For the better part of 2002 I was living in Sydney, Australia. During my time there, my aunt and uncle went to Singapore on business and invited me to meet them. Having never been to Asia, I jumped at the opportunity. I immediately went down to my local STA Travel store and inquired about flight prices. STA found me a dirt cheap flight on Egypt Air and I booked it on the spot.
The direct, red-eye from Sydney to Singapore spanned about 4,000 miles and lasted nearly 8.5 hours. My aisle seat was in the very last row of the plane, neighboring the lavatories. I remember sitting next to a very nice Australian man, who was all too excited to tell me all about his upcoming trip.
After the in-flight safety demonstration (which was conducted in Egyptian Arabic), I put my headphones on, as a polite indication to my seatmate that I wasn’t interested in chit chatting, and drifted off to sleep.
I had been asleep just a short while when the smell of cigarette smoke woke me. I opened my eyes and there were tens of people crowded around my seat, taking drags from their cigarettes. It was 2002, how on earth was smoking still allowed on planes? I was half asleep, dazed and massively confused, so I asked my Aussie buddy beside me what was going on. He informed me that smoking was permitted on this flight but that the designated smoking area was limited to the last two rows of the plane. Anyone was free to smoke, but they had to get up from their seat and come stand next to me in order to do so. My lucky day!
I can still, to this day, remember how nauseating that flight was. I had my shirt pulled up, covering my nose and mouth, in a failed attempt to curb the level of smoke inhalation. But every few minutes a new batch of smokers would make their way to the back of the plane to blow more smoke in my face. The plane's poor air circulation didn’t help things, my throat was scratchy and my eyes burned. Between the side effects of the second-hand smoke and the constant commotion by my seat, I was unable to sleep a wink. By the time we landed, I was exhausted and I smelled like an ashtray. That was 8.5 hours of my life I would definitely like back!
On my return flight to Sydney, I thought I’d outsmart Egypt Air, arrive early at Singapore airport and ask the nice lady at ticket counter for a seat in the front of the plane. After about an hour of whispers behind the desk and issues with an incorrect birthdate on my passport (that’s a whole other story), I walked away with a shiny new seat, nearer the front. I sat and waited for boarding to commence, very pleased with myself for being so clever.
The plane was a 777 with a 2-5-2 seat configuration. I had seat B (an aisle in one of the two seater areas). I got to my row just in time to see an Ivan Drago look-a-like, with a massive scorpion tattoo on his forearm, shoving a Barbie doll into a backpack. Terrified, I timidly smiled at him as I sat down. It didn't take long to before I learned that this man spoke zero English. Again, I put my headphones on, closed my eyes, quickly plead to God that this guy wouldn’t kill me and attempted to sleep.
Just as I was dozing off, I got a very strong whiff of cologne. What now?! Why wouldn’t people just let me sleep? The five grown men, in the middle five seats, directly to my right, were testing each other’s new duty free fragrance purchases. I honestly don’t know if the smoke on the first flight or the cologne on this flight was worse. But the good news was that I didn’t have to decide because the murderer next to me was also conveniently a smoker. The best of both worlds! Since he could not communicate with me using words, he would tap my arm every time he wanted to get up to go to the back of the plane for his nicotine fix, which was at least once an hour. Each time he returned to his seat, he brought that lovely smoke scent back with him.
I am now acutely aware why my flight was so inexpensive!!!
*I did do a search and found that Egypt Air banned smoking on all its flights in June 2003. Although, they still seem to get quite a few complaints about cabin crew and pilots smoking.