Michael Bywater: Nobody does air rage better than the English

The experience of flying, unless in first class, is unnatural
Click to follow

Going ape on aeroplanes is one area where England still leads the world. The French, we know in our bones, can't manage it at all, being too preoccupied with thoughts of adultery and tax-evasions; the Italians are too worried about spoiling la bella figura; the Americans shout and throw their weight around all the time (it's just their way), and the Germans get want they want anyway: there they are, forming human pyramids at the departure gate three hours before boarding.

And the Welsh? Never. The Welsh adore flying. A chance to be surrounded by other human beings to whom they can say "Halloa". They can drink like 10 men, but can't actually get drunk. And they lack malice. As the stricken plane plunges earthwards, the Welsh instinct is to feel sorry for the pilot and to look on the bright side.

No. Air rage is ours, something the English can do supremely well, and it cuts across all classes. Even pillars of the establishment are not immune from accusations, as Col Peter Roberts, the British defence attaché in Thailand, discovered last week when he found himself in the dock accused of having gone somewhat over the top on a flight to London early last year.

Whether or not Col Roberts did it - which remains to be decided - the accusation alone has provoked not outrage but much sympathy. For generations the English have exported restrained, dutiful, self-disciplined men and women to parts of the world where those qualities are little in evidence, and every now and then, one of them is bound to crack, while the rest of us watch, nodding sympathetically.

We know that we, too, could go the same way as the man dumped on a tiny island off the west coast of Africa (where, for all we know, he may still be, up to the knees in a rising tide, his shoulders bowed under drifts of guano), the man from Manchester who cracked when denied more drink, the Polishman from Ireland (and hence an honorary Englishman) who broke the lavatory and tried to kick his way out of the emergency exit, and all the others for whom it has simply been too much.

The entire experience of flying, unless you are cocooned in first class, is unnatural. Not the actual flying part, but the fact that we, who regard ourselves as individuals and wish to be treated as such, are herded, disciplined, invaded, inconvenienced, overlooked, kept in the dark, exploited, restrained and infantilised from the moment we enter the airport until the moment we escape at the other end. We are not men; we are a number, mere raw materials for a vast industrial process.

Our descendants - probably our grandchildren - will look back with awe and envy on the glory of what we now take for granted and resent. But we don't see it that way. We resent it all terribly: the confinement, the searches, the hectoring notices, the delays (deluding ourselves that our importance is measurable in seconds), the mock-cheerfulness, the invisible flight-deck crew locked behind steel doors. Being in a modern aeroplane is the physical equivalent of talking to a call centre; by the time we get through, we are angry, and what happens next makes us angrier still.

We are a society of big babies now. Like babies, we want instant gratification but instead we are ticked off and told what to do. And, like babies, we live in a world of our own, chewing gum like cud, insulating ourselves with iPods, cultivating our sense of thwarted desire, so that, when, eventually, we find ourselves in an aluminium tube with 200 or more fellow human beings, we cannot recognise them except as enemies and invaders of space (the fat bastard!, the bearded git!, the smelly one!) and have no dissembling courtesies to make the experience communally pleasant.

Then comes the drink. Maddened by anaesthetic alcohol beforehand, especially those who aren't used to air travel (those of us who are used to it prefer 20 milligrams of diazepam and a posture of mournful vigilance), we are given more drink once the flying call-centre is airborne and told to sit back, relax and enjoy the flight, when, by then, what we want to do is pull the man in front of us out of his seat and thump him.

Adrift in our 21st-century sea of solipsism and false entitlement, the experience of communal regimentation obliterates our most private sense of self, and anxiety and booze remove our behavioural censors. The mixture is primed.

One last spark of annoyance and it's heigh-ho for the smashed bog, the emergency exit handle, the flurry of expletives, the nylon handcuffs and the unexpected runway with unexpected police. The miracle is that it should happen so rarely, or that we should be surprised. And the answer? The answer will come soon enough. The oil will run out. And then we'll have to return to the old ways, and just stay at home shouting at our families.