Tuesday, October 8, 2013

THE JOYS OF MODERN AIR TRAVEL


A few days ago, I returned to Patagonia, where I live, from my first trip “back home” to the USA in over four years. I had a great time! Got to know parts of Miami I’d never seen before—places that made me forget for a while how much I hate the climate there (Nordic by nature and 18 stone by bacchanalian inclination, I don’t do Turkish-bath hot and sticky well)—met, face to face, a long-time virtual friend and fellow writer Paul Toth (a meeting I shall always consider historic), in an unseasonably torrid Ann Arbor, Michigan (in the blazing mid-afternoon sun on I-475, the “exterior temperature” on my fancy rented Ford Fusion read 101ºF or 38ºC), enjoyed early autumn weather and relaxed times with family and friends in my native Ohio, and reconnected with people I hadn’t seen in years (more than ten years in some cases). I walked the streets of my home town from city limit to city limit, seeking to revisit and recapture memories of my youth, took myriad pictures of things that are only “points of interest” in my retrospective dreams, and listened, with rare leisure time and interest, to the life and times of every friend or stranger I met.
Like I say, it was a great trip! And I’ll very likely talk more about it later, either here or in A Yankee At Large. The only problem was getting there...and getting back.
I have to admit that, except on my very first flights, back in the golden age of air travel, when it was still considered a luxury—in my teens and twenties (the 1960s and ‘70s), when the premier world-class airlines like Pan Am and TWA still existed and deluxe Boeing 707s were all the rage, back when even flying military stand-by was a fairly pleasant experience—I’ve never really loved air travel. I’m not one of those people with an obsessive fear of flying. But neither do I like to fly. I just consider it a quick way to get where I want to go, a modicum of discomfort that I have to get through in exchange for more time to work and/or enjoy once I arrive at my destination.
Nothing like the comfort of the "tutto letto" 
But when time permits, for instance, I much prefer to take a bus the thousand miles from Northern Patagonia to Buenos Aires, when I go to the city on business. Not just any bus, mind you, but the so-called “tutto letto”: a luxury service that includes hot and cold meals and snacks; soft drinks, coffee, tea, beer, wine, whisky and champagne; individual headphones, music, videos and reading lights; heating and air-conditioning, pillows and travel blankets; and best of all, deluxe seats that recline entirely to a flat 180 degrees and that have head and footboards so that they can be made into comfortable and semi-private sleeping accommodations. It takes 19 hours to travel from the bus station in San Carlos de Bariloche to Buenos Aires, but the views all along the way, from Andean mountains and rivers to the Patagonian steppes, and finally to the oh-so-green and vast pampas, are absolutely spectacular and the luxury ride a time to relax, reflect, nap, catch up on reading, write in my journal and just enjoy leisure time with nothing to do but savor the journey.
The open road and all of
the amenities
Similarly, on my trips to the United States over the years, I’ve generally preferred to limit my flying to the big trip from Buenos Aires to Miami, where I’ve always rented a car and driven everywhere from then on—usually turning in the rental three or four weeks later with anywhere from 3,000 to 4,500 additional miles on it. So it had been about a decade since I had done any serious domestic flying inside the United States.

This time, however, I had some meetings to go to in Miami, didn’t figure it would be practical to have a car there, and so decided to fly to Ohio once my business was concluded in Florida. I chose Delta, because in order to get from Miami to Dayton (a straight shot up the line traced by Interstate 75 over Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky and on over the river into Ohio, as the crow flies) other airlines promised to first send me on wild goose chases to places like Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas, or bustling O’Hare International in Chicago, before finally delivering me to southern Ohio, with several such connections taking an hour or two longer than my international flight from Buenos Aires to Miami had! Delta’s hub is in Atlanta, Georgia, right on the way to Dayton, and although I would have to have a brief layover and change planes in that southern hub, total trip time was only just over four hours. That wasn’t bad, I figured, in these days of hub-routing. I realize times have long since changed (long before my last domestic flight in the United States, in fact). But, just for the record, I can recall when “snow birds” flew direct from Dayton (the birthplace of aviation) to Florida in the winter. And I also recall flying direct from Dayton to Los Angeles when I was stationed there, at the Army’s Fort MacArthur Anti-Aircraft Artillery Base, in 1971. I know that the hub-traffic idea supposedly saves fuel and keeps the airlines from going bankrupt, but...just saying...air travel back in the day was, well, convenient. Now, it’s apparently no better than austere, uncomfortable and profit-prone.
My first surprise was when I was ordering my tickets and was given the option of buying “extra leg room”. I thought, “Well, that’s an interesting additional new service!” But even with my six-foot stature and 32-inch inseam, I’d never found what I had come to think of as “regular coach-class space” to be inadequate, so I skipped that option. The second surprise was when I got to the Delta check-in kiosk at Miami International and was informed that if I had a piece of luggage to check, I’d have to pay a fee of 25 dollars. In 45 years of air travel, and having taken, literally, hundreds of aircraft to different parts of the country and world, I had occasionally been charged a fee for overweight (not mine, my suitcase’s), but this was the first time I’d been charged a fee for checking a single, regulation bag. “Ha!” scoffed another passenger later, when I asked how long this had been going on. “You lucked out! You can get charged as much as 80 bucks or so if they decide your bag’s too big or too heavy." So, I quickly understood the “carry-on craze” with people seeking to pass as carry-on hand luggage bags that were clearly suitcases, and actually getting away with stowing 21-inch weekend bags (if they could lift them that high) in the cabin overheads, so that people like myself, who were toting real carry-ons (a briefcase and small shoulder bag) were asked to stow them beneath the seat in front of us)—a request I managed to flatly refuse...without being “tased” by an air marshal.

