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The seatbelt sign in an aeroplane has a shelf life. It can only remain on for a certain amount of time and still actually mean something. Once you pass that period and the seatbelt sign is still on, it just ceases to be relevant. People get up, because they have to. Anarchy unfolds. The authority of the seatbelt sign has been broken.
That period of time, in my experience, is about an hour. Once you've sat there with the seatbelt sign on for more than an hour, all hell breaks loose.
Someone with a small bladder, or who has been necking beers, will cast their eye up and down the aisle, see that the coast is clear, unbuckle and hustle through to the toilet. Someone else will see that person getting away with it, and decide to do the same thing. Someone else will do it as well. Someone will grab something from their bag in the overhead locker. Someone else will need to stretch their legs. And pretty soon the seatbelt sign, shining away happily above you, means absolutely nothing.
I know this, because it happened to me recently, twice: once flying from Sydney to Kunming, and once from Kunming to Sydney, aboard China Eastern Airlines. We took off and the seatbelt sign stayed on. We levelled out at 35,000 feet and the seatbelt sign stayed on. An hour or so into the flight, the hosties started serving the meal, and still the seatbelt sign stayed on.
It stayed on the entire flight. The entire 10 hours. After that first hour, of course, it ceased to mean anything. People had to get up. They had to move around the cabin. And so they did. And so did everyone else. There's an assumption after a while that maybe the seatbelt sign must be broken.
Of course, this is seriously dangerous. What if there actually was turbulence that required everyone to sit down and buckle up? You'd never know it, because the seatbelt sign had been up there blaring wolf for the last five or six hours. It was insanity.
It was China Eastern Airlines.
There was news on Monday morning of an incident involving a flight that had departed from Sydney Airport: a plane had had to make an emergency landing after a huge hole appeared in the casing of one of the engines. I clicked on the story, wondering, "Which airline was it?"
It was China Eastern Airlines. I'd have to say, my complete lack of surprise at this news says a lot about my recent experience. Everything on my flights with China Eastern worked, and we got to our destination safely and pretty much on time. But, as the baffling seatbelt sign incidents showed, it was also the sort of flight where if something had gone seriously awry, my first reaction would not have been one of surprise.
I often get asked about the worst airlines I've ever flown with, and there have been a few shockers. Ethiopian Airlines runs an excellent international service – however, once you go domestic, things rapidly deteriorate. We're talking old, old planes that fly extremely circuitous routes around the country, picking people up and dropping them off, travelling in the same style as the share taxis that are so popular on the ground in east Africa.
I've flown Air Bagan, a domestic carrier in Myanmar that was involved in a fairly high-profile crash in 2012, when a flight carrying 65 passengers flew into power lines in the fog. My flights were fine, but when boarding announcements are made by a person walking around the airport with a hand-written sign, you start to worry.
I've also flown Iran Air, which is restricted from flying in EU airspace due to its poor safety record. And I've flown several times with Pegasus Airlines, Turkey's budget carrier, which is frequently rated among the world's worst.
Iran Air, Iran: Customer rating 5/10. "IranAir does not serve any alcohol but that's part of the current Iran experience I guess." Photo: iStock
My experience with China Eastern probably wasn't as bad as those. It fact it wasn't really bad at all, particularly given no parts of the engine fell off. There were, however, plenty of little quirks and annoyances.
You can't check your bags through to connecting flights with China Eastern, and the layover times are horrendous, so I ended up spending six hours in Kunming, twice, with all of my baggage.
The hosties also make everyone remove their headphones and stop watching the inflight entertainment about an hour before landing. Why? I don't know. And you're not allowed to have your phone powered on – even in airplane mode – for the entire flight.
The food on board harks back to the bad old days of flying. And there's a fairly hilarious and obviously pre-recorded announcement at the start of every flight from someone with an American accent claiming to be the "onboard security officer", warning people not to do things like smoke in the lavatories, push or shove other passengers, or "jostle for space in the overhead bins".
You think to yourself: what goes on on these flights? Fortunately, on my journeys, nothing much. Certainly, no holes appeared in the engine casings. We just soared through the night, high above the Earth at 35,000 feet, for about 10 hours with the seatbelt sign on.
What's the worst airline you've ever flown with? Have you had any particularly frightening experiences?
See also: The world's worst airlines named
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