The first time I passed through Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, I spent four hours in its airport waiting for my connecting flight. Heydar Aliyev International Airport was a strange place back in 2011. It was not in fact even named Heydar Aliyev International Airport yet. It seemed frozen in time, and frozen distinctly in what I imagine 1977 would have looked like. There weren’t that many people there, but the men who were present (it was almost exclusively men) wore unironic mustaches, black-framed glasses, and gold watches. Everything was tinged a sort of yellowish off-white, the chairs were plastic, and people smoked. It struck me as more Soviet than Middle Eastern—minus the grey, plus the yellow. I was with my sister. We drank Azerbaijani lager in the faded airport restaurant, a treat after two weeks of tea in Iran, my childhood home. Azerbaijan borders Iran, and as such I’ve always been curious about it. Its beer was delicious.
The second time, I was headed in the opposite direction–not from Tehran to New York, but vice versa, with a two-hour stopover in Baku. When I mentioned that I was flying with Azerbaijan Airlines, most of my friends cracked jokes about parts of the plane falling off in the sky. I’m no stranger to old planes: Iran Air, given the trade sanctions against it, gets by on planes that might actually be from 1977. Expecting the plane’s amenities to match the fare I’d paid, I arrived armed with two novels, an iPad, and good headphones. Somebody had suggested I take snacks with me but I’d forgotten.
I was surprised and somewhat delighted when I stepped on the plane. It appeared new, dolled up with screens on the back of every deep red seat (although admittedly mine was frozen on “Elan. passenger announcement” for the majority of the ten hour leg, as were those of the two girls in front of me, but the magnetic faces of Johnny Depp and Beyoncé flashed across the seats across the aisle). And it was spacious. Many of the recent plane rides I’ve taken, particularly in the United States, come with all the modern charms of flying: brand spanking new and very shiny but also very shrinking seats, a plethora of entertainment options, including Wi-Fi and live-streaming television; all equipped with a slot for you to swipe your credit card; sandwiches that can be ordered at the push of a button, and with another swipe of a credit card. Headphones, too. Often, I spend the majority of these flights wrestling the urge to order $7 Pringles.
But in an utterly refreshing twist, Azerbaijan Airlines just doesn’t seem all that bothered with changing up the entrenched flight rituals that other carriers have made relics of the past. The experience that unfolded was nothing short of charming, for the same reason that the airport stood out. It seemed like what flying might have been like in 1977, minus an overhead screen showing Rocky.
Flight attendants handed out shiny peach faux-snakeskin zippered pouches housing eye masks, headphones, bizarrely large tubes of Azerbaijani moisturizer, and fluffy yellow socks. None of it was branded for the airline. They handed out hot towels (though didn’t come back for them; I eventually stuffed mine into the seat pocket).The meals were plentiful and huge. Each was followed by tea or coffee served in old school plastic cups with handles on them, matching the similarly chunky blue bowls nestled in the food trays. The bowls were square but rounded around the edges, and fit together on the tray like a jigsaw. Hipsters in Williamsburg might pay decent money for this kind of vintage approximation.
There. Was. A. Bar.
In economy class.
At first glance, it didn’t register. I assumed it was an oddly shaped galley (one that another airline would have squeezed two more rows of seats into). But sure enough, once the flight reached cruising altitude, people began standing around it, chatting and placing drink orders with the patient flight attendant manning the bar. . One elderly gentleman sporting a carefully sculpted white mustache hung out there for most of the flight. Nobody made him go back to his seat, even when the seat belt sign occasionally popped on and off. Children jostled back and forth past his legs in their quest for orange juice.
The bathroom was huge. It too supplanted space where two rows of seats could have lived. It had a window in it. I’d requested a window seat but, with none available, I took to the bathroom, the largest (though not most comfortable) seat in economy, and watched the sun skim across the horizon in perpetual sunrise, in seeming tandem with the plane as it crossed the sky. The bathroom became a respite from the noisy cabin, which housed more small children and crying babies than I have ever seen or heard on a plane.
As the plane chugged through the sky, passengers took over the cabin with a casualness that usually transpires in living rooms on rainy days. Three children in a row ahead of me made a fort out of airline blankets, squealing as they squeezed in and out from under the blanket’s folds. The flight attendants let them get away with it. Women wearing metallic nail polish, costume jewelry, and Nike sneakers strolled about swapping seats and babies, chatting to each other in Azerbaijani, sometimes lolling for an hour in the aisle by another woman’s seat. I realized that my seat reclined generously. I snoozed, not realizing that eventually I was flopping into the aisle. When I woke up to change positions there was a flight attendant and three passengers behind her, all calmly stepping over my legs without a worry.
Later, an argument sparked between a cross man and woman whose seats flanked each side of the aisle my legs had laid strewn across. This too, flared and ebbed without much worry. The argument was about a window shutter in a neighboring seat. He wanted it closed. She wanted it open. Both felt strongly about the matter. The bartender-flight attendant sidled over and gently tried to pat the man’s shoulders as a calming gesture, then, to my utter amusement, gave up and slid away. The 14-year-old kid next to me joined me in an effort to stifle our giggles. Soon after, the bartender-flight attendant joked as he handed out the third of our very large meals about his relief to see that the man eventually fell asleep, thus abating the argument.
A bit later, after a landing that was met with raucous applause, I clambered off the plane, having hung out mostly in my seat and apparently the aisle, but also at the bar and in the absurdly large bathroom with a view. I walked into the Baku airport, now unrecognizably modern, having received a shiny marble upgrade since my last touchdown. Here I was, back in the 21st century.