Flight Benefits

My mother worked reservations at United Airlines in Chicago before all those jobs were sent to India, and not having any clue how fortunate I was, I grew up on planes. I have no idea how many millions of free miles I flew, but I did manage to visit 50 countries by the time my benefits ran out when I turned 25.

It was an odd experience for a kid from a middle income family; while everyone else in our neighborhood was lucky to hit the skies to Disney or Cancun once a year, I could fly whenever I wanted. My parents started letting me take daytrips alone when I was fifteen. I remember flying to St. Louis just to buy a rare comic book. Another time a neighbor paid me $150 to fly to Portland and bring back an exotic breed of cat for her.

So much has changed about air travel; I remember when flying was a luxury experience, when the flight attendants were nice to you and everyone got a meal. Today, it’s as rough as hitchhiking and the planes are all beat to hell.

What I loved best was flying internationally, mostly because once you left the States, nobody cared how old you were, and there was always free booze on the planes and in the international lounges. I used to always get really drunk in those lounges. The best time was when I had a layover in Tokyo on my way to India in 1993. I was 18, I ended up drinking seven or eight Asahis with some business traveler from Houston wearing a cowboy hat. By the time I checked the boards for my flight to Singapore, I saw that I’d missed it. When you miss a flight when you fly for free it’s no cause for concern, you simply hop the next one. Unfortunately, there was no next flight to Singapore that day.

I asked the Japanese United agents what I should do and they said I should spend the night in Tokyo. Fine, I said, but how much would that cost? Well, they said, Tokyo was very expensive. I might find a room for $200. Since that was almost half the cash I had, I shook my head and asked what else I could do. They said there was a last flight to Hong Kong, which was cheaper than Japan, so I hopped it.

My memory is pretty vague about what happened next, but I do remember drinking a couple vodkas on the plane, and later being helped up off the gritty airport floor by some Chinese soldiers in British uniforms and carrying sub-machines guns. Then my passport was stamped, I know this because I still have that old passport with the stamp in it. Then I was in a cab, and somehow in a tiny room on a high floor of a beat-up hotel looking down at the lights of Victoria Harbor. There were a couple of dread-locked French guys in the room with me smoking hash. I’m not sure how they got there. Then I was in a bar where a white chick was belly dancing for all these Asian businessmen. When I tried to talk to her, she was Russian. I guess I said the wrong thing, because I got karate chopped in the stomach by someone and thrown out.

Anyway, I ended up winning this dart contest in a British pub and met this Hungarian girl and we spent a few days shacked up in her filthy little Hong Kong tenement. Why a chick who could pass for American had to live as low as that, I didn’t understand, but I didn’t know about the conditions of Eastern Europe at that time. I just thought it was really romantic. She was a nanny for an English family, and we mostly spoke in pantomime. I’d lost my bag because I couldn’t remember the name of the first hotel, so I wore an I Love Hong Kong T-shirt I bought from a street vendor, plus some cheap sunglasses. But I had my passport and a few travelers checks. Me and the Hungarian had a fight about something and she kicked me out, so I went to the only safe place I knew: the airport.

All the flights out of Hong Kong were packed, so I got stuck sleeping in that airport for two nights. Then I got to Singapore and spent two weeks there trying to get to India because the flights were all full. One of the weeks I spent hunkered in the airport, trying to get on flight after flight and living on crackers and butter that I kept stealing from a sandwich shop. It wasn’t as bad as that Iranian who lived in Charles De Gaulle airport for 18 years, but it was shitty enough. International airports are cool when you’re just passing through, all duty free cigarettes and hot chicks from everywhere. But when you’re trapped in one, it’s the worst sort of purgatory. There’s nowhere to clean up in any decent way. A few hours of the stress of being stuck, coupled with the benches designed to keep you from getting comfortable, and pretty soon you look like what you are for the moment: homeless.  The second week I stopped trying the day time flights, instead took the bus into downtown Singapore, walking along glitzy Orchard Road where I couldn’t afford to buy anything, and melting in the heat as I ate greasy noodles in cheap basement chop shops packed with Filipino laborers.

Finally, I made it to India after having to do something I never had before: buying a ticket. This was on India Airways and the plane had metal plates riveted to the fuselage so it looked like a motley quilt work of patches, and the cabin was filled with fog. The flight attendants in saris ladled curry into bowls that people brought with them for the meal. It was like being in the bowels of a cargo ship; pretty much what flying in the States is like today.

I would travel like that, saving up just enough money at home cutting lawns and selling pot to let me live in the Third World cheaply for months. Then when my flight benefits ran out, I immediately joined the Peace Corps, which got me over to Africa for three years. I love to fly, still get a giddy feeling each and every time I board a plane, even if I try to look as experienced as all the snooty Business Class travelers lining up to walk over the tiny and ridiculous red carpet. I used to like talking to strangers on planes, but don’t anymore. The rest of it is the same for me to this day, the plane lifting up, your body feeling strange, the earth receding and receding until it all just has to be a dream. Anything still feels possible for that one moment.  


Tony D'Souza's mother worked for United Airlines, and he flew for free until he was 25. He draws from his travels in his writing, including in his latest novel Mule, about a drug trafficker who crisscrosses the country in pursuit of the American dream.

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