Editor's note: What follows is a fictional account of future inflight service -- but this could happen sooner than you think.

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 soundtrack.

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 3.
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, press 8.
For all other matters, press 9. To hear this menu again, press pound.

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 3.

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 dry.

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 soda.

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].


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