When I was told I was flying to an Indian literary festival on Kuwait Airways, I was ready to arrive in style. Etihad Airways, Qatar Airways, Emirates — the region is known for its luxurious, pampered version of air travel. Perhaps Kuwait Airways would have a new Airbus A380 with an on-board lounge? High-thread-count bathrobes? Personal air butlers? In any case, I hoped the wine menu would have a nice dry Riesling to help me ease into a different climate, and, heck, some free spa products would be nice.
I was travelling from my home in New York. When I arrived at JFK, I approached a plane so tired-looking, it might as well have been a Douglas DC-3. The blue-and-white livery sported nothing more than the airline’s name and an unidentifiable bird — speculation on the internet ranges between crane, stork, falcon and “big chicken”. Once aboard, I entered a retro colour scheme combining the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. I half expected the Gulf version of the cast of Mad Men to appear.
My business-class seat did not fully recline; it creaked a couple of degrees and then called it a night. Meanwhile, a flight attendant gracefully dropped what looked like the world’s largest date on my armrest. This was not a good idea, as it attracted the world’s largest fly, which would buzz around the cabin and swoop onto my armrest for the duration of the flight, hoping for more oversize sweets. Dazed and confused, I reached for the drinks menu: Diet Pepsi, Coke, 7UP, a variety of flavoured teas.
Oh, God. Oh, no. A dry flight.
Air travel is hard sometimes, I know. And everyone loves to complain about it — the overbooked flights, the security-screening shoe removal, the queues, the food. But the truth is that air travel can be a cultural experience, even when — maybe especially when — things go wrong. Flying on the best airlines, such as Singapore or Emirates, may lead to placid boasts of on-board showers and Heston Blumenthal–grade meals, but flying on a bad airline can be far more interesting than your destination.
Even Kuwait Airways, as dated as it seemed, had its sweet moments. Once, as I was squealing from back pain in my non-reclining seat, a flight attendant gently tucked a blanket over my writhing form. I was served high-octane Arabic coffee out of a golden samovar and given a Kuwait Airways computer mouse as a gift. (If only I still owned the Texas Instruments computer it was clearly intended for.) The fly and I eventually became friends.
Far lower on the food chain was the old Varig airline of Brazil, a once proud national carrier I actually saw fade out of existence in 2006.
To begin with, I spent a pleasant day being tortured at Sao Paulo International Airport. Its crack security team was convinced that the half-dozen disposable cameras I had brought to Brazil (this was before the ubiquity of camera phones) constituted an explosive device. I was sure I would miss my flight, but, fortunately, it was delayed for three hours. Then six. Then 10. Finally, a bus came to drive the business-class passengers to a hotel behind a series of favelas.
A short, worried-looking man was sent out to address us in the hotel lobby. I was lost behind a scrum of tall American executives, but I think the Varig representative’s speech went something like this: “Eh, the plane it no fly because we have no the monies for the JFK.” Apparently, Varig had run out of the cash needed for landing fees. I figured if we all ponied up a couple of hundred dollars, we could make it happen, but that idea never took off, so to speak.
Forty-eight hours later, we were strapped into one of the airline’s last flights. I unlatched and propped up the heavy video monitor from my armrest, and it promptly fell off and landed on my knee. I’m sure my howls were heard as far back as the last row of the plane, but the flight attendants had other things on their mind. After my screams had turned into a kind of teary intermittent sputtering, one of them, hands on her hips, approached me with a sigh. “Would you like to change seats?” she asked.
And then there is my beloved ancestral airline, Aeroflot, which ferried my family and me out of the Soviet Union some 35 years ago. To be fair, Aeroflot has got its act together as of late, especially on transatlantic flights, where it uses modern western aircraft and the flight attendants seem contractually obligated to crack one smile for every 2,000 miles flown.
Not so a few years ago when I flew the busy Moscow–St Petersburg route. The security line at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport was held up as a gentleman who appeared to be a Second World War combat re-creationist tried to bring a foot-long hunting knife on board. We boarded an ancient Tupolev plane. Midway through the one-hour flight, during the ecstatic moment when a piece of cold mystery meat is slapped onto one’s waiting tray, a fellow passenger came back with some difficult news. “I think the bathroom exploded,” he said.
Indeed, a trickle of greenish liquid soon began to crawl its way towards business class. I set down my cold meat. “Devushka,” I said to the flight attendant. “Miss. There appears to be waste spilling into the cabin.”
The flight attendant looked as if she was in her early thirties, but working at the world’s goofiest airlines, with their ravenous flies, missing landing fees and exploding bathrooms, surely makes for centuries-old wisdom.
“So lift up your legs,” she said.
And I did.
Right now, I’m on a different kind of flight: a Virgin Australia mega-haul from Los Angeles to Sydney. Forget about exploding bathrooms, there’s a bathroom for women only, and even the one for both genders gleams with care and pride. As we approach Sydney, the flight attendant scoots down and asks me if I have enjoyed my flight. Get this: she seems like she actually wants to know. Yes, I say. I did enjoy my flight. In fact, I loved it. But for all its Virginal luxury, will it ever be as memorable, as unique, as a miserable flight on North Korea’s Air Koryo? I don’t think so.
This article first appeared in the August issue of Travel + Leisure. Gary Shteyngart’s memoir, Little Failure, is out now (Hamish Hamilton £16.99/ebook £5.69)