Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena has a great joke. But his comic timing is a bit off. At a farmers’ rally in his country last week, Sirisena complained about the quality of cashew nuts aboard a Sri Lankan airline flight, which he claimed “were not even fit for dogs to eat”. The airline has since stopped serving the offending snack. “What’s the deal with aeroplane peanuts,” Jerry Seinfeld once asked, prompting an entire sub-genre of comedy that examines the absurdities of airline travel, the pointless bureaucracies of getting from point A to point B.
In the third world, though, this fatigue with flying through the air has been slow in coming. Among Indian and Pakistani comics, it is the contrasts with rail travel and the inherent elitism associated with flying — served on the way by persons speaking a colonial language — that have provided the bulk of the humour. Many a comic has commented on the snobbery of the staff at airports and on planes and the leap of faith “checking in” baggage requires. Sirisena’s attack, then, can signify one of two changes in South Asia’s attitude to flying. One, that air travel and its perceived inconveniences are so commonplace that they will find resonance among farmers. Or, two (and more likely), political leaders are suffering from first-world problems, soaring above the people.
In fact, even in the US, belittling the discomforts of air travel is passé. “What are you complaining about,” said comedian Louis CK about a decade ago, “flying through the air like a god…” As for the poor cashew nut, it must not be blamed for its lack of flavour up in the air. Research has laid the blame for the poor taste of airline food on the dry air in cabins, lower pressure, and more noise. Perhaps the Sri Lankan president should just consume his nuts on the ground.