The first time I ever flew overseas was on an Air Asia flight from Subang to Bangkok.
This was before klia opened and before Tony Fernandes worked his low-cost magic.
I have to say that it was a miserable experience, but of my own doing.
I accidentally cut my finger with my in-flight meal’s plastic knife and bled profusely.
That pretty much spoiled my first foreign holiday.
The next international trip was to Sydney, when I began my studies at the University of New South Wales, Sydney. My father and I flew Austrian Air there.
It was my first redeye experience: the flight departed well past midnight.
After that, I used to fly MAS (with its more godly hours) to go home or head back to university.
One time, they served us seafood curry and rice. It was the best in-flight meal I’ve ever had.
I’ve flown a considerable amount of times since then, for study, work and holidays.
I’ve been everywhere from Ambon to New York City.
Since returning to Malaysia in late 2011 – after doing my Masters in Cambridge – I think I’ve got on and off planes more than 40 times, not including transits and domestic flights.
But even this makes me a mere neophyte compared to some jetsetters out there.
Perhaps this is why I am and can never blasé about flying.
It feels like the first time, every time, whenever the plane starts to taxi.
Flight is arguably one of the greatest technological discoveries in our time.
It has and is connecting people, goods and ideas on a scale our ancestors could not have fathomed.
And it has also made the world a much smaller place.
There are apparently, on average at least 93,000 flights from 9000 airports worldwide. Some 8,000-13,000 planes are in the skies at any one time.
It has never been easier, safer or cheaper to fly than today.
But recent events – I refer of course to the disappearance of MH370 and the downing of MH17 – suggest otherwise.
These tragedies suggest that – technological advances aside – we are still very much at the mercy of factors beyond our control.
Take your pick: politics, weather, mechanical error, human action or just plain, ordinary fate.
Indeed, I am aware that every time I fly, my fellow passengers and I are putting our lives in the hands of the crew and ultimately, God.
There is always fear and anxiety.
What if there are problems at Customs when I land?
If I don’t make it, how will people remember me?
At times, one feels like eschewing flying altogether, but that’s impossible in this day and age.
We still take to the skies, whether for duty, love or adventure.
And the feeling you get when you arrive – especially when you make it back to Kuala Lumpur, when you make it back home – is one of joy indefinable and unadulterated.
Flying, in many ways, is a mixed blessing. But it is one that we continue to embrace.
There’s a wonderful quote from the Richard Curtis move, Love Actually:
“Whenever I get gloomy with the state of the world, I think about the arrivals gate at Heathrow Airport. General opinion’s starting to make out that we live in a world of hatred and greed, but I don’t see that. It seems to me that love is everywhere. Often, it’s not particularly dignified or newsworthy, but it’s always there – fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, boyfriends, girlfriends, old friends. When the planes hit the Twin Towers, as far as I know, none of the phone calls from the people on board were messages of hate or revenge – they were all messages of love. If you look for it, I’ve got a sneaky feeling you’ll find that love actually is all around.”
A few days ago, and earlier this year, several hundred people did not make it to their arrivals gate.
They did not get the chance to embrace their loved ones.
They did not make it home.
MH370 and MH17 are heart wrenching tragedies. The wounds may never heal.
These events also remind us-as if we needed any-that Malaysia is a part of the world, that we cannot shut ourselves from it.
Writing about New York after the 9/11 attacks, of the courage and kindness its people showed in the face of terror, the late, great Peter W. Kaplan noted: “These are neither good things nor bad but they have happened. They break the heart but quicken the pulse.”
Life will go on and it must. We honour the dead by continuing to grasp at life, with all its triumphs and tragedies.
Love is still everywhere.
And we will still take to the skies. – July 19, 2014.
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Keith Leong is a founding Associate of IDEAS