Flying out to south east Asia last year I found myself on one of the latter flights sitting bolt upright in cattle-class as usual, bitterly wishing that I could have afforded a less knee-crushing seat. After hours of agony I got up and wandered around the back of the 747 jumbo. There was little going on. Most of the passengers were sprawled across one another, pretending to sleep.
Then I saw it. A ladder, right next to the lavatory door on the starboard side. And a notice, in red: Crew Only. It was absolutely irresistible. I crept up the ladder, and gently raised the trapdoor in the ceiling. As it opened I had a brief vision of being sucked out into a star-lit night at 36,000 feet - but no. As my eyes slowly took in the scene I became aware of a little bedroom, tucked under the tailplane. There were several bunks, each with its own night-light and safety belt. And, they were all empty.
As I crept back to my seat my mind was working overtime. I knew that some long-haul flights carried spare crews, but I assumed that they slept in seats (or rather, didn't sleep). This was obviously a proper high altitude bedroom. And on the return flight, I plotted, I would get myself up there - obviously they didn't use it on this sector. And if they couldn't supply seats big enough to sleep in, why shouldn't I get the chance to relax there?
After a wonderful trip around Sabah pursuing bird's nest soup, I found myself back on the same 747 returning to London. We took off, the meal came around and night fell. One by one my fellow passengers adopted positions reminiscent of the occupants of an electric chair. One by one their lights went out. And then I crept away.
It went like clockwork. A feint towards the starboard lavatory. A quick shuffle up the ladder, lift hatch, check for inhabitants - and in.
I selected a comfy looking bunk at floor level, crawled in and lay down. Oh, what comfort! Oh, what luxury! I clipped my safety belt over me and wondered why on earth we couldn't all travel like this? If, instead of a row of seats, we could have a stack of box-bunks like long pigeon-holes, what comfort we could travel in! Safe in our long aluminium box we could withstand accidents better, sleep better, travel more.
I began to notice a strange thing. At this end of the plane the fuselage was wagging slowly and rhythmically, rather like the tail of a sleepy fish. And, peering through a crack in the bulkhead I could see all the way along the roof space above the passengers' ceiling. There were lights in there, and the sides were heavily insulated. I fell asleep.
I awoke with a start. Something was going on. I peered over and saw the hatch being lifted. A head appeared. I turned to the wall and froze. Bloody idiot! Why did I assume no-one would come up!
The pilot came up the ladder and for a long time I felt his eyes boring into the back of my neck. I tried to look like an air hostess, something I don't have much of a talent for. Then I felt him look away, and after an interminable time I heard him get into his bunk. Then one by one three other crew members came up, and one by one I could feel them examining me closely.
It was awful. I was in a cold sweat of fear. I was going to be a named hijacker. I was going to be dumped at an Iraqi airport and handed over to the counter-terrorism squad. I was rigid with horror.
One by one my bed-fellows rolled over and pulled up their blankets. And one by one their little night-lights went out. Eventually silence fell; as well as it can fall behind the exhausts of four giant jet engines. But, were they asleep?
I had to get out. I must have been lying there for an hour wondering what to do. I couldn't stay there, as they would drag me out when they got up to go back to work.
I had to do something. Very, very carefully I undid my belt. And very, very carefully I picked up my shoes and very, very carefully I crawled across the floor. As I was halfway across I had a powerful vision of a spotlight being snapped on and a cold, Biggles-like voice from behind the snout of a pistol, asking just what I was doing.
But it didn't happen. In one, swift ape-like movement I had whipped open the trapdoor and shot down the ladder. I then disappeared into the lavatory and collapsed on to the seat sweating profusely. After a while I crept back to my seat and settled back into the anonymity of economy. My seat felt almost comfortable.
The Civil Aviation Authority says a passenger ignoring an instruction from air crew could be liable for a fine of pounds 5,000 and two years in prisonReuse content