Editor's note: What follows is a fictional account of future
inflight service -- but this could happen sooner than you
t's dark. Most of the cabin
lights are off. I'm watching the movie on the seatback screen in
front of me when we hit a little air pocket and I spill my drink.
It starts soaking into my shirt. Yuk.
The guy next to me is asleep and I don't want to climb over him,
so I push the call button, hoping to score a napkin and some club
soda from the flight attendant.
A voice crackles through the headphones, drowning out the movie
Thank you for activating our automated inflight personal
assistance system. Please listen carefully, as our menu has
changed. Please note the keypad under your left armrest.
For assistance locating your copy of our inflight magazine and
inflight shopping guide, press 1.
For assistance with your seat belt, press 2.
For help with ventilation, seatback or lighting controls, press
For information on the inflight entertainment system, press 4.
If you need help locating the nearest lavatory, press 5.
For assistance locating the nearest exit, press 6.
If you can't find the keypad under your left armrest, press 7.
For information about the menu options for our inflight service,
For all other matters, press 9. To hear this menu again, press
Dubious, I press 9.
Thank you. You have been transferred to Level Two Support by
our automated inflight personal assistance system. Please confirm
your location in the aircraft. If you are in Seat 17-A, press 1. If
you are not in Seat 17-A, press 2.
That's my seat. I press 1.
Thank you, Mr. Poling. We do not have a frequent flyer
account number for you in our files. If you are a member, please
enter your frequent flyer account number, followed by the pound
sign. If you are not a member of our frequent flyer club and would
like to sign up now, with a bonus of 2,000 miles and a booklet of
valuable coupons, press 1. If you would rather not join, press 2 to
return to the main menu. If you are not Mr. Poling, press
I'm not a member for this particular airline, so I press 1. They
got me. No way I'm going back to that main menu.
The voice asks the usual questions: Name, address, etc. My
fingers get tired punching the keypad. It's like instant messaging,
only without shorthand. I turn off the movie.
Finally, I'm in.
Thank you for joining our frequent flyer club. An electronic
brochure outlining the many benefits has already been sent to the
e-mail address you specified. If you have further questions about
our frequent flyer program, press 1 now. If you would like to
proceed to Level Two support, press 2. If you would like to go back
to the main menu, press 3.
I'm getting there. I press 2.
The video screen lights up and the face of a woman wearing a
headset appears on the screen.
Welcome to Level Two support, Mr. Poling. My name is Rose
and I'm speaking to you from our Level Two inflight support
facility in Mumbai, India. First, I'd like to confirm that this is
not an emergency. So would you be so kind, please, to press 1 if
this is an emergency, or press 2 if it is not.
Freeze frame. The digital image of my new best friend goes on
hold, like a statue. Sigh. I press 2. She's not moving. I press 2
again. Nothing. Is Rose on a break?
The guy next to me snores. My shirt is beginning to feel
Finally, Rose comes back, just as I think about trying to go
back to the movie.
Thank you for waiting, Mr. Poling. A small microphone is
embedded into the video screen in front of you. Speaking in a
normal tone of voice, please, could you briefly explain the nature
of your non-emergency request?
I tell her I spilled my drink and I need a napkin and some club
Thank you, Mr. Poling, I will be happy to have the flight
attendant take care of that for you. Thank you for using our
automated inflight personal assistance system, and thank you for
flying whatever airline this is.
Seconds later, the flight attendant shows up with a can of club
soda and a napkin. She's brought backup. A second flight attendant
is with her.
She leans over, "You're the spill, right?" She hands over the
goods. I thank her profusely.
As she walks away, she says to her colleague, "I told them they
should have put this on the main menu."
To contact News & Opinion Editor Bill Poling, send
e-mail to [email protected].