I have spent a lot of years getting on and off airplanes. I’m not in the million mile category to be sure, but the airlines – generally – like my business because I have a few hundred thousand miles of air travel under my seat. I’m what the guidebooks call “a seasoned traveler.” And as a seasoned traveler, I’m growing more and more nostalgic for the days when boarding an airplane was an adventure in upscale travel as opposed to a claustrophobic endurance match. My several hundred thousand miles have taught me a few things.
I learned long ago, for example, to never check a piece of luggage. Why risk it? And, with reductions in staffing for airlines and at most airports, it takes for ever to retrieve an article from the gentle apparatus that carries your roller bag from plane to passenger. Like I said, why risk it? If you want to only carry on, however, you have to be on your toes. Overhead bin space goes fast in the era of airlines charging for checked luggage. You had best find a way to get into an early boarding group or face trying to stuff you bag into an overhead that is already filed with shopping bags, fly rods, coats, car seats and the occasional violin or frighteningly large stuffed animal owned by the little girl crying uncontrollably across the aisle from where you were hoping to read a good book and take a nap.
As for seats, I’m an aisle guy. You do have to get up a few times during a long flight to allow the passenger(s) sitting next to you get out for the bathroom, but the aisle is still the way to go. (Do be careful of the person – at least one on every flight – who slings a backpack over his shoulder that is large enough to outfit an entire Everett expedition. These folks are typically oblivious of that fact that their backpack is swinging wildly from side to side as they struggle to the back of the plane, bringing concussion-inducing blows to aisle seat sitters. You’ve been warned.)
Security lines increasingly demand a strategy, as well. Avoid at all cost the person who obviously has not flown in the post-9-11 era. You can spot them. They’re drinking out of a Big Gulp cup and cleaning their nails with a pocket knife. “What,” they’ll say, “I can’t take this through security? When did that happen?”
I particularly love the members of the traveling public who wait for 15 minutes in a long line without any preparation for what happens when it’s their turn to enter the metal detector. These are the folks who suddenly realize as they approach the check point with 80 people behind them that they have their entire coin collection in their inside coat pocket. Or they belatedly discover that those pesky “liquids, not to exceed three ounces” are carefully and securely packed in the bottom of a bag filled with enough corn chips to put Tostido’s out of business. “They must be in here somewhere? When did this happen?” I recently observed a woman with the largest bottle of hair conditioner I have ever seen arguing about whether “this tiny little thing” violated the three ounce rule. That bottle not only violated the rule, it was enough conditioner to supply perfectly conditioned hair to most of the western hemisphere for a year.
In the old days air travel had a certain glamour. The plates were china and the little tablecloths were, well there were little tablecloths in the ancient and glamorous days of air travel. People actually dressed well to board an airplane. Those days are gone. Flip flops and tank tops are the norm these days. If you are lucky you might spot a guy in a jacket and tie or a woman in a nice pant suit on your flight, but more likely you’ll see ball caps turned backward, baggy cargo shorts and tee shirts that were new when Jimmy Carter was in the White House. As David Sedaris once wrote in a side-splittingly funny New Yorker piece, many air travelers today look like they came directly to the boarding gate after washing shoe polish off a pig.
Not completely sure that the United States faces an obesity crisis – you obviously haven’t been in an airplane recently. As more and more airlines utilize smaller, regional jets – CJ’s they’re called in the business for the Canadian origin of their birth – the seats get smaller and smaller and the aisles narrower and narrower. At the same time the passengers get bigger and bigger. It used to be a rare event to see a particularly large person request a “seat belt extender,” but such requests, in my informal surveys, are more and more common. The CJ’s present problems for normal sized passengers, too. I sat next to a fellow on a recent flight who, while not out of shape or overweight was just a big guy. I lost the quiet, but intense 90 minute fight for a small piece of the arm rest. The bruises are healing nicely.
Some political commentators claim that the real economic and social divide in our society is between those Americans in the “top 1%” who control such a significant portion of the nation’s wealth and, well, the rest of us. I’m in sympathy with the argument, but I’m here to tell you the economic and social divide is even greater between business class and coach. Once in a while my miles get me “up front” in the rarefied air of First Class. It’s the difference between a Lexus and Yugo. Hot and cold running drinks, real and mostly edible food, leg room and a flight attendant who isn’t just moonlighting from her regular job as a private prison guard.
The glamour of business travel, the glamour of any travel other than riding “up front” on an international flight, is lamentably a thing of the past. As gone as when Rick puts Ilsa on that plane leaving Casablanca for Lisbon. Remember how glamorous Ingrid Bergman looked in those closing scenes from the great movie? Paul Henreid was dashing in suit, tie and fedora. Those folks were dressed for serious travel. They were going someplace.
But come to think of it in Casablanca Ilsa Lund and Victor Laszio were just fleeing the Nazis, not doing something really stressful like washing shoe polish off of a pig.