Little did I know that after tweeting about my nine-hour saga, the story would go viral around the world and I would find myself embroiled in a freedom of press issue
Thats odd, I thought when a large, fat ant strolled across my pillow as the plane lined up for take-off from Venice to Newark last week. The flight, as I would discover shortly into the nine-hour journey, was infested.
Midair, I tweeted about the saga, partly to take my mind off the creepy crawlers, but mostly for the benefit of my sisters, who would, like all good siblings, inevitably find great mirth in my absurd predicament.
Little did I know that, by the time we landed, a TV crew would be at the airport to talk about the flight from Venice, that the plane would be taken out of service, or that the story would have gone viral around the world. Nor did I expect to find myself embroiled in a freedom of press issue with United Airlines, which would, days later, offer me an apology that had some rather unusual conditions attached.
But first, back to these European ants on their doomed journey to America. Before take-off, I had seen three and, as we say in journalism, three is a trend. I unbuckled to talk to the stewardess.
Ants? she said, incredulously. Yes, three, I replied.
She looked faintly unbelieving and asked me whether I would mind sitting down until after takeoff. Thus began a pattern that repeated for the next couple of hours: more ants would appear and the airline suggested merely patience.
About 30 minutes after takeoff, the stewardess shuddered as she poured me a drink an ant was charging across the top of the seat in front. Problem was, she said, the crew were beginning meal service. Could they come and deal with the problem after that?
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw another ant bombing it along my armrest. As I tried to read my book, another one popped up on the page. Still, the cabin crew said, lets just hang on. Meanwhile, the guy seated in the middle aisle across from me said he had seen six ants in a parade on the overhead locker of the guy in front. (A parade!)
The chief cabin crew guy turned up with a damp cloth that had a bit of lemon on it an ineffective means of combat. Surely insects around the world casually try to hitch rides on planes all the time: was a damp rag really the best option? (The crew did not have any bug spray apparently someone had had a bit of a respiratory problem once upon a time, a stewardess told me. Though, as any parent or caregiver knows, there are a million organic, non-toxic sprays nowadays. Perhaps something the airline might look into for the future.)
Middle Aisle Guy, who turned out to be a psychiatrist from Queens, suggested the crew get a flashlight so we could better see the ants, who were busy crawling on the dark blue seats in the dimmed cabin. He gestured to the overhead compartment: Theyre in there.
We needed to move the bags in the locker, but the guy who owned them was asleep beneath believe it or not, wearing a Spider-Man sleep mask (United had a promotional deal). He woke up and seemed unusually calm about the ants. Oh, I saw one earlier, he said.
This is when it started to get really disgusting. The guy pulled his case which was unzipped on to his seat. Instead of taking the bag elsewhere (perhaps away from the cabin and the other sleeping people) they opened it on the seat. Ants spilled out.
With his right hand, Bug Man was trying to pick the ants off one by one, using his fingers as tweezers, and, with his left, casually removing items of clothing from the case. Cabin crew guy kept dabbing with his damp cloth.
This strategy was the opposite of containment.
The ants are escaping! You have to quarantine the bag, I said to the cabin crew guy. He wrapped it in a plastic biohazard bag and shoved it back in the compartment. The two other bags belonging to Bug Man went back up, too, but, unhelpfully, remained unwrapped. I suggested to Bug Man that his soft leather briefcase might also have ants in it. He shrugged.
By this stage, with four hours left of the flight, there was nothing to do and nowhere to go so I got on with some work editing a podcast (deadlines wait for no man, woman or ant and this was a work trip, after all).
Meanwhile, my tweets had started to go viral; several news outlets had contacted United for comment, prompting the airline to behave as though they were taking the ants a little more seriously.
I should have suspected something was amiss with Uniteds customer service policy when a member of the cabin crew asked me if I was going to take Bug Mans details and do anything. The ants, she said, were in his bag, not on our plane. This was a refrain I would hear again from United over the next few days, despite the blindingly obvious point that the ants were, in fact, on a United plane. Look! We could see them.
I landed to find a camera crew in the airport asking me about the flight. Tired, itchy and wanting to get home to see my daughter, I dodged them. Back in the apartment, I immediately put my suitcase into an amazing contraption called the Zapp Bug Oven, which heats up to an incredible temperature to kill all known bug life. (This praise is not #sponcon: the device is death to unwanted insect lifeforms. It is wonderful. We bought it a few years ago when bedbugs visited our apartment every New Yorkers horror, and every bit as bad as youd imagine. As it turns out, Middle Aisle Guy and I both felt our pragmatic response to the ants was formed from having experienced the horror of bedbugs. Does that count as a silver lining?).