Speaking of which, I wonder if anybody has done a comparative psycho-sociological study of the “new” (and ever more humiliating) airport security with the rampant deterioration of airline services. Maybe airlines figure that if you’re self-deprecating and obsequious enough to let yourself be screened, half-stripped, felt up and cattle-herded through pre-boarding security, you’ll put up with whatever they dish out once you’re on board. So why bother with amenities?   
My second surprise was when I sat in my seat on the Miami-Atlanta flight. I immediately understood the “extra leg room” offer. It was tantamount to a dognapper’s offer to sell you back your own mutt after stealing it from your doorstep. Delta had simply moved the row in front of mine back a few inches—enough to make me uncomfortable to the point of wanting to never have to be subjected to a ride like that again, but not quite to the point of its being considered “cruel and unusual punishment” in a court of law. If I wasn’t willing to buy back the space in front of me that they’d usurped, somebody would be, and then it would just be my tough luck. It was a policy, I reflected, that tended to pit passengers against one another—like when I found myself vaguely hating the average-height, slender young fellow who sat down in the seat in front of mine and amply stretched his legs in my rightful space, which he’d had no compunction about purchasing and, in so doing, becoming part of the airline’s “extra leg room” scam. I would gladly have jabbed a knee into the back of his seat now and again to make him even a fraction as uncomfortable as I was, but my knees were already jammed so tight against his seat that I couldn’t move them enough to cause him any discomfort. Delta had thought of everything!
Paranoia set in when, shortly afterward, my seating companion (aisle seat B) arrived. Did the airline have, I wondered, sophisticated surveillance equipment that picked up your full-body visual image through your computer when you were ordering your ticket—I mean, why not, if the TSA could now scan you right down to your birthday suit before you got aboard—so that refusing to buy the extra space would also mean being seated with a physically incompatible companion? Because it was apparent that if there were two people on that plane that should never have been seated together, it was my trip companion and I. She was a sweet-faced young woman (an Atlanta schoolteacher, I would later learn) who was easily six-foot-four in her stocking feet, and weighing in, I’m guessing, at a towering and solid 275 pounds. Between us we easily broke a quarter of a long ton, and her thighbone, groin to knee, was, I calculated, a couple of inches longer still than my own, so that I was almost surprised not to see the other bourgeois “extra-space” man sitting in front of her forcibly ejected from his seat when she was finally able to impel and compress her impressive humanity into the allotted space with her large, round knees now wearing the seat in front of her for a hat.
For the next hour and a half she and I stoically bore our stocked-and-pilloried existence, smiling politely at each other (our lips were about all we could move comfortably) whenever the occasion arose and trying hard not to invade each other’s miniscule space. But by the time we landed in Atlanta we were practically joined at the hip and were on casual speaking terms—you can’t have one side of your body pressed to the side of another person’s body until you’re exchanging DNA through your perspiration without achieving some level of intimacy. But there was no time for lingering good-byes once we were on the ground, since we were a little late getting in and Atlanta’s a big airport to have to sprint through from one connection to another.   

