“Ladies and Gentlemen, in just a few moments we will begin our descent to Ben Gurion Airport. Please take this opportunity to stow your belongings and prepare for arrival. In just a few moments, we will discontinue the operation of Wi-Fi and other on-board entertainment systems. Your attendants will now be passing through the main cabin to collect any trash or recyclable items you have.”
Blinking my eyes open and stretching, I took stock of the situation. My wife, Glenda, and I were aboard Delta flight 86 from New York’s JFK Airport to Ben Gurion Airport, Tel Aviv, Israel. We were seated in the Comfort+ section and had two-up seating, row 13, seats A and B, at the main cabin bulkhead on Delta’s long-range Boeing 767-300ER. Glenda had the window seat and I was on the aisle. The air seemed heavy and muggy; my teeth felt fuzzy and my mouth tasted stale. I felt grumpy, stiff, and groggy; just a few dwarves short of a fairy tale. This had been a 12-hour flight and there is a seven-hour time difference between New York and Tel Aviv. We had departed JFK at 11:00 pm local Thursday and would arrive in Tel Aviv at 6:15 local Friday evening.
It had been a long flight, but not horribly bad. The Comfort+ seating did give us a bit more legroom and the two-up seating, which, to me, is a bigger improvement than all the legroom in the world. There’s nothing I hate worse than a middle seat on an airplane. Still, the service was disappointing and other than getting a free $.95 eye-mask indistinguishable from the lowest class of passage. And that in-flight service was certainly nothing to write home about. Meals? Swanson does microwave tray dinners better. Free drinks? This was the day after Thanksgiving in November of 2018. Delta began to offer free drinks for Comfort+ in January 2019. Plus, as we were at the front of the main cabin, but not in a premium class, the ‘heads’ were a long ways away behind us. In the hard airplane seat, even with Comfort+’s extra degree of recline and my trusty neck pillow, it was hard to sleep; just being away from my own bed probably had something to do with that. I was able to read, listen to music, and nap sporadically. Every time I did get to sleep, it seemed it was time for Glenda’s bathroom break. At least every couple of hours I’d gone out of my way to stand, stretch, and walk a bit; I didn’t want to risk a blood clot in my old legs.
I could feel the aircraft slowing and beginning to descend. Additional announcements were made indicating our final approach to the airport and instructing us to complete our preparation for landing. I noted that the lights of the Israeli coast were visible out Glenda’s port-side window. I managed to get my shoes on. I didn’t remember them feeling this tight, before. Our goods were all gathered and stowed. Taking another healthy stretch, telling myself to take a few really deep breaths, I noted an odd smell. To notice an odd smell in an airplane that’s been jammed full of people for 12 hours means that it is a really odd smell. Wrinkling my nose I thought to myself, “What is that smell? Fishy? Garlic? Urine? It’s acrid, in any case, and it seems to be getting stronger.”
At just that moment, Glenda suddenly leaned forward, unfastened her seat belt and jumped to a standing position, bumping her head on the overhead bin on her way up. I don’t’ recall when I last saw her move so quickly. I immediately thought, “Oh, no! Now the flight attendants are going to reprimand us.” Her sudden motion distracted me temporarily from the acrid smell. Looking at her concerned face, I asked, “What?”
Glenda declared, “Something is hot. Very hot. It’s burning my behind!” She’s a very genteel soul. To use any stronger language would have been totally out of character.
What? Hot? Acrid smell? Oh, crap, smoke! That means fire. I reached down over the dividing armrest to feel her seat’s cushion; yes, it was very, very hot. I, too, quickly stood up and pressed the call button. By now, people in the row behind us are murmuring about smelling something. Quickly a flight attendant arrives and I explain to him the situation. He motioned for us to step out of our row into the aisle and when we were clear, he reached into Glenda’s seat.
Pulling back his hand with a cry, he shouts what was either a code word or something other than English to the senior attendant, which I assume was a call for a Halon fire extinguisher and to notify the flight crew of a potential “situation.” He then yanked up the seat cushion. On the bottom inboard edge, it was smoldering; there was smoke but no visible fire. The attendant pulled a heavy cloth from his pocket and smothered the offending spot. A second attendant had arrived carrying a red fire extinguisher, but the first motioned for him to simply stand by.
Meanwhile, the aircraft continued its steady, droning, descent towards our landing. Once the attendant was sure there was no active fire he shouted, “Clear!” which I assume told the rest of the crew the problem was not serious. Then he again reached down and probed the seat tray under the cushion and pulled up a beat-up-looking old Bic butane-fueled lighter. Testing the business end of the lighter by touching with his thumb, he jerked his thumb back, and said, “It’s been ignited. Is this yours?”
“No!” I said, alarmed. “Neither of us smokes and we don’t carry any lighters.”
Apparently, the lighter had fallen out of someone’s pocket on an earlier flight. Seat cushions are not removed as part of the routine turn process, so it would not have been seen. As Glenda repositioned herself for the landing drill, her weight must have “flicked the BIC” in such a way as to activate it, which ignited the seat cushion. Most furnishings on modern aircraft are fire-resistant, as, thank God, was the seat cushion. Glenda’s ankle-length black polyester blend skirt, not so much. As we all recognized the crisis was averted and we were safe, the attendant replaced the cushion and asked us to quickly resettle so as to be prepared for landing. As we turn in the aisle to reenter our seats, I notice a flash of white at Glenda’s posterior.
“Wait,” I asked her. “Let me look at something.” With my hand on her shoulder, I turned her a bit to her left. Yep, there it was, just to the rear of her right upper thigh – a hole the size of grapefruit melted in her black skirt, allowing the exposure of her white underwear.
We had no changes of clothing in our carry-on bags, but at least she did have a sweater to tie around her waist and cover the view.
After an otherwise uneventful and safe landing, we claimed our heavy luggage, cleared Customs & Immigration without incident, and got our rental car, a white Fiat sedan. I was exhausted and it was getting late, so we proceeded as quickly as we could to our comfortable Air BnB in Herzliya, along the Mediterranean coast north of Tel Aviv, allowing WAZE to guide us.
Once again, we had cheated death, as I’ve been doing for over 60 years. It easy to see that this situation could have been so much worse. There are not many things more frightening than a fire on an airplane in flight. Maybe Snakes on a Plane would be worse. I know that the movie of that name was painful to watch.