fat Boy said, "but I gotta do this. I'm really sorry. But I appreciate you driving me to the airport."

In his wife's car, on the way to the airport, Fat Boy kept apologizing. His wife never took a sick day and here he was making her drive him to the airport. Tomorrow, he knew, she had to drive herself to the airport.

"I'm really sorry, honey. I know you're really feeling crummy," Fat Boy kept saying.

"It's all right," she said. "I just hope you have a good flight."

No chance, Fat Boy thought. It's one of the immutable rules of the road: Bad day, bad flight.

As his wife pulled up to the Delta World Terminal, Fat Boy leapt out of the car, grabbed his bag, and blew his wife a good-bye kiss. Then he sprinted inside and ran smack into a wall of leisure travelers, each of whom seemed to have a pair of gigantic Pullman cases to check.

Picking his way through the crowd, Fat Boy found the business-class check-in counter, flashed his ticket and passport and was handed a pass for a lounge in the next terminal, conveniently located halfway to the next state.

When the flight was called, Fat Boy followed the lounge crowd and was greeted by another surprise: Middle seats in business class and no personal video screens. Oh, well, he thought, he wasn't planning to fly Finnair again anyway.

"Rotten day, rotten flight," Fat Boy thought as he watched all 35 business-class seats on the Finnair MD-11 fill up. And, boy, he thought, these people were awfully chatty for a weekday business-class crowd.

Fat Boy must have dozed off because the next thing he remembered was a Finnair stewardess--that's what it said on her gold name tag: "Stewardess"--asking him if he'd like a drink and a snack.

"Uh, yeah, I guess, um, mineral water, please," he mumbled. That'll clinch it, he thought. "She'll bring an insipid little bowl of nuts. I'll eat 'em and I'll be Fat Boy the Frequent Flyer for the rest of my life."

But the Finnair stewardess--he checked her name tag again just to be sure: It really said "stewardess"--didn't bring nuts. She brought a pretty little plate of canapés. He didn't eat them, but he noticed. "Gee," he thought, "I can't remember the last time the snack wasn't nuts."

And that's when Fat Boy the Frequent Flyer began to notice some other things about this Finnair flight. For one thing, no one was working. A full load in business class on a weekday night and no one was working.

He looked at the faces carefully. These were business travelers, all right. Mostly solo men, a few solo women, only one pair of travelers who even looked like a couple. "So how come no one is working?" he wondered. "I can't remember the last time I sat in business class and no one was working."

By the time the dinner service began, Fat Boy the Frequent Flyer knew something special was happening. "These people are enjoying themselves," he thought.

Fat Boy watched the meal. It seemed endless: an appetizer; a main course; huge baskets of breads brought down the aisles by the stewardesses; four good wines and a great champagne; a cheese course; and a dessert cart laden with tortes, tarts, and a bar's worth of liquors.

When the passengers in business class finished dinner, he noticed again that no one went to work. A few people drifted off to sleep. A few sipped cognac and looked out the window into the North Atlantic night. But, mostly, the passengers were talking to each other.

Fat Boy's reverie was broken by the appearance of the duty-free carts and an audible rustling in the cabin. "My god," Fat Boy thought, "some of these people are going to buy from duty-free."

He moved to the rear of the business-class cabin to watch the action. These people weren't just buying, he slowly realized, they were shopping, too.

A man in a white shirt and striped tie bought three bottles of wine. Hunks of brightly wrapped chocolates sold briskly. A woman near the front of the cabin bought a portable CD player. A man in knubby beige sweater stood in the aisle and held a clutch of Hermes ties.

"Which one do you like?" he asked the stewardess. She pointed to a red one, but a woman sitting in a middle seat stood up, smiled, said "The yellow one," then drifted toward the lavatory.

The man in the knubby sweater bought both.

"Can you believe this?" Fat Boy murmured to the man in the aisle seat next to him. "Have you ever seen anything like this? This whole flight is like a party."

"I know," the man, an American, replied. "I was thinking the same thing. I was going to go to sleep, but I was having too much fun watching the scene."

Fat Boy was about to say something else, but then, out of the corner of his eye, he saw that couple stand up. And, then, they kissed. Not a smutty, let's-squeeze-into-the-bathroom kiss, but an honest-to-goodness, isn't-it-romantic, swooning, Fred-and-Ginger kind of kiss.

"Didja see that? Did you see that?" Fat Boy asked the man in the aisle seat.

"What is going on here?" asked the man in the aisle seat.

"I dunno," said Fat Boy. "This flight is like a time capsule. It's what people tell me happened on planes in the days before deregulation."

After a while, the duty-free carts went back to the galley, the lights went down, and a movie came on the screen. Fat Boy didn't watch and he drifted off to sleep.

When he woke up, he saw the credits rolling. Just as the screen went dark, the smell of freshly brewed coffee filled the cabin. "Amazing," Fat Boy thought, "I wonder if they timed it like that."

After the plane touched down at Helsinki's Vantaa Airport, he watched the passengers gather their belongings and their duty-free and file off the plane, smiling, joking and saying good-bye to the stewardesses.

"Some flight, huh?" said a voice from behind him. It was the man from the aisle seat in the back. "How do you think they managed to get the coffee smell wafting through the aisle just as the movie was over?"

"You noticed, too?" Fat Boy said. "I was beginning to think I was imagining stuff."

"No," said the man from the aisle seat. "This flight happened. Certainly the best trip I've had in years."

Fat Boy got out of his seat, grabbed his carry-on bag and disembarked with the man from the aisle seat.

"You know," said Fat Boy. "I had a rotten day before I got on this plane. You never get a good flight after a rotten day. I just can't figure this out. You fly Finnair regularly?"

"No," said the man from the aisle seat. "But I think I'm going to start."

"I know what you mean," said Fat Boy the Frequent Flyer.

This column originally appeared at thetrip.com.

Copyright © 1993-2005 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.