Off their trolleys

Air Babylon: a mile-high journey through the best-kept secrets of the airline industry

Imogen Edwa

I don't recommend reading this book if you are a more than averagely nervous flyer. A day-in-the-life account of an airport, it is ostensibly narrated by a single airline duty manager, but is in fact the product of numerous interviews conducted "in cafes, offices, warehouses and cold damp corridors". Imogen Edwards-Jones, a writer of chick lit, deployed the same technique to great commercial success last year in Hotel Babylon, and I am sure that Air Babylon will prove similarly popular. Just one caveat: the appeal of this book is relentlessly prurient. Don't buy it if you are hoping to enrich your understanding of, say, the latest developments in airline safety or the causes of industrial disputes at major airports.

Virtually every lurid aviation-industry cliche is confirmed - that cabin staff are mindless hedonists who go on drink-and-drug-fuelled benders every time they stop over in a foreign land, that pilots are Lotharios who see it as their duty to bed as many air hostesses as possible, that aeroplane passengers routinely have sex with each other, usually in the toilets but often simply in their seats. More striking even than the tales of in-flight excess, however, is the astonishing contempt for customers that airline staff display. Until reading this book, I had no idea that, while checking in your bags, staff may well be exchanging computer messages about you, commenting on your appearance, accent or body odour. Passengers deemed particularly disagreeable may find, once on board, that their coffee has been laced with laxatives, or that they are singled out for regular "face farts".

It is those who do not make it to touch-down, however, who suffer the greatest indignities. Apparently, surprisingly many deaths occur on aeroplanes. On one journey described, the corpse count is two; this is seen as perfectly normal. There are references to other flights on which even more deaths have occurred. When a passenger dies, the cabin crew show themselves to be entirely indifferent to the human tragedy, and instead focus on the irksome practical difficulties: how to keep commotion to a minimum; what to do with the body. Indeed, the question of corpse disposal is a frequent theme of this book. Sometimes dead passengers are wrapped in a blanket and left in their seats; on other occasions they are dragged to the toilet, or to the cabin-crew "galley". The cabin crew on one flight are depicted gathering in the galley for their customary pre-landing cocktail, oblivious of the corpse propped up in the corner. Once a plane lands, it is cleared of all (living) passengers; any corpses are then wheeled out (for ease of transport, you understand) on a drinks trolley.

None of this would greatly matter if it were just the cabin crew who indulged in such antics, but the worrying thing is that pilots appear to be equally irresponsible. On the flight with the double passenger fatality, the captain learns that a wheel has been left on the runway; he has no way of knowing if it is one of the front wheels (which would pose a serious safety problem) or one of the side wheels (which would not). Instead of worrying about this, he spends the flight bantering about farting and blow jobs with the second officer, and lands the plane without bothering to get confirmation from landing control which of the plane's wheels is missing. Then, with the rest of the crew, he proceeds to a drunken orgy in a hotel.

Such deeds have the whiff of legend rather than of fact, and the one consoling thing about this otherwise disquieting book is the possibility that none of it (or at least only some of it) is true. Edwards-Jones reveals almost nothing about her sources. Are these stories the product of her imagination? For all our sakes, let's hope that they are.