No, this post has nothing to do with Erica Jong’s risqué novel of 1973. Although I am a writer and am on my return trip from a trip from Vienna, unlike Erica’s protagonist I am accompanied by my wife and never had an extra-marital romp while I was there. It isn’t even about aerophobia. Although I momentarily consider that most crashes occur on take off and landing at those points in my flights, I can’t say that it is with fear. What I should call this is “dread of air travel,” but that just doesn’t have much zing. Nor the alliteration, which I do love. (After all, my first Morg Mahoney mystery is Christmas Cracker and the next one will be Bad for Business.)
Let’s start with getting to the airport. Although my closest airport is in Sacramento (SMF), only about an hour and fifteen minutes away, American Airlines (keeper of all my air miles) does not have all that many flights out of it and connections for other flights can be difficult. SMF is fine for domestic flights, but I would have had an 11-hour layover in one connecting airport on the way to Vienna. Even though we are traveling business class and would have access to their Admiral’s Club (thanks to air miles), it would mean trying to catch a cat nap in a chair during a very long trip. So I opted to go out of San Francisco (SFO), even though it is bigger, busier and more of a hassle. Since the choice would be either getting up about 3 AM to get there early enough for the flight or staying the night in a motel near the airport, we stayed the night in a motel. The trip starts with an extra cost, extra handling of all the luggage and a not-so-great “complimentary breakfast” (I use quotes since it is actually included in the cost of the room). It’s already a pain.
While the motel saves getting up too early, it means struggling into the airport van in the morning with the luggage. Having two large suitcases, two carry-ons and my computer/electronics bag, it is a hassle. After check-in, glad to be free of the large suitcases, we head up to the Admiral’s Club for cups of coffee and comfortable chairs. Unfortunately, first we have to pass through TSA’s version of Checkpoint Charlie, also known as “running the gauntlet.” I understand the need for airport security. I have no desire to take a last flight into the Golden Gate bridge with some terrorist wanting to meet Allah. But wouldn’t it just be easier to have everyone strip down and walk through the place buck naked? Granted, seeing many of the passengers in the buff (myself included) might cause permanent mental distress, but you never know what is legal and what is not. My niece once had her eyelash curler confiscated. Did they fear she would threaten to curl the stewardess’s eyelashes the wrong way and take over the plane? To top it off, she bought a replacement in a shop just past security. I had my double-edged razor blades confiscated in Joplin, MO. That was after I had been flying all over the country with them in my carry-on without a problem. I almost asked him if it wouldn’t be awfully easy to take a disposable razor into the airplane’s restroom, break it apart and use that blade as an equally lethal weapon as my razor blades, but didn’t. The TSA is not known for it’s willingness to listen to logic. I accidentally had left a couple of bottles with liquid in my bag (shampoo and hand cream), but the TSA agent didn’t catch that. Another time, I only realized I’d left my Swiss Army pocket knife in my carry-on when I arrived at my destination. But then, as Emerson once observed, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” The TSA must have huge minds.
Another complaint I have is with my fellow travelers. They know they have to divest themselves of their worldly goods before they pass through the portals of the TSA, yet they wait until they are up to the scanners before emptying their pockets, taking off their shoes, etc. I have already put my wallet, change, keys, and such in my carry-on and stand there in my sock feet, holding up my beltless trousers, while the idiot in front of me fumbles around at the last minute to do the same. Plus I invariably choose the slowest line. This trip was no exception. For some reason, London Heathrow (LHO) made us go through their version of TSA even though we’d already done it at SFO. There were signs about only one plastic bag of liquids and the size of the containers. Yet the woman ahead had two plastic bags. After she spent some time discussing the situation with the inspector, she finally realized all of it would not fit in one bag. Eventually, she stuffed all she could into one bag and let the inspector dispose of the rest. If I’d only chosen another line, we could have already been through and headed for our plane. Bad luck.
Then comes the waiting area. When traveling business or first class on American Airlines, you get the quiet comfort of the Admiral’s Club, with complimentary snacks and drinks. Coach fliers (of which I have most often been) get the noisy, crowded, uncomfortable seats by the gate. If you’re lucky. If not, you get to stand close by or sit far away, still surrounded by clamor and crowds. With relief, you hear the airline representative at the gate announce boarding is starting. But that relief is short-lived.