Now sweaty from the intramural airport jog, I hustled aboard my Atlanta-Dayton flight and hastily took what I thought was my window seat in row 24.  “Well now,” I thought, “this is more like it,” as I stretched my legs in the ample room provided. “The other plane must have been a fluke, a replacement, a stand-in.” I sighed contentedly and snapped on my seatbelt.
But just before the cabin crew closed the door, in came a late-comer, who sauntered with devil-may-care demeanor along the aisle and stopped at my row. He looked so similar to the bourgeois “extra-room” fellow who had sat in front of me on the last flight as to have been cut from the same mold. “Excuse me,” he said, with a bored air, “but I think you’re sitting in my seat...” I stared dumbly at him. Then he held up his boarding pass and, raising his eyebrows, said, “Twenty-three A...” I looked over his shoulder at the number on the row across the way. And now I saw that he was right, even though, in all fairness, row 24 was wedged up so close to the back of row 23 that it kind of resembled the back half of one of those cab-and-a-half pick-up trucks. I stalled for a second: maybe by divine intervention, he’d be hit by lightning before we started to taxi.

“Is there a problem here?” a flight attendant asked.

“No,” I said, resigned to my fate, “no problem, I just made a mistake.”
Sitting in the aisle seat of my real row was an older lady (older, even, than I). She was about the size and shape of a china chest.

“You here?” she snapped.
“’fraid so,” I said apologetically. She sat there, completely blocking the entrance to the two-seat row, but glaring up at me with a look of, “Well, get on by, then!” until I finally said, “Sorry, but I’m afraid you’ll have to get up.” Sighing heavily, in obvious irritation, she did. I scrunched into my seat, which gave the impression of having even less leg room than the one on the other plane, and as I did, retrieved my safety belt buckle from the lady’s seat—still warm from her having sat on it, rather like a hen on an egg.

“I’m gonna be needin’ that!” she anxiously exclaimed.
“This one’s mine,” I said with a rehearsed smile, and then, pointing to hers, “That one’s yours.”

We strapped up and sat waiting. Her thighs seemed to be made of skin-covered custard and expanded when she sat, stretching the lap of her ample dress taut and overflowing under the armrest to also invade my seat. I pressed myself as far against the bulkhead as I could, but her leg modeled itself to mine like so much warm putty. It was hot on board. She was anxious and fidgety, sighing loudly again and again. She opened up the air vent above her and trained it on her ruddy, hypertensive face. I watched as the ground crew outside detached a large air hose from the plane in final preparation for our takeoff. As soon as they did, my companion’s air vent stopped hissing. She reached up and grabbed at it, twisting it desperately.

No air!” she cried, like someone waking from a bad dream. But just then, the captain turned on the plane’s own ventilation system, and cool air came hissing from the vent again. “Ah, air!” she cried. And so, throughout the hour-long flight, I would be regaled with randomly issued, monosyllabic comments of this sort. “Bright!” when the sun came through the porthole. “Rough!” when we hit a spot of turbulence. “Hot!” when she sipped the coffee they gave her. “Almost there!” when we were advised that we were beginning our final descent for the Dayton Cox International Airport. Meanwhile, I was trapped like a knot in a knothole, the seat in front of me making a lasting impression on my knees, the sides of my body and thigh pretty much one with hers.
The trip back to Miami with Delta a few weeks later was more of the same and I dreaded it throughout my stay. At one point I’d decided to surrender to their game and pay for the extra space, but this time, none was available. To add insult to injury, going back to Argentina from Miami, I was treated to a ride on one of the wide-bodied planes in the “new fleet” of the re-nationalized Aerolíneas Argentinas—three seats against one bulkhead, three against the other and four in a row in between. Though it offered slightly more leg-room than the Delta domestic flights, it was certainly not comfortable enough for an eight and a half hour run...or was it, I asked myself, that I was just getting old and cranky?
But no. I was sure that wasn’t it. I recalled other international flights where I’d had plenty of room to move and stretch my legs and sleep without having to worry about the seat in front of me kneecapping me, and where the miniature movie screen on the back of that seat wasn’t so close that I had to put on my reading glasses to see it. Nor had there been connection boxes for the armrest remote controls under each seat taking up half of the lateral leg room so that the only way to put your feet under the seat in front of you was ankle against ankle. In such discomfort, the flight seemed endless and I was thrilled, by comparison, with the leg room and comfort of the seats on the airport shuttle bus that I boarded for the 45-minute trip to downtown Buenos Aires once we landed. 
Ah, for the good ol' days of air travel!
It was a pleasant surprise, then, the following day, when I boarded my flight from Buenos Aires back to Patagonia and was given a seat with leg room that, in comparison with the other flights I’d taken, looked almost like first class. I commented on this to my latest seating companion, a guy in the know, who worked for the ruling party and was on his way to the interior on what he called a “logistical mission.”
“It’s one of the ‘old planes’ from the international route,” he said. “This is how the leg room used to be, before subsidies were cut and the airline had to start trying to make money.”
“Don’t I know it!” I said. And spent the rest of the flight longing for the good ol’ days, when air travelers were still treated with some dignity and flying was still considered fun.      

