The Inherent Indignity of Flying

I guess I should subtitle this as my politically incorrect musings on the trials of modern air travel. In my part time job working for an accreditation agency I fly frequently. In years when I manage one survey per month that’s twelve trips. There and back means I’m in the air 24 times. Since you can’t get many places directly from RDU, most of my trips involve a layover. Add in ski trips and cruises and I guess it’s safe to say I’m in the air over 40 times a year. So, I know whereof I speak.

I tend to avoid United. I’ve got nothing against them other than they seem to have purchased their fleet from a third world country.

And I never really liked Southwest’s festival seating. If I buy a ticket, that should be the end of it. You have to call early to get a good number. They entice you to pay $15 extra so you can call in 36 hours before the flight rather than 24. So, I did. I still got a C number. C stands for crappy seat; probably between two wrestlers with 3 ft wide shoulders. But for another $35 they can guarantee an A placement. How is this different than simple bribery?

American Airlines is annoying for several reasons. Any airmiles I’ve earned during the year they decide to ditch at the end of the year. Or I can “redeem” them for magazines no one wants. Golf Digest? Cigars? Really? And can you believe there is actually a magazine for pipe smokers? The other issue is their handling of irregular situations. I was trying to get home from Tucson last spring. There was an ice storm in Chicago that cascaded to bring the entire nation to a standstill. I arrived at the airport about 9 am, the requisite 2 hours before my flight. Check in was a nightmare. I was having back problems at that time and couldn’t stand more than a few minutes. I ended up sitting down in the line. Eventually I saw a wheelchair person walking by and flagged them down. Me and my wheelchair lady then waited in line for another hour. Then we had to get through security. Once past security my flight kept getting pushed further and further back. I admire the counter personnel for not fighting back at the people who were shouting at them, but they did keep us in the dark about what was going on. We apparently were in a satellite terminal and couldn’t leave. By early evening the terminal ran out of food. A hundred stranded, frustrated people were getting hungry. I feared it would get ugly. By ten that night they said they had booked me on a midnight flight to Dallas. At least that was part of the way home. I landed in Dallas about 2 am. The airlines then said they had a 7 am flight to RDU. I figured I could get about 4 hours of sleep if I went to a hotel. Plus, I’d only had one meal that day (a cheese quesadilla with no cheese because they ran out of cheese, but not quesadilla). I grabbed an airport hotel (with no food other than a vending machine). I think I ended up getting about 3 hours of sleep. Back at the airport the next morning and my flight was delayed. And delayed. I finally got home about 6 pm. I tried to get some compensation from American. I had been a hungry, sleep deprived guest of theirs for 33 hours. They refused to pay for my cheeseless quesadilla. They said I should have used a meal voucher from the American counter. I explained that the American counter didn’t have any vouchers. No. I should have used the meal voucher available at the American counter. Well, how about the hotel bill? They would pay part of it. They would short me about $40 because it was over the amount they allowed. I got really steamed over this. It was not a luxury hotel and was right by the airport. In fact, the morning of my flight I rode in the shuttle with three American employees who’d spent the night in the same hotel. Am I not as good as their employees? I never could escalate my claim past “Jason” whom I could tell from his stuttering answers was a pimply faced kid. I finally filed a written grievance, but it was denied. So, I don’t fly American.

I like Delta. I fly them a lot and have a lot of skymiles. I even have silver elite status. That means I get to walk on the right side of the post when boarding the plane rather than the left side with the unwashed masses. I have actually been bumped up to first class a few times.

Getting to the gate has been problematic in the past year. As mentioned earlier, I have been experiencing back issues that make walking long distances painful. The airports mostly have wheelchair service to help with that. But you have to request it when you check in online. If you show up at the airport looking for a chair, you’re gonna wait.

On many trips I use a rental car. I still haven’t worked out getting my luggage and me from the car rental place to the airport painlessly. Sometimes there’s a shuttle. That usually works. But some smaller airports require you to walk (with your luggage) from the rental place to the airport. In some airports (I’m thinking of one in Rhode Island) that could be a long haul.

