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About A Week: Penned Up In Cattle Class

Peter Hinchliffe tells of the irritants which turn flying into a test of endurance.

Now it's official! Economy-class air travelers can be compared to herded cattle.

The five-year revision of the Oxford English Dictionary lists "cattle class'' as a term to describe economy seats on an aircraft.

The dictionary -- the most authoritative repository and arbiter of English words and their usage -- is, by including the phrase, acknowledging the widespread dissatisfaction of millions of passengers "imprisoned'' in the cheapest airline seats.

Oxford dictionaries are continually monitoring and researching how language is evolving with a $70 million research program -- the largest language research program in the world.

Passengers disembarking from long-haul flights after being penned in an economy seat may think that the Oxford philological researchers should be made aware that many cattle are treated better than humans when it comes to travel.

Seats in the economy cabin seem to have been designed for children under the age of 12. Adult passengers of normal size now find they overlap the armrests to invade the space of the "prisoner'' in the adjoining seat. Eating a meal using plastic knife and fork has become a task for a highly trained circus performer. And in-flight sleep is inevitably a precursor of severe cramps and a stiff neck.

First class airline tickets cost twice as much as business class, and business class can be three times as much as the full economy fare. Not surprising, therefore, that a survey of more than 600 large corporations with a global reach revealed that three-quarters of business travelers fly economy rather than business class.

If you have never been around cattle, let me assure you that they very definitely do not like being herded into a truck -- be it of the rail or road variety. There's a whole lot of mooing going on whenever cattle find themselves being moved around on wheels.

Likewise with humans and flying -- particularly so with tiny humans. An alien might suppose that aircraft are designed to test the lung capacity of infants. Many years ago, when my elder son Dave was 12 months old, we traveled from London to Nairobi, Kenya, on an overnight flight. Dave rose nobly to the challenge of crying almost non-stop for 4,200 miles.

And now, in some mysterious act of revenge by the ear-damaged passengers on that Nairobi-bound flight, a crying babe is following the Hinchliffes on our world travels.

There it was when we flew to Toronto, three rows back, yowling and bawling to Olympic medal standards. And there it was again on an eight-hour flight from Manchester to Atlanta, Georgia, trying to prove that the smallest of human lungs can compete with the combined din from four Rolls Royce jet engines.

The same infant plagued son Dave when he air-hopped between Australia and Thailand. He is convinced that we are caught up in our very own Stephen King horror story. No matter where or when we fly, there will be the crying babe.

A message goes out from one of those Nairobi-flight revenge seekers. "Two Hinchliffes traveling to Dubai on the 21st. We've booked your seat on Emirates. Usual routine. Don't feed your infant during the 12 hours before check in.''

I did once fly in comparative luxury as a guest of the British Royal Air Force. I was flown out in a VC-10 from England to Hong Kong to write about the troops the U.K. then had on garrison duty in the Far East. I was one of three journalists, and we were honored passengers. There were beds for us to stretch out and sleep on.

As we approached Hong Kong the pilot allowed all three of us onto the flight deck. I perched on a metal box, with no strap to hold me in. Soon I was wishing I couldn't see what lay ahead. We ran into a severe storm. Lightning forked and splintered, as though trying to stab our metal envelope.

As we passed over the first island on our final approach, thunder sounded above the roar of our jets.

Lightning flashed and flashed again in a near-continuous blaze. The plane was juddering, rocking, side to side, up and down. We were being kicked and punched by a raging wind.

As soon as we were down we hurried off to the RAF officers' mess. I bought the pilot a double whisky.

"That may have been all in a day's work for you," said I, "but we were scared witless."

"Me too,'' said the pilot, gulping down a whisky. "Those were the worst conditions I have ever flown in. If that lightning had struck us ''

Despite crying babies and cramped economy seats, I guess I'll go on flying for as long as the money holds out. In the year up to last July, Brits made 69 million journeys outside the U.K.

We love to go out and see the world.

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