Air travel is fairly common for me now at this point in my life. It has become routine and despite the delay and humiliation regularly dished out by the “Transportation Security Administration” (more about that later) it is quite convenient. In addition, air travel has steadily become cheaper as airlines have become deregulated. But on the minus side, the cramped seats, my usual proximity to a crying baby or a blabbermouth adult who insists on carrying on a one sided conversation about himself and his exploits in life, can make air travel miserable. For these occasions I usually carry earplugs which, when inserted do not shut out all the noise but do significantly suppress the roar of the engines and the ambient noise around me. And while they do not entirely shut out the blabbermouth and the crying baby, their insertion is a pretty clear sign to others that I don’t want to participate or listen. I just want to be left alone with the newspaper or the book that I’m reading.
I must reluctantly admit that I had never been in an airplane until my early thirties, when I flew in an airliner chartered by the Massachusetts Elementary School Principals Association taking participants from Massachusetts and adjacent states to the National Association of Elementary School Principals convention in Anaheim, California. On this trip I was chagrinned to realize how much flying experience other participants seemed to have that I did not. As if the breathtaking acceleration and take-off right over the threatening waves of Boston harbor weren’t alarming enough for a first-time flyer, I have to confess that I was startled and fearful when I saw the wings flexing as the plane took off. Honestly I guess I thought that a plane’s wings were fixed and totally rigid. I interpreted the flexing as a sign of airframe weakness and feared that these bending wings were about to snap.
This memorable first flight also featured, courtesy of the Association, an open bar for most of the flight, which most of us enjoyed, particularly the group of principals from Maine, who apparently had not been out of the woods in years and imbibed rather recklessly. I didn’t drink that much but apparently enough to help me embarrass myself toward the end of the flight when flying over the Grand Canyon. As we did so, the pilot invited us over the intercom to take a look at the Canyon out of the left side of the plane, but when everyone left their seats on the right and dashed to the left side to lean over those seated and gape out of the windows, I yelled out in a panic, “No, no, don’t, it’s going to tip!” Everyone looked at me in astonishment and shook their heads sadly. Evidently I visualized that plane as a boat – if everyone went to one side, it would indeed tip. I definitely did not realize that the wings held up the fuselage in the middle quite reliably, regardless of how weight was distributed within it. Anyhow, I took considerable ribbing from my colleagues for the rest of the trip and on the return flight as well.
Thankfully with more flying experience over the years I did not embarrass myself like that again. Certainly the greatest amount of experience was accumulated when we moved overseas to work for the American School of Kuwait for four years and then later spending several years in Izmir, Turkey. Then flying became very common, even habitual. The management of the American School of Kuwait obtained bids from different international airlines for the transportation of its newly recruited teachers from their country of origin to Kuwait and to their homes and back in the summer. Thus, while in Kuwait we were able to sample Alitalia one year, then Lufthansa and also Air France. All were good and offered the opportunity of pausing for a few days or a week in one of their hub cities. Thus we were able to enjoy Rome for a week or so on the way back to the US on Alitalia, Paris another time while traveling on Air France, and Frankfort and nearby Heidelberg while on Lufthansa. Later while in Turkey traveling on Lufthansa became the standard because of its convenient service between Izmir and Munich and then on to the US.
Of all these airlines, Lufthansa became my favorite. Lufthansa aircraft appeared spotlessly clean and very well maintained. The meals were delicious and bountiful and you could enhance them with liberal glasses of delicious German wine. One of the best memories for me of all those trips on Lufthansa was the welcome sight of a comely flight attendant strolling up and down the aisle offering refills from a bottle of white wine in her left hand and a bottle of red in her right. And as alluded to a few lines above, while there may have been a trace of doubt about the mechanical reliability of a plane maintained in Italy, France or some other country, there was never any doubt about the reliability of a plane maintained in Germany. Many years later, when our air travel became much less frequent, we used the considerable Lufthansa miles accumulated when flying back and forth from Kuwait and Turkey, when we flew to Italy to enjoy Venice and Florence and when we traveled to Jordan to visit our son Conrad when he was serving in the Peace Corps. And again on both trips – after a delicious meal there was the attractive flight attendant perfectly balanced by the bottles of white and red in either hand offering to refill your glass. We finally polished off the last of the miles with a very enjoyable two week visit to Kauai, Hawaii flying on United Airlines.
But I have had some pretty unnerving experiences flying as well. While overseas on our way to a teachers meeting somewhere we flew in what was perhaps the worst airplane we had ever experienced – a vintage Jordanian Airlines two engined jet, maybe a Boeing 737, that was in awfully poor condition. The stained and ripped seats, torn curtains, and loose, rattling plastic trim, did not inspire any kind of confidence. But this dilapidated plane thankfully must have been mechanically sound because it landed us safely in Amman without incident, provoking a collective sigh of relief and providing an opportunity for our armpits and palms dry off a little.
