Misunderstood and possibly rather messy, those who have had sex on a plane are in an exclusive group, writes Winston Aldworth
For almost as long as humans have dreamed of flight, they've thought about having sex up there.
In 1785, just two years after Frenchman Etienne Montgolfier stunned the world with the first successful balloon ascent, the betting book for Brooks's, a London gentlemen's club, got straight to the important stuff.
"Ld. Cholmondeley has given two guineas to Ld. Derby, to receive 500 Gs whenever his lordship f***s a woman in a balloon one thousand yards from the Earth."
Today, flight has been democratised — you no longer need to be a Lord to get into the Mile-High Club. But of all the exclusive clubs a traveller can get into, the MHC is surely among the most discussed, most dubious and least-entered.
The membership qualification seems pretty simple. Dictionary.com says the MHC is "the putative association of persons who have done the sex act more than a mile high in the sky". "Done the sex act", eh? Who says romance is dead?
So, if you've had sex on a plane, you're in the club (by common consensus, you cannot get into the club on your own).
The notion that the deed needs to occur at least a mile (1609m) in the air seems odd. Surely it's more impressive if you've managed to, er, do the sex act while the seatbelt signs are lit for takeoff or landing?
'Lots of paper towels'
"Actually it was pretty dumb, I more or less did it so I could say I had," says New Zealander Joanne*.
"It was Business Class on Japan Airlines, in the middle of the night, with my then-bloke."
She says the cramped quarters in the airplane's toilet took the shine off the experience. "We are both tall so it was cramped and actually not as fun as you'd think. It's hard to keep your mind on the job when you are trying not to press the flush button or turn on the taps.
"On the plus side, there are lots of paper towels handy," she says.
"I am sure it is possible to have a blissful mile-high experience, but I think you'd have to be flying First Class."
She might be right. Not all planes are created equally for MHC entry attempts.
Passengers get more privacy further up the plane. First Class services on many carriers allow for an impressive amount of privacy for their high-paying passengers.
Aboard an Emirates A380, First Class passengers have access to a shower — making the sensible Middle Eastern carrier the only airline in the world to effectively encourage passengers to get naked in-flight. Each First Class passenger gets five minutes' worth of water in the shower, and you have the bathroom to yourself for 30 minutes. If you're travelling with your partner, you add your five minutes together to get 10. And the bathroom is yours for an hour.
The shower is fairly cramped, but the bathroom is a whopper. It would be naive to imagine that no one with an eye on MHC entry has taken advantage of the opportunity afforded by this bathroom. A sign on the bathroom door reads, optimistically: "No more than two people allowed in shower."
Aboard Singapore Airlines' A380s, First Class passengers can have adjoining suites, connecting with their partner to create a surprisingly large area with a sizeable, comfortable bed. There are sliding doors, making this enclosed space fully private. Just be sure to keep the noise down.
Possibly the most over-the-top thing in civil aviation in recent years is the The Residence, which Etihad has installed on select A380s. It's an outrageous spot offering wealthy passengers a living room, a separate bedroom and an ensuite shower room. Etihad also has First Apartments on some 787s and A380s, a slightly more affordable, but no less private alternative.
But the Mile-High Club experience won't always be a First Class one.
"Anyone got a jelly?" yelled a man on a RyanAir flight from Manchester to Ibiza in June, using a British slang term for a condom.
In the tabloid inquest that followed, the man and the woman — strangers before the flight — insisted she was only giving him a fully-clothed lapdance. Only.
'One thing led to the next'
Anecdotal evidence suggests that fliers are more likely to get into the MHC when they're travelling with an established partner. But the experience of New Zealander Stephen shows a more casual encounter can occur.
"About 20 years ago I worked on cruise ships. I was flying from London, Heathrow to Miami to join a new cruise ship, I checked in and went to the bar in the departure area.
"I got talking to a girl around the same age as me and we got on really well, sharing stories and sipping wine," says Stephen.
"It turned out that we were both on the same flight and she also worked on cruise ships in the beauty salon; she was due to meet a ship from one cruise line, while I was joining a ship with another company.
"The flight was delayed by a couple of hours and the drinks were going down well, so we decided to go up to the gate and ask if it was possible to sit next to each other on the plane, which wasn't a problem. The overnight flight was about two hours in when they turned the lights down and we started to cuddle a wee bit. One thing led to the next — kissing and fondling — the flight wasn't even half full and we had a row to ourselves.
"The plane was really quiet and I went to stretch my legs in the middle of the plane where the toilets are. My new friend followed me and we stood in the hallway between cabins kissing. The excitement grew — a few minutes in over her shoulder I could see an air hostess walking up the aisle so we pushed our way into the toilet to finish off. I now fly often in my present job and every time I go to the toilet it brings a cheeky little smile to my face as I recall the memory."
'Ready to have sex anywhere any time'
"I fly a bit for work and am always excited about flying," said Pat. "I always wanted to get into the Mile High Club — partly just for the buzz of knowing I'd done it, but also because, as a guy, if I travel somewhere on holiday with my partner I'm going to be wanting a bit of action. Never forget the fact that most men would be ready to have sex pretty much anywhere any time.
"My partner is open-minded, though to be honest with you I wouldn't have been surprised if she'd told me to bugger off. Of course, like most men, I'd joked about the Mile-High Club in the past and she would roll her eyes and move the conversation along.
