The first class section of an airplane is an interesting microcosm of society. Most domestic airliners have 16-20 first class seats and they are usually filled. I have observed the first class section for some time and have several thoughts. First, there are the harried businessmen—rushing between appointments. They are always on their cell phones and tend to look down at others who somehow ended up in the sacred territory of the first class cabin with them. Then, there are those of wealth who pay the extra charges to sit up front. They wear Rolex watches and sport expensive jewelry. Next, there are those like me, frequent flyers, who are glad to have the extra space and are glad to avoid the crying and corona virus-shedding toddlers in coach. And, there are the alcoholics.
While I am not much of a drinker, I do have the occasional beer or margarita—maybe once of twice a month. Lately, I have had several morning flights and I began to see the patterns of the alcoholics. They get on the plane at the last moment in a rush and spend an inordinate amount of time getting into their seats. They can be loud or quiet.
On a recent flight out of Miami, a woman in her late fifties rushed on the plane just before the door closed. She was soon upset that all of the storage bins had been taken. She finally sat down and took out an assortment of magazines and started flipping through them impatiently. Finally, before takeoff the flight attendant came through and offered a drink. I ordered tomato juice on ice. The woman seated next to me ordered a double vodka tonic. It was just after 7:00 AM.
She finished that and we took off. As soon as we reached a comfortable cruising altitude, the woman began ordering one vodka tonic after another. I mentally started keeping count. By the time we began our descent, she had downed 9 vodka tonics. The more she drank, the more gregarious she became. Finally, just before we began final descent she got up and went to the galley and got another vodka tonic. She gulped it down in less than a minute and tried to get another—but the flight attendant refused. She complained somewhat—but it was time to land. By now she was a mean drunk and stumbled leaving the plane. Later, in the terminal, I saw the flight attendant. I said, “Man, that woman who sat next to me could drink.” She said, “Yes. She actually drank every bit of vodka we had on the plane.” I shook my head and got off the train.
A week later, this time on a 7:00 AM flight from the west coast, an older man sits next to me. He has a large bandage over his left eye covering the superior orbital rim. He smelled of old alcohol. It actually made me a little nauseous. I could tell the injury was recent as it was swollen and he kept putting pressure on it. I thought to myself that he must have gotten drunk and fell and struck his eye. As soon as the flight attendant came around, he ordered gin and orange juice. As we got to altitude I got my computer out for some work and he saw the title “Dr.” on my computer bag tag. He asked, “Are you a medical doctor?” I replied, “Yes. Emergency medicine.” He said, “I cut my eye last night and the swelling is getting worse.” I explained that a sutured wound always has some trapped gas in it and when you ascend to altitude the gas will expand causing the wound to swell and bleed. I told him that I tell my patients that they should not fly within 24 hours of a wound repair that is over bone. He said the doctor who sutured his eye ewe didn’t mention it.
He said, “It was kind of a funny thing last night. I had a little too much to drink and fell and cut my eye.” I said, “You didn’t have to tell me. I know how it happened.” Perplexed, he looked at me and said, “How did you know that?” I answered, “Well, when people fall they tend to cover their face. Unless they were punched, wounds like yours always seem to have alcohol as a contributing cause.” He thought for a minute and held the cool glass holding his third gin and orange juice to his eye to help with the swelling. After a minute he said, “My son thinks I drink too much. He said I started drinking more after my wife died—she was an OR nurse.” I said, “Do you drink too much?” He said, “No. I don’t think so.” I thought for a minute and remembered several comments that were posted following a recent blog entry I made on obesity. I decided to press on. I said, “With all due respect, and I have nothing against drinking, but it is 8:30 in the morning and you are having your third gin, you have an eye swollen as big as a golf ball, and I smelled the alcohol on you when you sat down.” He was not offended. He said, “Really? You could smell the gin?” I said, “Yes sir. And, look at those spider veins on your forearms. They also go with alcoholism.” He looked at his forearms and said, “Really?” I said, “Yes sir. That is true.” We sat quietly for a minute and then he said, “Doctor, you may be right and you may be wrong. But I am beginning to think you and my son are right. I am not rich like you doctors. I am on a pension but I fly first class because the alcohol is free.” I said, “They serve alcohol in coach.” He said, “Yes. I know. But it is $6.00 each and they will generally only give you one drink. Here, up front, you can get as much as you want. “ I said, “kind of a first class open bar, eh?” He said, “Yes.” I answered, “So you pay a couple of hundred extra bucks to fly first class just because of the alcohol?” He thought pensively and said, “Yes, but I like the seats too.” I let the conversation lag and he had more gin and orange juice.
We landed and disembarked. He struggled to get his bag out of the overhead bin and I helped him. He said, “Thank you doctor.” I said, “De nada. Nice speaking with you.” He started to exit the airplane door and ran into the side of the door and hit his other eye. He snickered and said, “I least I didn’t cut the right one.” I smiled and looked at him and said, “Not yet.” He walked away.