The British Airways Blood Oath

Twelve years ago I swore a blood oath to never again fly British Airways.

Do you know what it feels like to have a urinary tract infection? You have a fierce urge to urinate edged with a peculiar sensation that is something like getting vinegar in a paper cut but on the inside of your bladder. You will rush to the nearest loo to evacuate. If you are lucky you will actually have some supply of urine, the flushing of which provides a brief respite from the vinegar-in-cut sensation. If not–because the urge to urinate has nothing to do with actually needing to urinate–you go straight to the punctuation: a hallucinogenic, transcendental pain that starts from the tip of the urethra and burns upward, tearing through your abdomen and radiating outward through your body with a breathtaking, pulsing pain. This will repeat every hour.

I used to get UTIs frequently in my early 20s. I could detect it before it registered on the test: a vague tingling and a whiff of a sickly sweet smell when I urinated. I often started pissing blood within about four hours of onset. Eventually I was treated by a urologist and my UTIs mostly stopped–although I continued to stock emergency antibiotics.

Fast forward a few years. I was returning home from a two-week Hanukkah trip to Israel with my then-boyfriend Gadi and his two tweens. We arrived at Ben Gurion on New Year’s Eve, and using the toilet post security, I felt the unmistakable symptoms of a UTI.

“Oh, fuck,” I thought, adding up the five-hour flight to Heathrow, four-hour layover, and ten-hour flight back to San Francisco.

Gadi and I decided my best bet was to divert my checked luggage at Heathrow so I could retrieve my antibiotics. I white-knuckled my way through five hours of pain until we landed; by the end of the flight there was blood in my urine. It was eight pm on New Year’s Eve and the Heathrow baggage claim was almost entirely empty: cavernous, gray, illuminated by a sickly bluish fluorescent light as I dragged my suitcase off the belt and downed 1,000 milligrams of ciprofloxacin.

Back at the check-in counter the agent asked me if I’d like to upgrade to business class for £500. Yes! I would love to be able to lie flat and in comfort until the cipro kicked in.

Tap-tap-tap. “I’m sorry, but I’m unable to upgrade you. I’m not sure why.” He checked me in and referred me to the customer service desk past security. Gadi departed to procure phenazopyridine, a urinary tract analgesic sold over-the-counter in the United States that turns urine a deeply saturated shade of pumpkin.

I approached the middle-aged gentleman at the service counter and explained that I was trying to upgrade my seat but it hadn’t worked at check-in. Tap-tap-tap. “I’m sorry madam, but that won’t be possible. The system won’t allow me.”

Ugh. “Sir, I’m sorry if this is TMI, but I have a UTI.”

“A what?”

“A urinary tract infection.”

“Oh. You mean a bladder infection.”

“Fine. Yes. I’m in quite a lot of pain. It would really help me to be comfortable on the long flight to be able to lie flat. Is there anything you can do?”

He looked at me unmoved. We went back and forth for a few minutes. The kids arrived just as I became teary-eyed. Super.

He sighed. “It’s because you have a special meal. Your seat can’t be upgraded or reassigned.”

I don’t eat industrial meat and had ordered a vegetarian meal–my practice when flying. Gadi and his daughter had also ordered veg; his son had the standard meal.

Since this was approximately the stupidest constraint I had ever heard of, I rattled off solutions to this obvious non-problem. I could send my business class meal to whoever was placed in my Economy seat. Gadi’s son volunteered to give any new assignee his standard meal. We could upgrade his seat and he could informally swap with me on the plane.

“Oh no, it’s not allowed and the cabin crew would certainly prevent it,” the agent said as if I’d asked to do bong hits onboard. He referred me to yet another service desk; he was done with me.

After a quick stop to piss more fire and take a dose of a phenazopyridine substitute authorized for OTC use in the UK (which I can personally assure you is a half-assed substitute at best) we made our way to the third agent.

I explained the situation and begged yet another middle-aged British gentleman to take my money. He demurred. Desperately I explained how painful a UTI is.

“Madam,” he sniffed. “I must ask if you are well enough to fly today, because we cannot allow you on a flight if you are unwell.”

Stunned, I choked back my tears, my frustration, and my desire to call him a gormless plank-walloping tosser. I straightened my shoulders.

“I am perfectly able to fly. Thank you and have a nice day.”

Upon boarding I asked our flight attendant, a woman, for a glass of cranberry juice and explained that I had a UTI. Empathy and compassion poured out of her as she brought me water and more juice and offered any assistance she could provide. I explained my attempt to upgrade; she became incensed. “We never would have cared if you’d swapped seat classes, and we’d absolutely have switched the meals around. Unbelievable!”

By the time we landed I was feeling well enough to curse British Airways’ customer service, policy managers, and male employees in every language I knew (plus a few more, courtesy of Gadi–apparently, “the cunt of your sister” is a grievous insult in Arabic).

And thus I vowed to never again fly British Airways; and neither, of course, have I ever again ordered a special meal on a flight.



Ellen Beldner is an emerging writer whose primary career is in software design and management. She studied professional writing and human-computer interaction at Carnegie Mellon University.

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