Passengers onboard a Qantas flight as it flies close to Uluru in the Northern Territories last week. Seats for the seven-hour Boeing 787 flight sold out in 10 minutes
Passengers onboard a Qantas flight as it flies close to Uluru in the Northern Territories last week. Seats for the seven-hour Boeing 787 flight sold out in 10 minutes © James D. Morgan/Getty

The world’s airlines are carrying only 10 per cent of the international passengers they would normally expect, according to the International Air Transport Association. What are the other 90 per cent missing about flying? Some, it surprisingly seems, are missing airline food.

Singapore Airlines added extra sittings after its initial offer of lunch or dinner next weekend on a grounded Airbus A380 sold out in 30 minutes. Admittedly, these meals, priced from S$50 ($36) in economy to S$600 in a first-class suite, aren’t the only food on offer. If you don’t fancy the “signature international Singapore Airlines dishes”, you can choose from a menu created by Singaporean cookery writer and chef Shermay Lee.

Many Australians seem to be missing just getting off the ground and out of town. Qantas recently offered a seven-hour Boeing 787 flight, taking off and landing in Sydney and swooping low over sights such as the Great Barrier Reef and Uluru. The seats sold out in 10 minutes.

Victoria Tomlinson, chief executive of Next-Up, a Yorkshire-based company that helps senior employees plan alternatives to retirement, frequently flew to Dubai before Covid-19, but has not made the trip this year. What does she miss? As a loyal Emirates economy passenger, she misses the occasional business-class upgrades, along with the chance to use the airport lounge.

She also misses the solitude that allowed her to plough through her work. Once, immersed in her inbox while awaiting her flight from Dubai, she looked up, wondering why the departure area was so quiet, to discover she was at the wrong gate. When she reached the right one her luggage had been offloaded and the flight had gone.

She misses looking up from work to have conversations with fellow travellers — “whether they want to have them with me is another matter.” She misses the mix of people getting on and off long-haul flights. “It’s an interesting anthropological experience,” she says. She does not miss the breakfasts on overnight flights, a dispiriting meal served in the dismal hours before landing.

What do I miss? I miss trundling my wheelie bag along the glass walkway from the lift into departures at Heathrow Terminal 5, accompanied by the light exhilaration — which never goes away — of heading somewhere else for a bit, especially somewhere new. I was sorry in March to have to cancel my first trip to west Africa, after the conference I was supposed to help chair in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, was called off.

I miss the in-flight movies I wouldn’t dream of watching on the ground, even during the long months of lockdown. Home watching is for films I really want to see, such as ITV’s The Singapore Grip, based on JG Farrell’s novel about Britain’s second world war loss of the city to the Japanese, or Fauda, Netflix’s drama about an Arabic-speaking Israeli unit that operates undercover in the occupied Palestinian territories.

Befuddled by in-flight insomnia, I have usually opted for the undemanding fare I would never go to the cinema for — such as Bohemian Rhapsody, the story of Freddie Mercury’s life. I am looking forward to Rocketman, which does the same for Elton John, on my next flight, whenever that is. Also, those I’d be too embarrassed to watch anywhere except on a plane as I’m so obviously the wrong demographic, such as TV series like Girls or Fleabag.

Above all, I miss flying’s sense of liminality, of being between places. Flying alone — which, as a business traveller, I often did — is a pleasingly anonymous affair. No one knows or judges you. Flying was a period of silence, a time for contemplation.

There are benefits to not flying. No immigration queues, especially the endless lines at New York’s JFK and the effort to get the fingerprint machine to accept my fingers. No worrying about whether the passport e-gate cameras at immigration will recognise me with my glasses on or whether I will be able to decipher the instructions with them off. No baggage retrieval on those rare occasions when I am forced to check in luggage. No jet lag. None of the guilt about what flying is doing to the environment.

Will we fly again? Probably not as much as we did. But we will have our fond memories, even if they are not of the food.

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