"I'd say we qualify for a special category, as we were in the main cabin, not the toilets. It was on a longhaul flight that departed late. The lights were out quickly after a meal service.
"It was a particularly empty flight. So we had a whole row to ourselves. The trick was to slide a blanket behind the raised armrests to create a barrier, blocking you from prying eyes from behind. My partner and I are fairly small, so we were able to get it on discretely.
"It was a brief business," concedes Pat. "And while it wasn't my best effort, it's kind of nice to know we've done it."
Pat's experience flies in the face of Ben Schlappig, who blogs at the excellent onemileatatime.com. Schlappig points out "the crew only care if they have to".
"I think there's a common misconception that flight attendants love to bust people joining the Mile-High Club, " he writes.
"They don't. At a minimum it's awkward for them, and at worst it's extra paperwork for them.
"So they'll only care if you give them a reason to care. So don't be stupid. Don't try to join in 'public', because then you're potentially getting into public nudity charges. That's when you can really get in trouble."
The legality of the MHC is vague. It depends on factors such as the country you fly out of and the country you fly into, along with the nation of the airline. Crucially, the country where the plane is registered is the one under whose laws you're flying. Regardless, you'd perhaps be unwise to attempt a Mile-High manoeuvre on a flight between two countries renowned for conservative customs and laws.
The crucial point is whether or not the act occurred in sight of others. Shagging in front of strangers is generally going to be considered an indecent act wherever you're landing.
The other key point is covered in the pre-flight safety briefing: Obey crew instructions.
A spokesperson for Air New Zealand said: "It is a civil aviation requirement for all passengers to follow crew instructions when onboard an aircraft." They pointed us towards their Conditions of Carriage', which refer — in dry, passionless terms — to conduct on board.
If in our opinion you conduct yourself on board the aircraft so as to endanger the aircraft or any person or property on board, or obstruct the crew in the performance of their duties, or fail to comply with any instructions of the crew, including but not limited to those with respect to smoking, alcohol or drug consumption, or behave in a manner which causes or is likely to cause discomfort, inconvenience, damage or injury to other passengers, the crew or any property, including the aircraft, we may take such measures as we deem necessary to prevent continuation of such conduct, including restraint.
Causing "discomfort ... to other passengers" would be the key line in there.
Schlappig is also emphatic about obeying crew instructions.
"If you try to privately join the Mile-High Club (in a lavatory, enclosed First Class suite, etc), the worst that's going to happen is that you're told to knock it off. If/when you're told to knock it off, knock it off. Keep in mind that disobeying crew member instructions is one of the biggest violations you can make."
Chances are the crew won't be delighted with passengers making the beast with two backs at altitude. And that's understandable — aside from anything else, this is their place of work. Imagine if two people you didn't know started having sex in a small room at your office. You'd be a little unsettled, to say the least. Consider also, the awfulness of airplane toilets. They're cleaned, quickly, between flights and barely once airborne.
In a 2013 article for Travel, our airline informant expressed wonderment at couple who got it on in the toilets. "If I could think of one place on earth I want to spend the least amount of time, it's the toilets on an aircraft." And she would know. "No matter how many times we clean them, they still smell and look dirty."
The best Economy Class toilet for the job is possibly aboard an A320P or A321P. A cabin crew member with Swiss International Airlines recently revealed in a Reddit post that these aircraft have toilets linked by a removable wall.
"These two lavatories are also wheelchair-accessible, so you convert those two into one by sliding the wall in between aside (very easy to do so from the inside).
"So you two would go in to those lavatories at the same time, slide aside the wall and have fun."
There are no A320Ps or A321Ps gracing New Zealand's skies.
'She went in first, and I joined her soon after'
Tim, a New Zealander, timed his run for just after the toilet had been cleaned.
"While on holiday in Asia, I hooked up with an ex-girlfriend who happened to also be a former flight attendant [for that country's airline].
"Coincidentally, she was booked on a separate flight to Auckland to visit some relatives — but changed it so we could be on the same flight. She's an eligible divorcee and we flirted quite a bit during our time in Singapore, and that continued quite naturally on board the plane.
"The flight was an overnighter departing around 9pm and landing close to lunchtime in Auckland. It wasn't a full flight, and after dinner was served and the lights were dimmed, we moved to the middle where we had four seats to ourselves.
"Cosying up under the blanket, one thing led to another as we talked about old times and the naughty things we used to do. We got a little frisky and moved from touching and fondling to kissing.
"We reached a point when she asked if I wanted to 'finish it off' in the toilet. Four hours into the flight and all was quiet, a flight attendant had just finished cleaning a toilet. We made our move — she went in first, and I joined her soon after.
"The toilet seemed clean, or at least smelt good having just been cleaned and sprayed with air freshener. We had to keep it quiet.
"She warned that the toilet could be opened from outside, but the cabin crew wouldn't do it unless its for an absolute emergency.
"I must say it was a thrill and would recommend it for couples in search of a little excitement. Even if you do get caught, the worst that could happen to you is getting a red face."
It could be a very red face.
"I'm not sure what the right way is to make people stop going in there, or get them out once I know they're in," wrote Travel's Secret Stewardess.
"When I bang on the door, requesting you return to your seat, only to be ignored, you leave me little choice but to make a PA to the entire cabin — at least that way I know you will hear."
Welcome to the Mile-High Walk-Of-Shame Club.
* All names have been changed for this story.