Even Icarus Wouldn't Enjoy This Flight
This weekend marks the de facto beginning of the summer vacation season. Earlier this month, USA Today reported that a record 179.4 million passengers will fly between now and Labor Day.
With a little luck, I won’t be one of them.
Until a decade ago, I flew roughly 100,000 miles a year chasing subjects and deadlines for various magazines, and quite frankly loved it. A comfortable seat 30,000 feet above the Earth with no ringing phones and hours to spend reading, thinking and writing was like a visit to a flying monastery.
I was a member of two elite airline programs and enjoyed gold card status to lounges where the riff-raff of the air world seldom ventured. I never flew coach, that Land of Traveling Losers where you’re forced to sit with your knees beneath your chin. I was special. For example, I received free orange juice and coffee and was constantly reminded by cheerful airline employees that I deserved such white glove treatment.
Oh, how the mighty have fallen to Earth.
In retrospect, my elite flying status was a little bit like being part of the new mafia ruling class in Russia. You always got the feeling that if you suddenly lost your income and that status, you could easily wind up traveling in the trunk with a case of cheap black market vodka.
For me, 9/11 changed everything. Holy War wackos armed with box cutters sneaked onboard a trio of U.S. airliners and suddenly you had to undress and submit to humiliating body searches by the kind of people your grandma warned you about. I once watched a 90-year-old woman in a wheelchair get strip-searched and grilled by a pair of gorillas you wouldn’t trust to park a rental car.
That’s when I decided I’d had enough. Anywhere this side of Oahu, I’d either drive to get there or skip it altogether. Sad, as I say, because I hail from a clan of World War II pilots, and flying was always a keen pleasure for me — zooming above the clouds, out of time and space. But getting through airports and security made the experience about as much fun as a 10-hour root canal. The airlines downgraded everything but their fees.
Over the past decade, I think I maybe flew four or five times, enjoying it less each time.
One flight was to a book festival in Portland, Ore., where I had a nice time but got bumped from my reserved seat on the return leg and got left like a piece of lost Samsonite in Newark, N.J. I wound up renting a car and driving home. The airline, which I probably shouldn’t name, sent me a form letter apologizing for the goof up and included a voucher for a free cup of coffee the next time I chose to fly Continental Airlines. Oops, I accidentally said their name.
Another time, a flight to Dallas went OK except for the fact that a chap who looked Middle Eastern leapt to his feet as the plane took off, waved his arms, and shouted “God is great!” in Arabic — prompting my 10-year-old son to go pale at the gills and mayhem to break loose as a former Dallas Cowboy seated beside me executed a highlight-film quality tackle and took the guy to the carpet. He wasn’t a terrorist, just a dude trying to have a little fun with all the nervous fliers.
Every time I got in a long security line after that, hauled out my laptop, took off my belt and shoes, lost various items in the shoving and pushing of a security scrum, I found myself muttering that the terrorists have won because they made us all afraid of flying.
The most real threat, as any security expert will flatly tell you, rides beneath your feet as a passenger — where cargo and luggage are rarely if ever screened for trouble. Some years ago, Tom Ridge, the former Homeland Security chief, confided to me that his greatest fears were insufficiently screened cargo on passenger planes and uninspected ports. Tellingly, alert passengers have been the foils of the most significant threats onboard planes in recent years, as the Cowboy in Dallas proved.
Packed Like Sardines
Owing to a book tour, though, this former frequent flier had to take eight flights in the past few weeks, and was admittedly curious to see how things might have changed in the air since I’d become a grounded traveler, especially now than I’m now part of the flying riff-raff in economy.
Connecting through Atlanta is always a joy, as I was quickly reminded — a great place to get a little aerobic exercise as you shove past the deplaning hordes and sprint for the underground train that connects the endless concourses at the world’s busiest airport, hoping to make it from one end of the sprawling complex to the other in time to make a 30-minute connection.
One thing I noticed is that airports are now basically shopping malls with a runway conveniently running through them, peddling everything from Italian shoes to movie rentals and every form of food and anesthetizing cocktail imaginable. As I jogged along with three or four minutes to spare, banners above the tide of passengers suggested: “Relax. Dine. Shop. Explore.”
Really? And when would I do that? When I miss my connection?
Three decades ago, when Atlanta’s new airport opened, I did a story on how it functioned. At that time it was Georgia’s second largest city on a busy day. On my recent passes through Hartsfield City, I learned the airport now boasts two full-day spas and something called “Minutes Suites” — tiny little “quiet” rooms harried passengers can rent for $30 an hour for a nap, a snack, a brief Buddhist meditation, whatever.
A boarding class-system worthy of Czarist Mother Russia still prevails at the gate.
First-class and priority passengers get their lane and are invited to board first. Several boarding “zones” follow, implying one’s value to the airline. I could swear I heard the boarding gate attendant sweetly chime, “Zone One passengers are now free to board. Zone Two please stand back and have your boarding passes ready. Zone Three, well, goodness sakes, why don’t you all just take the bus.”
Today, owing to luggage fees, a big change since a decade ago, every traveler hauls the same large black boxy rolling suitcases and “one carry-on” item with them, allowing the passengers fortunate enough to board early to fill up the overhead bins straightaway, causing aisles to clog up with bewildered travelers who have nowhere to put their bags.
According to a former colleague who follows the airline industry, in order to squeeze out extra profits, airlines have cut back flights and boosted plane capacities to more than 85 percent, encouraging passengers to bring their luggage onboard rather than check them in order to save room for lucrative cargo below decks — the stuff that largely still goes unscreened and used to keep Tom Ridge up at night. The message seems to be that paying freight is more important than the comfort of paying customers.
I was lucky enough to claim window seats on five of my eight flights, and every flight — mid-week, early morning — was packed like sardines in a very tight tin. Seats and aisles are packed closer than ever, I’ve learned, though it doesn’t help that I’m bigger in the beam.
Fallen to Earth
On my final flight home, an actual open seat occurred between the aisle passenger and me — until, moments before the hatch was closed, a large woman bearing a canvas carryall and huge rolling suitcase came breathlessly trundling down the aisle and descended on the last empty seat on the plane. She jammed her suitcase into the space between our seats, climbed over the aisle passenger, sunk into her seat, elbowed me in the ear as she battled her seat belt, placed her carryall on her lap, removed her shoes, and attached some kind of earphone that resembled an African dung beetle. She opened “Fifty Shades of Grey” on her Nook, chatted with some unknown soul about shopping in Rome, and finally exhaled.
I was sitting like a stuffed panda bear trying to read a Newsweek story on the “New Secrets of the Expanding Universe,” seriously wishing I’d driven to Texas.
We never spoke a word to each other, but as her expanding universe merged with mine, I was physically closer to that woman than anyone except my wife.
I gave up on the universe and tried to nap, thinking if this is the future of air travel —what once sophisticated flight has come to — I’ll just remain on the ground.
This summer, as you jet off to your exotic vacation, glance out the window and you may see me ambling along in my beloved Buick Roadmaster, taking my own sweet time to wherever I’m going.
I’ve fallen to Earth for good, I think. Who needs the free coffee voucher anyway?
Award-winning author Jim Dodson, Sunday essayist with The Pilot and editor of PineStraw magazine, can be reached at email@example.com.
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