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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 18 January 2019

On the move: Tall people problems and why the exit aisle isn't always the answer 

At 189 centimetres tall, I can’t sit for long without my knees knocking the back of the seat I’m staring at

What can flight travellers do about our more cramped, contemporary times in which seats are closer than ever? 
What can flight travellers do about our more cramped, contemporary times in which seats are closer than ever? 

Exploring the globe is one of life’s greatest joys, but economy air travel is a low point in the human experience.

I’m a generally patient person. Put me on a plane, however, and I turn into the ­epitome of intolerance; the sky-high ­version of an alt-right Twitter troll. I hate the food (how can a bread roll be that hard?), the toilet flush is terrifying (that shrieking gurgle sounds like it could suck a small human into its vortex), and I shudder at the fact I have to pay thousands of dirhams to sit elbow-to-elbow, shoul­der-to-shoulder, thigh-to-thigh next to a total stranger (who is often suffering from a head cold that’s flirting with influenza).

Unfortunately, I’m also an annoying person on a plane: at 189 centimetres tall, with all my height held in my legs, and firmly in the budget travel bracket, I can’t sit for long without my knees knocking the back of the seat I’m staring at. I have no choice. If I want to move at all, I will occasionally bash the plastic chair in front of me.

This, invariably, leads to the person in front of me slamming their back ­strongly against the seat in protest, and then ­reclining their chair entirely out of spite. I’m not even that mad at them for it. I kind of get it – as altitude rises, the human capability for tolerance nosedives.

Why not just sit still, you ask? The ­clincher is, I’m from New Zealand – ergo, any time I want to go back to my home country, I’m sitting in a plane for nearly 20 hours. Getting up every now and then is, unfortunately, inevitable.

Book the exit aisle seats, you say? I do, often, and while I used to turn up at the airport four hours in advance to nab them, you now have to pay between Dh200 to Dh600 each way for the privilege. I then spend an entire flight right next to the toilet doors, witnessing a parade of people ­moving to and from the lavatory, often ­stopping for hour-long 2am chats about subjects I don’t care about. Or, worse, using the space in front of me as a place to stretch: someone once got a yoga mat out and downward dogged, with their face right at my toes.

The exit aisle seats are also right next to parents taking their babies home or on ­holiday. The little people generally cry inconsolably for most of the flight. But, you know what? Solidarity crying babies – they’re in a tin tube, at altitude, ears popping, and being told to sleep while surrounded by strangers. I can’t imagine getting through a long-haul flight if I wasn’t yet able to ­comprehend the point of it all.

I might have had a better time in the 1980s. The distance between seats (known as pitch) ranged from about 81cm to 91cm in 1985, but is about 74cm to 81cm today. Ten centimetres is a lot of leg.

So, what can I do in our more cramped, contemporary times? Pay thousands of dirhams for a bit of extra leg room with a side of cacophonous noise, or just book a normal seat and hope to hit the ­economy jackpot: an empty plane in which I can fashion a bed out of a row of four seats.

I feel truly #blessed when this happens. The extra seatbelts dig into my hips, and I have to lie contorted in order to keep my seatbelt on, but I don’t care – being able to elevate my annoyingly long legs on that 18.5-hour flight is worth the back spasms I’ll experience for a day or two after. It’s a poor man’s business class, and I’ll take it.

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Updated: January 13, 2019 10:36 AM

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