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When you reside in a country that is as far from anywhere else in the world as it is possible to be, you may develop an illogical resentment of your absolute reliance on airplanes.  As fond as I am of my bike, I’m unlikely to ride from here to North America any time soon.  Planes do, unfortunately, fall out of the sky from time to time.  Not to Qantas, though, at least not yet.  But this last one was a very close call.

In an amazingly short period of time, we have come to embrace the routine of air travel.  I am old enough to remember when it was anything but routine.  Boarding an airplane was an event, like riding an elephant through a river or taking a hot air balloon over the Alps.  The child-like wonder I once had has certainly eroded over time and the thrill is long gone, but I still marvel at the fact that it works at all.

On my last long-haul flight from San Francisco to Auckland, a man my age was doing some stretches in the aisle while I hovered in the toilet block waiting for a vacant sign.  He gave me a bemused look and said, “Amazing, Isn’t it.  These things can carry all these people.”  It is, indeed.  And each and every person has close to his own weight in luggage.  The fact that the engines can develop sufficient thrust to get all that (plus the plane and those heavy trolleys) into the sky before the end of the runway is amazing.

At any given moment in time, there must be a good-size town full of people flying around the planet.  All reliant on incredibly complex machines that take us way out of our comfort zone, up where it is very cold and we can hardly breathe.  Everest high.  Dependent on human beings, over-achieving offshoots of apes and chimps, not even up to snuff when it comes to multi-tasking, if recent studies prove correct.

Nobody pays any attention to the safety spiel any more.  It seems so distant, so irrelevant to what air travel has become, a routine mode of transportation.  I tried to picture folding my torso over my lap in an emergency but there is simply no room to do so anymore.  No one I know has ever seen an oxygen mask except in the hands of an airline attendant.

According to “The Age,” passengers on the recent flight from Hong Kong to Melbourne were under “orders” from Qantas not to comment about the ordeal.  Despite the blackout, Tara Kynnersly told reporters she thought she was going to die.  She had just received a proposal of marriage and was flying home to celebrate her 31st birthday. An hour out of Hong Kong, the plane plunged.  “I have a beautiful fiancee, family, friends– I have had a wonderful life… I’m on a plane, there’s nothing I can really do about it.”

When St. Kilda architect, David Suanders, boarded the jet he noticed water streaming down from a light fitting, a panel hanging off the wall, and that the rubber seal around the entrance door was frayed.  He mentionned to the head flighet attendant and the passenger next to him that the plane should be retired. David burst into turns during an emotional reunion with his mother and sister after arriving in Melboune.

Everyone has commented favourably on the professionalism of the captain and crew in the emergency.  That said, the 365 passengers and crew members were incredibly lucky.  If it had happened out over the South Pacific, the plane would have run out of fuel and crashed. The latest guess is that it was an oxygen cylinder, a safety device for the pilots, that caused the calamity.

With the price of fuel going through the roof and the prospect of a carbon tax kicking in, we can only hope maintenance won’t be sacrificed on the alter of shareholder profits.  Right now, flying is far and away the safest way to travel.  Let’s hope it stays that way.

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