Published in Lifestyle + Travel, March/April 2007

Winning Over the Cabin Crew

Our Frequent Flyer waxes lyrical on how to dress to impress in transit, and how to behave – or not – in Latin American airports.
I recently flew around the world – Mumbai, Melbourne, Mexico City, Miami, Mumbai –and was impressed by a new freer sprit amongst passengers and airports alike. After the horrors of the past few years, with pre-boarding security becoming like an obstacle course, the airport scene is lightening up. There is even a rapport developing between we the herded, and our well-armed shepherds.
At Mumbai airport, for example, I overheard a Parsee lady being strip-searched.
"Now shake", instructed the sari-clad customs official.
"Not twist and shout?" squealed the now near naked Parsee passenger, mock-furiously, "I mean, do you think I'm so loose up there that two coke bottles and a gas canister are going to fall out?!”
A ripple of mirth went through the departure lounge.

* * *

Half way around the world, in Latin America, things are a tad more romantic. At Mexico airport all the female immigration officials look like Edith Gonzales, star of the popular television soap opera Fuck me Tomorrow. They weep into one’s passport and scream
agonisingly for help when a fake passport is detected, beating their perfectly-formed chests and ripping out handfuls of seductively coiffed hair. This is all very amusing after a long flight when one is trying to smuggle oneself into a country.
I arrived at  Mexico City Airport after a horror flight on a 737 from Dallas Fort Worth (the new airport there is full of light and love, btw). It was horrible because the Mexican woman next to me kept warning me against getting off the plane in Mexico City. “You'll be kidnapped… or worse”, she said, “Dress down!”

At Australian airports… egalitarian attire is appropriate. They hate toffs.
Affect a proletariat battler look for ease of access.

The Camilla Parker-Bowles disco look is popular in Mexico City this year.

On arrival my nerves were immediately put to rest: my tall dark immigration official, Andreas, looked like the young Antonio Banderas in Matador. I had to support myself on the counter during questioning. Señor Andreas had two gorgeous, uniformed side-kicks – ‘ Sale of the Century’ girls – who doted on his every word. When the immigration stamp crashed down with a macho flourish there was an audible enzyme gush.

* * *

It is important to choose one’s outfits intelligently when travelling through the world's secure borders. I am ushered through at most Indian checks now because I dress like a retired cricket umpire, and I apparently look like Australian cricket star Shane Warne. At Australian airports, more egalitarian attire is appropriate. They hate toffs. Affect a proletariat battler look for ease of access. South East Asian officials give the inside lane to passengers dressed like movie stars or Filipino dictators (the black windcheater, weekend golf mufti look).
I have noticed around the world that fashion victims – tubbies in bare midriffs, grannies in micro minnies – are often assigned the worst seats on the plane. Likewise, the grossly attired or obviously wrecked – drunk rednecks in singlets, hash-crazed crazies reeking of stale patchouli oil – are put near the rear toilets.

At Mexico City Airport power blondes in prick-teaser pumps rule.

In January, in the lovely retirement community of Naples in Florida, a sort of Pleasantville for billionaires, I met a retired American Airlines captain with a very wealthy, very healthy octogenarian wife. “In the old days we used to dress up for a
plane trip”, she confided, “these days, people dress as if they were going to the mall!”
And nowhere is mallrat fashion more fashionable than at Latin American airports. There one sees such extraordinary combinations of beans and bravado that one is left wondering whether these people look in the mirror before they go out. The errant bare
midriff look, otherwise known as the muffin roll ('stud-muffin roll' for gents) is on the rise on the moving walkways of the world’s airports. Not since the days of the micro mini has womanhood produced so many walking disasters. Once past the fashion-conscious check-in staff and the security screeners – so they don't undress you and start probing – one needs to impress the cabin crew.

* * *

Winning over aircraft personnel is a special art. I have observed that British Airways crews, for example, love a more eccentric world traveller: only on BA have my travelling trousers, fashioned from stolen, pink tartan Air Fiji blankets, been commented upon. On Indian airlines, as in India itself, one can never out-eccentric the locals, but one can turn up in a g-string and shroud and no one will blink. American Airways hostesses, themselves trapped in 50s ice-skating-queen make-up and matching outfits, prefer passengers who dress up. I have had best results in an olive tweed Ronald Reagan jacket, worn with a white shirt, collar turned outside. “Would you like a soft pretzel with your hard drink?” they bleat, as they plop down the day’s New York Times on the seat next to me as a reward, as it were, for sartorial correctness.

Often a mid-flight change of apparel is necessary. One client of mine, a sex-kitten stock-broker, who is an expert in Latin American plane protocol, confided in me that she does not arrive in Mexico City in the same resort-wear she had on while boarding in the holiday capitol of Acapulco, for example. “Not if you want respect at the executive limousine counter” she explained. I had had occasion to observe her on a Click Mexicana flight (great airline, by the by) earlier this year. Mid-flight, while everyone was watching The Queen, the kitten in question ducked into the tiny WC. She went in looking like Baby Spice and returned looking like love-goddess Anita Ekberg in La Dolce Vita. She was veritably covered in dead animals; I'm talking more ocelot trim than you could poke a stick at! And she was right. Dressed like a hooker on Sunset Boulevard the crowds parted like the Red Sea. At Mexico City Airport power blondes in prick-teaser pumps rule.

* * *

Seasoned travellers at Changi Airport in Singapore adopt a lower profile. I often see Brigadier Lee, son of the ‘senior minister’, in cashmere tracksuit and moccasins. Low-key and comfortable is the chicest look in the carpeted corridors of Changi. Singapore Airlines is likewise unimpressed by over-the-top star dressing and behaviour. I was on a flight from Mumbai to Singapore recently and some starlet in a silk taffeta trench coat and six-inch heels was being a real pain. She had a maid secreted in the cabin who would dispense pills every time the diva yawned. The other First Class passengers were rolling their eyes, as were the cabin crew.
“Tell her to get her own jet if she wants to behave like this”, I told the chief purser, who shared the joke amicably. “She’s a former Miss Universe”, he confided, “and nobody recognised her!”

Made Wijaya is the nom de plume of Bali-based Australian writer and landscape designer Michael White.

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