Monday, April 14, 2014

The miracle of flight

Air travel is similar to childbirth, in that everybody loves to share their war stories: delays, shitty customer service, draconian policies, rude seat mates--all of these things will have your audience nodding in sympathy while bursting to tell their own stories.

Myself, I've never had a truly terrible airline experience (except for the TSA agent in Philly who screamed at one of my daughters and called her a "retard") but overall, I would rate my time in airports somewhere on the mildly inconvenient-to-mostly satisfactory continuum.

One irritating thing about airlines is their imposed petty social pecking order, unknown anywhere else in the commercial world.  This is partly evidenced by the special boarding lanes.  Not only are first class passengers allowed to board first, they get to use a SPECIAL BOARDING LANE.  Most airlines have the priority lane and the regular lane, but United Airlines actually has four distinct lanes.  Then, also on United, once you've achieved altitude, they make a point of welcoming aboard all their first class-star alliance-muckety muck passengers, while ignoring the rest of us.  Then there's the obnoxious curtain that separates first class from coach.  It's not enough to get more comfortable seating and better food, you also get a polyester shield from coach cooties. Airlines: you're running a business, not a caste system.

Once, waiting for a flight from Madison to Atlanta, a couple was standing at the opening to the priority lane because apparently it was very important that they publicly assert their first class status.  It wasn't even close to boarding time, but they spent the whole time standing there, with facial expressions that showed their outrage at being exposed to the gaze of the loathsome creatures who fly economy.  But guess what happened?  The gate agent announced that the first class bathrooms on the plane were out of order and first class passengers would have to use the coach bathrooms.



Biggest eye roll on an airplane?  A Delta airlines flight in which we were told we would be getting a "complimentary" safety demonstration.



Philadelphia, Chicago, and Newark seem to be the top contenders for the worst airport in the US, at least among my narrow east coast acquaintance.  To me, Chicago seems the most chaotic, Newark the dirtiest, and Philly has the most incompetent staff.  A couple of weekends ago, we had a layover in Philly on our way to Buffalo.  After landing, when we arrived at our gate, I noticed a lonely black duffle bag, sitting on the tarmac, presumably from whatever flight had occupied the gate before us.  The baggage handler unceremoniously tossed it onto the cart intended for our flight's luggage.  Poor, sad duffle bag!  It probably got a free flight to Buffalo.

Turbulence.  I know it's a normal part of flight, but I hate it.  On that same recent trip to Buffalo, when we were en route from Richmond to Philly, it was a bit bumpy and we were flying through clouds (another thing I hate) and a woman across the aisle from us said, "I see flames!"  Of course she was mistaking the flashing red lights on the wings, reflecting off the clouds for flames, but even so, what an idiotic thing to say on a plane.

On that same trip, as we left Philly, heading for Buffalo, the flight attendant announced there would be no drink service because of turbulence.  It was actually a very smooth flight until we began our descent into Buffalo, where the winds were gusting to 50 mph.  Suddenly, it was as if the plane were attached by a string to a stick being batted about by a demented three year old.  I dug my nails into my palm and cranked out Hail Mary's.  The turbulence didn't stop until we were on the ground.  Stepping out of the plane (it was after midnight and there was no jet bridge) the wind wrapped my hair around my face and I had to blindly grope my way down the stairs.  Once safely on the ground, I couldn't stop laughing--partly from hysteria, partly from gratitude at being alive, and partly because it was so hilarious to have left Richmond at a balmy 68 degrees and arrive a few hours later in a howling blizzard.

Sometimes, though, the view from the sky is lovely.  On that same trip to Buffalo (which spawned this post--we spent an entire weekend doing little but sitting around in airports) as we took off for home, I was keen to see Lake Erie from the air, because this winter it had the thickest ice since 1977.  As always, when taking off from Buffalo, you fly west across the city and turn once you get to the lake, and there it was.  The picture below was taken in January, 2014, but when we saw it in early April, it was still frozen, as were most of the finger lakes, which we saw as we flew toward Newark.

Lake Erie


Image: NASA

Your air travel horror stories?

9 comments:

  1. I wrote an entire blog post about our miserable experience in Philly a few months ago: http://jenontheedge.com/2014/01/09/dont-fly-through-philly/

    The indignities of the TSA line are what get me. There's no reason for us to take off our shoes and partially disrobe. I've flown through plenty of airports where we've been allowed to keep our shoes and coats on, with no safety incident on the plane later. Dulles Airport has been experimenting with allowing people to stay fully dressed, which I fully applaud.

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    1. Funny, that part of it doesn't really bother me--except when they don't replenish the plastic buckets fast enough. And I'm a bucket hog--I admit it. TSA didn't like my husband's arm cast on our last trip and they were suspicious of the zippers on my sweater.

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  2. The first time I ever flew - we were in a puddle jumper, flying from Pittsburgh to Charleston, WVa. We overheard the pilots saying there was too much fuel on the plane & they were worried, although they felt the kids on board balanced out the weight. (My sister & myself were the kids.) There was quite a bit of turbulence coupled with the plane flying quite low through the mountains that was slightly unnerving. As was a quick stop along the way at a tiny mountain airport where the fire burned remains of a recent wreck were sitting on a an adjacent runway. It was still under investigation, which is why it was there.
    I hate flying. Given this was my first experience as a 9 year old girl, I think you can see why.

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    1. Yikes. Remind me never to fly into Charleston, WVa.

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  3. The problem with flying vis-à-vis driving is that if your car breaks, the check engine light comes on and you pull over to the side of the road. If your plane breaks you may well fall 20,000 feet and meet your ancestors.

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    1. That's true. I was on a plane once that had something wrong with one of the wings. Before we boarded, I saw the pilot standing on the ground, staring up at one of the wings. During our flight, the flappy bits that go up and down on the wing during landing and take off made a loud and scary noise. We made it, but I wonder how many times they choose to fly, knowing there might be something wrong.

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  4. I have flown quite a bit in the last 10 years for work, and I would say I've never experienced complete disaster-level frustration. I came close one time, when I was nursing and was almost bumped from a flight that was the last one home, with my checked bag full of cold-packed pumped milk that would be spoiled by the next day if I had been bumped while my bag went ahead, which is what would have happened. They had oversold the flight, and I was in a meeting all day that ran late, so I was one of the last people to check into the flight. It was the first trip away from my baby, too - I was a jittery, weepy mess until some nice lady volunteered to stay in Chicago an extra night (for some crazy good vouchers and stuff) so that I could get home to my baby with my precious liquid gold intact. I almost kissed that kind stranger.

    Otherwise, I've had my share of bad turbulence, delayed/cancelled/missed flights, and misplaced bags that turned up a few hours (or a day) later, and I think both Philly and Newark are the 1st level of hell when it comes to airports, but otherwise, no really REALLY bad issues.

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    1. That's awful! Thank goodness for the good Samaritan. I would have been freaking out too.

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  5. Before 9/11 it was fairly routine that flights out of Frankfurt, Germany were always delayed because someone would check a bag and then not board the plane. That meant all the luggage had to be removed from the hold right before takeoff. If you were seated on the right side of the plane you could look out the window and watch security rummage through the bags spread out on the tarmac.

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