There’s a glamorous film star waiting rather sulkily with her driver just outside the lifts at Heathrow’s Terminal 3. She looks like she’s come straight from the 1950s. That’s how I know I’m in the right place. Today, on our flight to New York via Reykjavik, we’ll be celebrating 80 years of Icelandair. How has the airline chosen to celebrate? With the Ahead of Time experience, an 11-hour immersive mid-air theatre performance based around each of the airline’s eight decades. No, really.
The idea was apparently inspired by research that showed most air travellers get bored during flights. So, naturally, the obvious response was a transatlantic theatre performance in the sky. There’s more. In a further bid to banish long-haul longueurs the airline’s Stopover Pass programme gives passengers entry to events like concerts in someone’s home, festivals, football matches and even a Sigur Ros performance. Some will be accompanied by a ‘stopover buddy’ — airline employees recruited for their local knowledge to help give a more authentic experience.
At check-in, we’re all given a small flower to wear, so the professional actors — playing characters from different decades — and game Icelandair staff who’ve volunteered to join them know we’re part of the performance (about a third of those about to board the plane are just regular passengers, looking a little bemused). ‘Alex’, a dishevelled young man who tells us he’s a gap-year student, is panicking and emptying his bag; he can’t find his passport. I’m fairly sure he isn’t a real passenger but I can’t decide which era he’s supposed to be from.
Later on, I bump into him at the gate. “Did you find your passport?” I ask. “Yah!” he exclaims, before telling me a story about his dad having to bail him out of some dicey situation abroad so he could get to a family party. “Oh, you’ve dropped your Gameboy,” he tells another passenger nearby whose iPhone has slipped from their grasp. Ah, he’s from the 1990s.
Once we board the plane, I feel terribly British. A leaflet on the seat provides lyrics to Love Me Do, in case we feel like a singalong later on: I scoff at the very thought. Ninety minutes later, though, and I’m clapping along as an entire planeload of people sing Beatles hits with adorable, guitar-toting, ’60s hippies ‘Ritchie’ and ‘Cynthia’, actors so good they’ve somehow persuade all of us curmudgeons to join in.
At our Reykjavik stopover, we head to the Saga Lounge for the ‘family party’ I’d heard Alex mention earlier, and which other costumed characters had also said they were en route to during the flight. Apparently, it’s being held in honour of jetsetter and former Icelandair flight attendant ‘Edda Johnson’. Now I find myself waltzing with gorgeous ’60s tour rep ‘Val’. Dancing with her, surrounded by balloons and an Icelandic buffet, is like a dream. It’s hard to tell reality and Icelandair’s anniversary celebrations apart. But it’s all great fun and I’m rather sad to wave goodbye as we reboard the plane to go on to New York.
The next leg of the flight is less performance and more occasional amusing interruption: cabin crew ‘from the future’ demonstrate how to sleep and hand out candy cigarettes. At one point, I’m led off to sit beside a real Icelandair captain, who tells me a bedtime story about the horses on his farm.
It’s inflight entertainment, but not as we know it. I might not want it on every flight (although bedtime stories from charming captains are always welcome) but on this occasion, it made time fly.