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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 September 2018

On the move: a survivor's guide to long-haul economy

Watching the entire series of Blue Planet II was the key to breaking the back of an impromptu downgrade, but then it took a further two hours to clear the airport

The key to surviving economy class is to bag a good seat and fill up sections of time with different activities. Photo by Mark Nolan/Getty Images
The key to surviving economy class is to bag a good seat and fill up sections of time with different activities. Photo by Mark Nolan/Getty Images

Last week I wrote about how I was involuntarily downgraded from business class to economy on a 14-hour flight from Dubai to Seattle. Already tired when I checked in for the early morning flight, thanks to a flurry of work deadlines, moving house and packing, the disappointment of the downgrade was offset by the provision by Emirates of a voucher for a free business class return flight on any of its routes over the next year.

That still left the thorny issue of how to deal with the ultra long-haul flight that was in front of me. Instead of reclining on my flat bed, I’d be bolt upright and have a much less tempting range of food to distract me. Nevertheless, there are several strategies that can be employed to make a trip like this as painless as possible.

The first piece of advice is, choose your seat. Even if you haven’t pre-booked, this is the single most important factor in surviving economy class. While I had a bulkhead seat with no-one next to me, as I strolled back through the Boeing 777 economy class, which has 310 seats, I was struck by the sub-classes within the various sections.

The section I was in had far fewer seats than those further back, giving it a much less oppressive feel. The fact that I was on the very front row of economy and not looking at the cabin made a big difference in itself. I was also blessed to have an unobtrusive neighbour on the aisle seat, a woman who read a heavily-thumbed and marked copy of the Bible and kindly informed me that my downgrade had “happened for a reason” and “restitution” was assured. The seat between us was useful not just as a spatial buffer but as storage space for the newspapers, magazines, books and laptop that I kept there (there was also space for my new ally’s handbag and headphones) and by using the middle tray as a meal extension space we were able to order more drinks and get in and out of our seats more easily.

The extra legroom given by the bulkhead means that you don’t have to keep asking your next door neighbour to move every time you get up to use the bathroom, which itself helps to kill time and improve the way you feel. We were also the first to be served food and drink.

Yet still, one needs a strategy, and I find that it helps to listen to your body. Feeling extremely tired after the first meal, I took half a Panadol Night, wrapped myself in blankets, reclined my seat, donned my eye mask and headphones and and slept for a couple of hours, feeing OK when I woke up. Then I walked the length of the cabin a couple of times, the cramped masses further back huddled together, worn out and accepting of their fate. Next, I read the papers. It’s best to leave the entertainment system for when you’re feeling less mentally active. After about an hour, I found Blue Planet II, the relatively new BBC wildlife series about the sea, and watched the entire series of 8 hour-long episodes, with a few breaks for walks, drinks and another light meal.

This broke the back of the trip, and after that, it was only a couple more naps, walks and trips to the galley before I arrived at Seattle Tacoma International Airport. Unfortunately, our flight was held in a corridor for about an hour thanks to massive queues at immigration. Two full hours after landing, I was finally through.

Not the view that any traveller wants when landing after a 14 hour flight. Rosemary Behan
Not the view that any traveller wants when landing after a 14 hour flight. Rosemary Behan

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