One Independent reader contacted me this week about his uncomfortable experience aboard Malaysia Airlines flight 90 from Kuala Lumpur to Stockholm. What has a trip from South-east Asia to Scandinavia to do with America? Read on.
"We were not allowed to congregate in the aisles or in any free space in the aircraft," writes Alistair McBain about the 12-hour flight. "This rule was enforced by cabin staff and in effect meant that passengers were only allowed out of their seats to go to the restrooms. You could not stand and talk to other people or exercise at the back."
Anyone who has flown on the usually friendly and relaxed Malaysian airline will find it difficult to recognise this picture. Mr McBain was understandably concerned about the restriction of his liberty: "Being tall, I for one cannot afford to spend that amount of time trapped in my cattle-class seat, unable to get up and walk around and exercise as I used to be able to."
What could explain such draconian treatment? It is the fact that the ultimate destination of flight MH90 is in the US, at the possibly ill-named Newark Liberty airport. No matter that no Jumbo could fly all the way from Kuala Lumpur to this New York airport before running out of fuel, nor that the schedules show that the aircraft is actually changed at Stockholm airport. Apparently, the decree from the US transportation authorities still applies.
Hopefully, no one will be obliged to ponder where the ban on exercise leaves the airline on the question of deep-vein thrombosis. As Mr McBain puts it, "If somebody gets DVT, who do they sue - the airline or the US government?" At the very least, he says, "people should be warned before they book".
Malaysia Airlines is keen for passengers to be aware of the risks of immobility on long flights; indeed, its website says you should "walk about the cabin occasionally".
UNLIKE MOST passengers on that Malaysia Airlines flight, some travellers are keen to visit the US - but are unsure whether or not they will be let in without an American visa. Pam White e-mails to ask: "I recall that there was an opportunity to be gained with passports due for renewal early in 2006, by renewing them in October this year." She is, or rather was, correct: next Tuesday, 26 October, was to be a significant date for British travellers to the US.
Congress mandated that every passport issued from this date had to be "smart", or an "e-passport" - that is, containing biometric information - or the holder would not be allowed in. The new rule would not apply for passports issued before then. So there was a strong case for renewing your passport ahead of time. But earlier this year, when it became clear that no country would be in a position to issue "smart" passports, the date was deferred by a year.
By 26 October 2006, every new British passport should be "smart". The document carries a chip containing data about the geometry of your face, derived from your photograph - which is why you may no longer smile in the Photo-Me booth. The first few have already been issued to staff at the British Embassy in Paris. Next Monday, their diplomatic colleagues in Washington DC join the same pilot programme to see how the document stands up to real travelling.
Just in case the experiment hits trouble, people whose passport is due to expire shortly after 26 October next year might opt to renew before the deadline to avoid problems. Or you could always elect instead to avoid America - but, as Mr McBain found between Malaysia and Sweden, that is not always easy.