Another stressful experience occurred right before we left Kuwait. when we finally responded to an ongoing invitation from one of our wealthy Indian parents to travel to acquaint ourselves with her country by staying in her “farmhouse” near Delhi and touring nearby cities. We finally planned to do this immediately prior to our final departure from Kuwait, planning a one week stay in what turned out to be a huge country mansion with a swimming pool, not a “farmhouse”. Well after our tours of the cities of India’s “golden triangle” – Delhi, Agra and Jaipur and focusing on our return we were harshly reminded of a sacred rule in overseas air travel – “confirming” return flights. Even if you had a bona fine reservation and the flight was paid for, passengers still had to call and confirm the flight or else there was the possibility of losing the reservation entirely. Well, while we knew this, we didn’t always remember. Our driver, who worked for the lady who owned the home at which we stayed, delivered us to the airport just fine, laden with our suitcases packed with mementos and spices from our tours and when trying to check in we found that our reservations had simply disappeared. I had forgotten to confirm the return flights. Shaking with anxiety, heart pounding and shirt drenched with nervous perspiration, I presented out tickets and pled our case with several agents and was finally able to obtain seats on a return flight that delivered us to Kuwait in plenty of time for our flight to the US the next evening. I never did and still don’t understand why and how reservations could be cancelled even though tickets were bought and paid for.
But wait, that’s not all – the story and the stress continue. We had our tickets back to the US on BOAC, the airline with whom our school had contracted that summer, waiting for us at home with our packed and waiting suitcases. However, on the morning of the evening we were scheduled to leave we found that BOAC did not transport animals and we had three cats that we were taking back to Arizona, including our treasured Birman, “Monet”. So quickly we found seats on Lufthansa which did still carry animals in the cargo hold, but Lufthansa would not transport animals on flights terminating in Phoenix because of the heat. However, they could still be shipped to Los Angeles. So we changed the tickets to a Los Angeles destination where we all disembarked and collected our luggage and the cat cages. I booked a flight to Phoenix for later in the day for Conrad, Bobbie’s mother and me and the bulk of the luggage. We then called Liza, Bobbie’s daughter who was then living in Los Angeles for some help so Liza picked up her mother and the animals and drove them to Phoenix to meet with the rest of us.
The most frightening airport I have ever experienced is Tribhuyan International Airport in Kathmandu, Nepal, in which we landed and took off twice, first on the international flight originating in Kuwait and second, on a local flight for a special trekking experience in Pokhara, Nepal. The airport in Kathmandu is of course in the same valley as the city, deep enough so that the plane had to make a rapid and steep descent from over the mountains surrounding the valley down to properly “catch” the runway at a point sufficient to allow a safe distance to slow and stop the plane. And when taking off, the plane had to accelerate very dramatically in order to gain altitude adequate to clear those same high mountains. It was almost like the plane had to nose dive down after clearing the mountains in order to land and had to almost “blast off” to clear the mountains upon takeoff.
Another concern relating to the final takeoff when we left Nepal is that our suitcases were absolutely bulging with gifts and mementos we had bought in this fantastic city and were considerably overweight. So for the first time in my life (and happily the last) I risked actually bribing an airport official to allow us to take them on. Yes, for a twenty dollar bill, the guy routinely tagged them and put them on the conveyor, no more questions asked or concerns expressed. However, the extra heft of our overweight bags in the hold made me even more nervous about the takeoff. What if our illegally heavy bags caused the plane to be just over the weight limit required to clear the mountains? Well, thank God, the plane took off just fine, accelerated at that terribly steep angle and successfully got us out of the valley and back home to Kuwait.
After all that flying during my overseas career, interestingly the worst flying experience of my life was just last summer when traveling from Vermont to Phoenix for an important dental appointment. I had boarded a Southwest flight in the morning which was to go from Albany, New York to Chicago and then to Phoenix. Shortly after takeoff the pilot informed us that Midway Airport in Chicago was fogged in so the plane would land in Cleveland until the fog cleared. At the time, I did not realize it but the pilot should have also said …”or until passengers can be rerouted”. So after disembarking the plane I waited with my fellow passengers for some word as to what was next. When the fog cleared, were we supposed to re-board the flight and get on our way to Chicago? Of course there was the real concern then that even if this were to eventually take place, would we get to Chicago in time to catch our connecting flights, including my flight to Phoenix. So I milled about nervously with other passengers from Albany and waited.
But in the meantime, unknown to me, some passengers were actively seeking other alternatives to reach their final destinations. Eventually the announcement was made that my flight to Chicago was cancelled. Other flights to Chicago were full and while nervously exploring what else I could do, I found out that the flight from Chicago to Phoenix for which I was booked had already left. By then I was really concerned and wondered why Southwest was not more active in taking care of its passengers. Even if I successfully found an empty seat and rebooked for Phoenix via Los Angeles, Denver or Albuquerque, it didn’t look like I was going to get to Phoenix until the next day, too late for my appointment. Suddenly I recognized a family which had been seated near me on the flight from Albany, also bound for Phoenix as I was, in line for a flight to Tucson so quickly I had a Southwest agent change my final destination from Phoenix to Tucson and successfully boarded that flight. I reminded myself that Southwest also maintained a schedule of shuttle flights between Tucson and Phoenix so I reasoned that it shouldn’t be too tough to grab one of these and easily get to Phoenix.
