Flight UK 23616 is cruising several thousand feet above a stormy ocean. It’s dark outside, and no one can really tell what’s going on in the world below. The plane has four hundred passengers, fifty of whom are in business class.
The business class area, with its cocktail bar, fully reclining seats and dedicated crew, takes up more than half the space on the plane. The other three hundred and fifty passengers are crammed into economy, where space is so tight no one is allowed to recline their seats, and dozens of people are left standing in the aisle.
In fact some of the passengers in economy are getting quite angry. Quarrels are breaking out whenever someone tries to recline their seat and the people standing in the aisle are shoving each other to make room.
Even though the curtain between the classes is closed, some of the people in business class begin to hear the grumbling from the back of the plane and it makes them nervous. They think it’s perfectly natural that they have better seats and more room – they paid for it, after all. Then one of them has a brilliant idea. He gets hold of the intercom and tells the passengers in economy that the reason they don’t have much space is because some of them have foreign passports.
The foreign travellers begin to get a little nervous. A rumour starts circulating that a quarter of the people in economy are foreign, though really it’s half that number. Some people start glaring round at everyone else in economy, demanding to see their passports.
Jeremy peeks through a gap in the curtain and tells the others that he can see empty seats in business class. It turns out that this is because some of the passengers have wandered into the cockpit to have a chat with the pilot, who’s a friend of theirs.
“Shut up, Jeremy,” says Nigel, who seems a little tipsy. “We wouldn’t need any more seats if it wasn’t for all these foreigners.”
Shortly afterwards someone notices that a large blue backpack in one of the overhead lockers appears to be ticking. Some people can hear the ticking and some can’t. No one is claiming ownership of the backpack. A few of the passengers vaguely remember helping to carry it on board but they don’t know what’s inside, and it looks a lot bigger now.
“It’s a bomb!” shouts Nigel, who’s had another couple of drinks. “One of the foreigners must have put it there.”
People begin to back away from the backpack, looking scared, but economy is so crowded there’s nowhere for them to go; everyone just gets even more crushed. Meanwhile Jeremy takes another peek into business class. “They’re eating steak!” he says. “And lobster! And drinking cocktails!”
The people in his row hear this and cry out in anger. While business class travellers have a free lunch, all they got was peanuts. They start to shout at the cabin crew, asking for better food. Boris, one of the business class travellers, hears this and shoves his way through the curtain.
“What’s all this fuss about, then?” he says. His friend Michael hurries after him, frantically pulling the curtain closed so that no one can see the cabin crew handing out chocolate soufflés to the business class travellers.
Michael points at the backpack. “Look! It’s a bomb!”
“I keep telling them,” Nigel says. He’s very drunk now as his friends in business class keep sending him more to drink. “We need to break a window and get rid of it.”
“You’re absolutely right,” Boris says. He grabs the emergency hammer and waves it around, trying to look important.
“No, that’s a stupid idea,” says Mark, another business class traveller. “The cabin will depressurize, and we’ll crash.”
“Well, someone needs to take charge, and I think it should be me,” says Boris.
Suddenly a voice crackles over the intercom. “Wait a minute,” says David, the pilot. “I’m the pilot here, and I say we should vote on it. We’re all in this plane together.”
David, locked away in his cockpit, has no idea how overcrowded everyone is in economy, or how many people are listening to Nigel. He thinks he may as well let everyone vote if it will shut them up and let him get on with flying the plane.
Suddenly everyone in both classes starts talking about the blue backpack which may or may not be a bomb. Some people start to panic; others say they can’t hear any ticking at all, or that they think it’s just an alarm clock. Mark says he is an expert on aeronautics and he knows that breaking the window is a really bad idea. Another man, Nick, says he is a bomb disposal expert and the best thing would be to diffuse the bomb, if there is one.
“Boring!” yells Boris. “That sounds hard. It would take too long.” He’s keen to get back to business class before they serve the cheese and port.
“We’ve had enough of experts,” Michael says. “Anyway, I promise that if we throw the bomb out of the window we can all have ice cream.”
“And we can chuck these bloody foreigners out after it,” says Nigel. “Then everyone in economy will have more room.”
They hold the vote, and to everyone’s surprise 52% of people on board want to throw the backpack out of the window.
Michael immediately says there isn’t any ice cream, after all.
Boris looks at the hammer in his hand, suddenly nervous. He goes into the cockpit and hands it to David. “You’re the pilot,” he says. “You break the window.”
“Fuxit,” David says, strapping on a parachute. “Why should I have to do the hard shit? I’m not flying anymore.”
He leaves the cockpit and the plane plunges down into the darkness. Everyone screams. Michael snatches the hammer out of Boris’s hand and whacks him over the head with it, knocking him out. “Boris is my friend, but I’ve just remembered he doesn’t know how to fly,” he says. “I’d better have a go.” While everyone is staring at Michael in disgust, Theresa slips her kitten heels on and sidles towards the cockpit door.
Nigel slides back into business class, where, it turns out, he had a seat all along. “My work here is done,” he says, and passes out.
Back in economy, everyone in Jeremy’s row thinks he should be the pilot, because that way they’ll all get more space and better food. Other people are angry that Jeremy didn’t have much to say about the backpack. Jeremy’s friends grab him and lock him in the toilet to protect him from the people who say he doesn’t know how to fly the plane either.
No one is flying the plane.
George, who has been very quiet up to now, pops his head through the curtain and says he’s done the sums and there aren’t enough parachutes to go round. “In view of this, I’ve given them all to the business class travellers,” he explains. “I don’t want to put them off flying with us again.”
The plane is still spiralling out of control towards the earth, even though no one has actually broken the window yet. Some of the economy travellers are trying to push the foreign travellers into the hold, thinking that will save them. Some are weeping, or getting angry with the people who voted to break the window. Some are wishing they hadn’t voted to break it. Others are curling up into the brace position, silently wondering where and how hard the flight will come down.
The plane tips further, roaring and howling as it falls out of the sky.