I turned my phone off and went to bed early. The next morning, my phone was on fire. I woke up to messages from schoolfriends in England who had read the news in the Daily Mail (Errr, Charlie, WTF, said one). A work colleague in Los Angeles had seen the story in the New York Post. One friend said she had spat out her morning coffee when she saw my tweets on TV breakfast news.
My tweets about ants have had far more eyeballs than the months-long investigation into the representation of African American artists in US museums and the international art market we published last summer. Theres something a little subduing about that.
But, more positively, I suppose it probably also has to do with humor. So much of the news these days is so horrible that people like an escape hatch. Plus, we all love a good yarn.
Meanwhile, the next and more stressful phase in the saga was yet to begin: my dealings with United. I naively expected that the company would want to provide some form of compensation probably air miles or cash or something like that. I didnt expect they would want me to sign an NDA and delete my tweets.
Things began benignly enough. A customer service rep called to say she understood that it had been a horrible journey, and that United wanted not only to make it right but also to convince me to become a loyal customer. They were trying hard to get better, she said. She wanted me to ultimately be so happy with Uniteds efforts that I would genuinely want to fly with them in future and tell other people to do so.
She was very convincing; I think I actually believed her.
Long story short: she suggested a cash amount to the value of the entire trips flight (about $9,000) and either 500,000 air miles or six upgrades, (which had to be booked within a year). We discussed terms back and forth over several days (I suggested they could throw the option of quick check-in, too, and why not entry to the club lounge every now and then) until United said this was their final offer. To be honest, its an amount of money that would make a difference in my life and, since Im from the UK but live in the US, the air miles would come in very handy for visiting family.
But things started to go pear-shaped. Another employee told me I had to sign an NDA and delete the tweets. This was news to me and it was alarming. While my tweets about ants arent exactly my finest editorial work, for a corporation to demand they be taken down from my personal account felt a lot like a freedom of press issue. When I said this request was news to me, she insisted it wasnt.
This all felt like a cynical case of seriously misplaced priorities. For starters, the tweets were already out in the world that horse had bolted. Second, I am a writer by trade: asking me to delete something and sign an NDA was, as I put it to them, an offensive request. Nothing I had said was untruthful and, moreover, nothing I had said belonged to the company. Equally, offering compensation on the basis that I delete personal social media musings shifted the discussion from an apology into an attempt at an exchange.
A strings-attached apology is, as my mum would probably say, a rubbish apology.
The company was steadfast: I asked whether my refusal to delete the tweets meant that they would not offer me any form of tangible apology. The answer was yes. The rep said that leadership and legal team had spent hours talking about the situation the previous day (perhaps explaining why the customer service line had been off the hook every time I tried to call). This was the offer on the table.
Meanwhile, a fellow passenger had contacted me on Twitter: the airline had offered him $300 via a generic form. As far as I am aware, they did not contact other passengers to let them know that there had been insects on the plane. Their focus seemed squarely on me: more specifically, on my tweets. It was unnerving.
The airline called the next day to see what deal I would take: airmiles or upgrades? I said, none. I couldnt. I write about the art market: what would happen, as a friend pointed out, if a painting fell out of a plane and I needed to report on it? I wouldnt be able to.
(Later, when contacted for comment on this story, United said they have shared our apologies numerous times for that experience. They added: During the flight, our network operations center was in direct contact with the crew, where they were advised that our flight crew had worked to isolate the ants from a customers bag in the overhead bin, and the ants were contained to a limited area of the Polaris Business cabin. As an additional precaution, once the airplane landed at Newark it was taken out of service to ensure the issue was taken care of. We also followed proper protocol when the plane landed by notifying customs, immigration as well as agriculture of the issue.)
We will never know why on earth Bug Man had ants in his bag. (United told me he was carrying a plant. Doesnt security check that kind of thing?) All I know is that, as a passenger, it would have been nice to have faith that the airline knew how to deal with the insects. I dont expect a return to the halcyon Don Draper-ish days of actual comfort during long-haul flights but I would personally feel a lot safer knowing that the people who operate the metal tins that hurtle us through the sky do feel a really, truly deep sense of responsibility for what actually happens during the flight even if thats because some humans are weird and do dumb things like bring ants onboard.
Ultimately, though, United took the stance that the ants roaming about on their airplane were not their issue to deal with. They did, to be fair, pay my company a portion of the fare for the flight. I, of course, received nothing but I did get a good story out of it.
I am writing this somewhere hundreds of miles up in the evening skies between Denver and New York on my way back from another work trip on would you believe a United flight. It was too late to alter the booking.
Some things, I have realized, you cant change, like ants on a nine-hour plane journey. But I did learn one valuable lesson: always wear jeans on a flight, just in case. Ants only bite the exposed flesh.
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