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Aboard TAM Flight 3805: Surviving Brazil vs. Chile at 30,000 Feet

"Please stay in your seat with your seat belt fastened" does not apply when the game goes to penalties

Nicolas Asfouri/AFP/Getty Images

Game time is sacred except for those logistical incompetents who book flights at that hour. How do I know that the passengers on the TAM flight from Salvador to São Paulo were there by mistake? There was the man wearing the yellow and green porkpie hat, the kid draped with a flag, the baseball cap with the Brazil insignia, and nearly every other passenger with a Neymar jersey, to say nothing of the anxious faces of the wearers of said shirts. 

An enormous television set sponsored by Budweiser had been placed in the middle of Salvador's departure's lounge. Ground crews huddled around it, along with groups hoping to catch a few minutes of action before the final call for their flights. After a few minutes of the game, enough to see a ball brush off a Chilean defender into the Brazilian goal, a large herd that included my family rushed down the hall in response to a warning that the doors to our plane were closing imminently. 

This situation presents a challenge to a captain. He can either choose to enforce the rules or exacerbate the chaos himself. Our captain made it his mission to keep his passengers well-informed. Every few minutes he provided updates over the loudspeaker. But between announcements, he strolled the aisle kibitzing with his information-starved plane. "Maybe your Washington Wizards are better than Brazil," he told my daughter and I with a shrug.

Frank's plane
Franklin Foer

The game seemed constructed to torture a flight of Brazilians—a one-one tie, yielding to extra time, and then penalty kicks. Passengers began leaning their heads into the aisle out of some base instinct. When the captain announced the arrival of penalty kicks, all rules disappeared. A women several aisles in front of us had an analog TV set with an antennae. Miraculously it picked up a grainy transmission of the game. Passengers piled into the aisle. Some stood on their seats to catch a glimpse of the small set. I had a hard time making out the game through the fuzzy screen. And it seemed that my fellow passengers had the same struggle but interpreted events to give the benefit to Brazil. At several moments they declared premature victory. When victory did truly arrive—validated by the loudspeaker—the plane burst into cheers and then song, with several men banging the beat on the baggage compartments. The sense of Brazil's doom at this earliest stage was impossible to imagine; the fact that it could happen while stranded in the air, without television or the comfort of family, was even harder to take. The cheer and songs continued with a special sense of relief. It was then that a stewardess decided to assert herself, clearing the aisle and forcing everyone to turn off their electronics. As we descended into São Paulo, there were no cars on the terminally crowded streets. But you could see a stray firework explode in the air.