However, upon arriving in Tucson with just my backpack (I had no idea where my suitcase was at that point), I discovered that it wasn’t Southwest that maintained the shuttle flights but American Airlines. Finally finding my way to American’s counters I was told that several of those hourly flights were cancelled and to get on the remaining early evening flight would cost me somewhere in the neighborhood of $300. Heck, I’m not doing that, it was more than the entire Southwest flight had cost, so what should I do? OK, I’ll rent a car and drive to Phoenix. Accordingly I rented the least expensive car I could find that could be taken one way to Phoenix, picked up the car and got on Interstate 10 from Tucson to Phoenix. Arriving in Phoenix two hours later, I first had to find a gas station to bring the car’s fuel gauge back up, then find the airport rental car facility which is now located several miles from the airport itself, return the car and catch the shuttle bus from the car rental facility to Terminal Four in Sky Harbor Airport where Southwest was located. The first thing I did upon arriving was to check with unclaimed baggage at Southwest – no Ralph Friedly bag. After inquiring, I was told that it would likely be on the next flight from Chicago, to arrive in an hour or so. So I waited for that next flight from Chicago and yes, there was my bag on the conveyer belt. Finally, suitcase in hand I showed up at the SuperShuttle desk for my ride home and was delivered to my house at around 9:00 PM, actually midnight on my body clock since I had gained three hours with the time change. I had originally been scheduled to arrive in Phoenix early in the afternoon after about seven hours of flying, airport wait time and the time change. Instead, it had taken about eighteen hours. But I had a good night’s sleep and was on time for my dentist appointment.
Looking back on this experience, the stress of which probably shortened by life by a couple of years, I still don’t really know what I should have done and despite my extensive air travel experience, was obviously quite naive about these kinds of contingencies. The only thing I can think of is that I should have been far more assertive with Southwest and insisted that they take care of me. But ever since, when flying on Southwest between Albany and Phoenix, I have been careful to avoid Chicago.
A critical aspect in flying today is dealing with airport security, the beloved TSA. Rightfully instituted after the dreadful incidents of 9/11 and thankfully as a Federal agency and not a private one, as demanded by numerous congressmen and their lobbyists, I still have a considerable apprehension and dread when boarding airplanes. First, I heartily agree with the comedian who joked that TSA recruits were people who were likely ridiculed or beaten up while in high school because they wield their considerable power with such vengeful abandon, seeming to sadistically maximize and apparently enjoy the inconvenience and embarrassment they cause passengers.
There have been times when, after scanning my identification, I am whisked through security, but mysteriously there are other times when I have been subjected to absolute maximum scrutiny. On a recent trip from Philadelphia to Phoenix, my spouse was rushed right through, no lines, no shoe removal, bingo, she was approved for flight. But there I was, confined to the interminable lines where I had to remove my shoes (thank you, Richard Reid) and the lady in front of me her sandals (hey, TSA guy in the blue shirt – what on earth could she be hiding in those thin flimsy sandals?). And of course I had to take my laptop out of its case and put it in a plastic box separate from the shoes. But I was loudly reprimanded when I attempted to put my cell phone in the same box and was also loudly reprimanded when I failed to empty all my pockets, even the shirt pocket containing nothing more than a couple of 3 x 5 cards, and was loudly reminded to place those meager items in yet another separate box. On top of that I was placed in the body scanning booth and asked to lift my arms up while I was electronically scanned from head to toe. And if that wasn’t enough, I was subjected to the ultimate indignity – a groping by a blue shirted, rubber gloved TSA teenager just in case I was hiding a knife, gun or explosives in a remote body recess that had escaped detection by the body scanner. I was totally mystified, to have gone from what looked like routine pre-approval to being treated like a bonafide terrorism suspect. Can it be that I’ve been marked by the TSA because of some of my incendiary unpatriotic blog entries? My God, I’ll have to tone them down a bit I guess. But I suppose I should be thankful for the TSA. They do a good job keeping us safe and exhibit considerable patience when dealing with disgruntled, disagreeable passengers like me.
I have to say that, while airlines today do have their problems, all considered, you can’t beat the speed and convenience of air travel. I am getting fed up with these boring and stressful automobile trips between Arizona and Vermont to which we are limited because of my spouse’s canine friend that must accompany us. Yes, listening to recorded books on the trips makes them somewhat more bearable but still they are a huge drain on my increasingly limited energy and time. And the trips seem to get more expensive each time we travel, and the motels at which we stay get more expensive as well, not to mention less hospitable.
So I am looking diligently for a reliable used car small enough to fit in our substandard garage space here in Vermont, and assuming that our canine friend will not be with us forever, someday we will definitely be flying back and forth between these two beloved homes, in spite of potential TSA abuse and weather or scheduling contingencies. At least these trips will be quick.