 

13 comments:

Mauricio Kitaigorodzki said...

Well, not so bad then to have a physical handicap and being given a seat in the first row of economy!! Unless (and this happened on a flight to Buenos Aires a few years ago) a full US film crew has taken over the whole first row (and then some), and no crew member dared to tell them to give us that space we were entitled. We made a written complaing and received a nice, apologetical call from LAN a few weeks later, but meantime we had been pressed like a cheap sandwich.

Mauricio Kitaigorodzki

Dan Newland said...

Thanks for your story, Mauricio. Sad to hear that not even the physically challenged are respected in this age of savage air travel.

Lilly said...

I believe I can safely say that no one an inch bigger than me can travel comfortably in modern planes... and I am small.
As to bags, maybe we should carry all our things on us?

John Sprague said...

Hello Dan. I always enjoy reading your stories. This one made me think of many of my flight experiences. One was on the "old" Aerolíneas Argentinas from Buenos Aires to New York City on a very old 747 with an observation deck that was closed to the public, but apparently was where the cabin crew slept because during the night they were nowhere to be found. We did, however, find the gallery and helped ourselves. We have had many sub-par Delta experiences, such as the flight from Columbus to Fort Lauderdale where they decided they had too much commercial cargo and left all the passengers luggage in Ohio. To make matters worse, they sat in the lost baggage office and watched a plane full of people watching the moving luggage belt for over a half-hour and never told us what was going on. We only found out when we went in the office to inquire. One of our high points was when upon landing one time, our flight attendant, who was retiring after that flight, announced, "Welcome to Tampa. We know you have many options when flying, so the next time you chose a bankrupt airline, we hope you will consider Delta again." We fly between Tampa and Columbus quite a bit now, and only fly Southwest. They have two hour non-stops and the first two checked bags are free.

Dan Newland said...

Thanks for sharing your story, John, and for reading me. Always a pleasure to hear from you.

Yoly said...

Oh, Dan. Gads I was splitting a gut on this one. Sort of in the same manner people used to laugh at others slipping on banana peels...Travel is no fun anymore and as the seats shrink, Americans have also grown larger. It's a conspiracy to keep us grounded, I'm sure.

Glad you met The Mr. Paul Toth and sorry you didn't come via Arizona (which would have had you burning up along with squished, plus dodging ten-gallon hats.

Dan Newland said...

I'm so glad you enjoyed it, Yoly. I wish I could have gone out west too! So little time and so many things I want to do...Maybe next time.

James said...

I'll never forget my first trip to Argentina in 2002, flying on Southern Wings.
The seats were spacious, I dined on grass fed beef and the stunningly beautiful stewardesses stopped often to refill my wine glass free of charge.
As soon as I arrived back in the US and changed to Delta, the seats were tiny, the old and jaded stewardesses treated me like a war criminal as they charged me a fortune for a skimpy box lunch and headphones.
It was a sad day when Southern Wings finally lost its subsidy and "flew south".

Dan Newland said...

Thanks for sharing your story and memories of better times in air travel, James.

Alan Stark said...

To add to your experience you need to try out the United Group boarding, ie Group 1 - deserving cases, Group 2 - the rich folk, and then Group 3 - Window seats, Group 4 - middle and finally Group 5 - aisle sitters. So by the time Groups 3 and 4 together with their travelling partners alongside them get on board, that leaves Group 5 with a few single stragglers with no room left for their hand luggage.

Dan Newland said...

Yes, Alan, the hand luggage is a real problem. Since their policy is to charge for every piece of luggage you stow, people try to find ingenious ways to carry everything but the kitchen sink on board with them, and since boarding is according to some secret esoteric code that only the airline and the priviledged seem to understand, there are people--you and I for instance--who end up having to shove their carry-ons "where the sun don't shine".

Peggy Madison Market said...

Once again, Dan, you entertained me to tears!
It's bad enough to be confined in such a little space but to have to share that space with someone's excess baggage can make for a very long trip.
Not certain if long flights are better with a silent passenger who happens to fall asleep and whose mouth drops open and of course they breathe their garlic dog breath towards you for several hours or to have one who constantly talks your legs off about everything that you could care less about.
Love your stories, Dan...keep them coming!

Dan Newland said...

Thanks for being a regular reader of this blog, Peggy! Glad I could make you smile.