Once upon a time, before I retired in Tbilisi, Georgia, this phrase "Birds in Flight" had a totally different meaning for me than it does now. Prior to my relocation to Tbilisi; whenever I heard or read that phrase; my visual was one of sky, air, wind and a wing span speeding across the sky. I would look up in awe and wonder and watch as the birds were free to climb high in the sky; do circles around buildings and space and just generally have a freedom of movement in the air that we humans may never have, at least in my lifetime.
So, anyone who knows me knows that I love to fly. I never really thought the birds (these are deep thoughts) had a better life than me J as I realized that I had perks that they (birds) would never have. For example; I was not subject to the elements when flying. I was mostly comfortable; well feed and often had a cocktail and video entertainment as well as a bathroom to keep me occupied as I was catapulted across oceans and continents. That is, until recently.
I won't keep you guessing or reading to the end of my story to figure out what happened to change my thinking, so here it is. I flew from Doha to Tbilisi, stopping in Baku, Azerbaijan, with Falcon Birds in the air cabin (economy). I say that tongue and cheek (economy) as some of these Falcon Birds fly Business Class or even First Class. However, it was my mis-fortune to travel with these birds in economy.
Now that you know what the situation was I can begin at the beginning.
Waiting in the lounge for the flight; initially, I thought it would be fairly empty as I was hoping for a row so that I could stretch out and sleep. As we got closer to flight time more and more people filed in; to the point where there were very few seats left in the lounge. As I came to know, the hope of a row was a pipe dream; I noticed that there was lot of commotion in the lounge and people getting up with their cameras. I thought maybe we had a celebrity; but, as the crowd thinned I saw what everyone was taking pictures of. That is, three men that were dressed in the traditional Arabian white ankle-length robe (thawb or thobe dishdasha) including the headdress that is fashioned from a scarf - keffiyeh or kufiya also known as a ghutrah.
As I do travel a fair amount in this area, I was not surprised to see the three men in traditional garb; however, what made my mouth drop open was the falcon bird each man had on his left arm. I was pinned to my seat as I could not believe what I was seeing. And then, the realization that these men were also getting on the aircraft that was to take me home to Tbilisi. They were escorted out to the jet way and I thought that the airline would place the birds in some kind of carrier (like they do dogs and cats). To my dismay; as I sat in my seat and watched passengers get on and take their seats the three men walked down the aisle past me with the bird on each of their arms. I was astonished as well as frightened and kept hoping that once they reached their seats they would be secured in a container.
The men were seated in the very last row and the birds were still on their arms. My mind was in overdrive with questions as to how the birds would handle the pressure of being in an enclosed space with noise and cabin pressure; as well as an airplane almost filled to capacity with people. Were they tethered in some way; or what if they decided to take flight in the cabin?
I wondered if I should get off the plane; but, no one else seemed to have any issue with what was happening. It seems that this is a normal occurrence on flight going to Baku, but this was a first for me. I spoke with the stewardess and she was so matter-of-fact about it. Smiling and giggling to have the birds on board. I asked if she didn't think this was strange; and honestly, by her look I think she thought I was strange for making a fuss. I decided to stay on the plane as I was not sure when another flight would be available and what if there were more birds or any other form of live stock that is deemed permissible on these flights.
All during the flight I could not make myself look to the back of the plane to see what was happening (I was trying to be in denial). As the bathroom was in the back for the economy section, I was afraid to go back and pass the birds. I was praying, as it was a three-hour flight, that I was not going to need it. I tried to think of other things and use the entertainment system to keep my mind off of the birds, but it was not any use. I was totally fixed on the unbelievable and unreal situation of having live stock not secured in an airplane cabin.
The men and the birds did disembark in Baku so the final leg to Tbilisi was a much better ride for me; but, not by much. I am still shaking my head and wondering what I will do in making plans to travel in this region. When in Rome; so, I know even if I complain to customer service nothing is really going to change and I am just going to have to deal with this situation.
I've been reading articles about this as I knew I was not the first person who thought this was strange or to say the least - mind-boggling. One article said that on some flights the birds need to have their own seat and they place a towel or something on the seat so if they do their business it won't hurt the seat". Seriously? Some friends who I shared this with thought that maybe the men were royalty; however, if they were why were they flying economy?
Various articles on the internet ask if the birds get air or frequent-flyer miles? Do the owners pay for two seats if the bird needs its own seat? Is this the beginning of an entire new category of travel; that is, Falcon Class?
I am now making light of all this; but, in the moment of having their birds on my plane I was disgusted and afraid. I guess I can take comfort in the fact that these birds are considered "very special" and are treated with all due consideration as the cabin staff are very accustomed to having them as customers on board.
The visual that I now have of "Birds in Flight" will always revert to watching those three men walking down the aisle on the air plane with the falcon on their arm. No longer will I see the wide open spaces for birds in flight as this experience will always take precedence.