Now, you get to board early for business class and sit in wide, comfortable seats while a flight attendant brings champagne. But I’ve flown many more times on coach class, most often on Southwest Airlines, the cattle cars of the sky. You can buy your way into early boarding on those flights now (forget equality, go for the extra buck), but no assigned seats make it a mad dash for an aisle seat and a place to stow your carry-on. Little old ladies fight backpackers for space to put their crochet bags overhead. Then you sit in seats made for someone who wears a size 34 coat, between two beer-bellied guys wearing dirty XXXL T-shirts who hate deodorant, all because you didn’t cough up the cost of early boarding. Although your seat won’t recline enough to get comfortable and you don’t have room to stretch your legs, at least it won’t be all that long. That’s because you’ll be getting off to make your next flight connection. There is an upside. On every leg of your flight a Southwest flight attendant will come by with a mini-bag of peanuts and a free Coke. Oh, joy.
Then there are the wonderful connecting flights. That means you cannot get from here (wherever you are) to there (wherever you are going) without stopping off at another airport on the way because the airline you are taking doesn’t have a plane making that trip non-stop. Most often, that means going miles out of your way, waiting hours in an airport until the flight for the next leg of your trip leaves, then boarding again. Unless you have a short layover and your flight arrives late. Then you’re running through the airport, only to find your next flight has departed. I know about that. We were returning from Miami to Sacramento via Orlando, but there was a delay in our American Airlines flight out of Miami. I asked the attendant at the gate whether we shouldn’t stay in Miami (a larger airport with more flights), but she said, “Oh, no. They always allow extra time. You’ll be fine.” Once we were on board (and safely out of Miami’s hair), the flight attendant told us there was about a snowball’s chance in Miami we would make our next flight. And, in spite of making the quarter-mile dash to the next gate in about a minute, we didn’t. However, our luggage did. Orlando advised us there were no more flights to Sacramento that day and our best bet was to go to Dallas-Fort Worth (DFW- American Airlines’ hub) to get a flight home. We did, thereby getting out of Orlando’s hair. The airline offered some script to pay for food at the airport, ten bucks for three of us. I asked the representative where I could feed us on that. He gave me forty, which almost covered the food without anything to drink. After waiting for hours on standby for every flight without any luck, American put us up in a hotel for the night and the next morning we flew to SMF. Our luggage had arrived and was smugly waiting for us at baggage claim with only the usual battering and bruising. At least we were lucky on that. ***************************************************************************** **************
For some on-the-spot recording, I am now on the leg of my return to the good ol’ USA that goes from LHO to DFW. As we waited in the boarding area after rushing along the seemingly miles of corridors to the gate, I heard a woman with multiple strollers tell the people next to her not to worry if they were in coach, but she felt sorry for those in business class. The reason was obvious: along with her husband and a teenaged girl (daughter?), she had a boy of about five and triplets in the toddler stage. As I wrote before, we are traveling business class. Woe to us! They are now seated (and periodically crawling) in the seats in front of me and to my left. Thank God for the Bose headphones and Beethoven’s bombastic 4th and 7th Symphonies. I am reminded of a Bill Cosby routine I heard years ago about a flight he had with a screaming child named Little Jeffrey.
Before the flight, four flight attendants hovered around the seven of them, trying to accommodate their needs so we could take off. That did cut down on the normally great pre-flight service American Airlines gives, but I understood and sympathized. It was their duty to try to get the family seated and buckled in for take off. The cries and screams have started, soon becoming more than periodic as our flight continues. The family has taken over the aisles, infants crawling around, parents blocking the way as they talk to each other or carry the howling toddlers. One of the flight attendants even takes a turn as a baby carrier. The demands of the few obliterates the needs of the many. The squeaky hinge gets the oil. Enough with the trite phrases. As long as my headphones keep working, I might live through this. Now where is that volume control?
I’m home now, having arrived at about 2 AM this morning. In all, we spent about 26 hours traveling from the time we left the hotel in Vienna until we walked in the door at our home in the California. Most of those wearying hours were spent planted on our butts in planes, waiting areas or cars. I’m having a hard time sitting in front of the computer, but am still too wiped out for any real work and I do want to get this post up. My quick summation is this: until Star Trek transporters are up and running, flying is still the only way to travel long distances in a short time. It is much like a trip to the dentist: although necessary, it is never a pleasure. At best, it is an ordeal to tolerate. At worst, it is torture to endure.