I like riding the wheelchair. You get some special treatment, such as being allowed to break line. The pushers are all very nice and usually young. And overwhelmingly Arabic. Just this weekend I was pushed in various airports by Ahmed, Abdul and Mohammed. One anomaly was at an airport last year when I was waiting at a counter. The counter attendant asked if I needed help. I said I was waiting for a chair. He said he’d take care of it. After a few minutes on the phone he told me Jimmy was on his way. A few minutes later he said, “Here’s Jimmy, now.” Jimmy came limping up and I’m pretty sure he was on the high side of 70. The way he was limping I wanted to get up and let him ride. But huffing and puffing he got me to the gate. He said he was limping from his recent knee replacement. I felt like a bad person making him push me.

I had an unpleasant experience with wheelchairs last year, I believe it was somewhere out west. I deplaned at the airport late at night. We were at the next to last gate down a long terminal hallway. I asked the gate attendant as I arrived if they had called ahead for the wheelchair since I didn’t see it. She said they had not. I thought that odd since I asked the people at the airport, I was flying from to call ahead for the chair. You’re not supposed to have to do that, but I do from experience. She called for the chair. I sat and waited about half an hour. I asked her to check on it, so she called again. After more waiting I noticed a house phone on the wall. It said it was for emergencies only. I considered this an emergency, so I picked up the phone. It didn’t work. I noticed another one about 50 ft. down the terminal. So, I went to that one. The guy who answered was nice and said he’d send a wheelchair right away. While using that phone I noticed a cache of wheelchairs in the corner. Most of them had the 4 small wheels, but one was a more traditional one with the large wheels so the sitter could push himself. Rather than walk the distance back to the counter, I got in and rode back to the waiting area. The wheels weren’t as large as usual chairs, so I had to really stretch to reach them. But I managed. The counter lady said I wasn’t supposed to use the airport chairs without an attendant. I have to admit I just looked at her and stayed in my chair. And still no attendant to push me. I had been waiting for about an hour now. I reasoned, I got me a chair. Let’s go. So, I put my carry-on in my lap and started pushing myself toward baggage claim. Totally against all airport regs, but the terminal was deserted. I’d have welcomed security personnel wanting to correct me. After a few hundred feet the counter lady caught up to me. She said she was getting off and this part of the terminal was shutting down for the night. She said she couldn’t just leave me, so she pushed me down to baggage claim. She shouldn’t have had to do that. Something went very wrong.

One of the so-called perks of being injured is that you are allowed to get on the planes before the others. If you have flown recently you know that the width of the aisle is now about 16-18 inches. Since I usually have an aisle seat, getting on early allows me to be banged over and over as people come in with their oversized carry-ons and the inevitable backpack. Someone speaks to them and they turn, oblivious of the backpack and it whacks me upside the head. And the average American person is more than 18 inches wide. So, they are squeezing down the aisle, snagging people who are already sitting and dragging us along.

And speaking of squeezing, flight attendants are no longer the Ken and Barbie dolls of yesteryear. They come in all shapes and sizes. I recently flew with one who may want to reconsider her career choice. She was on the plump side. She turned sideways to squeeze down the aisle, but she was as thick as she was wide. She exceeded the 18-inch barrier in all directions. It was a struggle for her coming and going. And on a flight this weekend the attendant had a full beard. I have never liked beards. I think they are creepy. You don’t what might be nesting in there. It was an evening flight and when Duck Dynasty suddenly loomed up out of the dark I nearly jumped out of my skin. I don’t do beards.

Dealing with fellow travelers can be a joy, sometimes. Then there are other times. Like the lady who I swear must have bathed in cheap perfume. I hope I never smell “Charley!” again. And the guy who may have had a bath in the past month, but I wouldn’t bet on it. Or the chatty conservative Christian lady who led to me putting on my headphones and turning up the music mid-sentence. The seat may be saved, but I’m not. And children can be the worst. I question the need to bring a newborn onto a plane. It can be painful to their ears and inevitably causes crying. If grandma just has to see Junior, send her a ticket. I was on a cross country flight with three babies on board. I think they fed off each other, wailing in sychronicity and three-part harmony.

Apparently parenting has gone out of style. Take the case of Little Leo whom I encountered last year. Little Leo and Mommy were sitting behind me. Little Leo was about 4. He started kicking my seat. I could barely feel it, so I didn’t complain. Still Mommy tried to stop him. She explained all about how it was bad manners and yadda yadda. Leo couldn’t care less. He just kept on kicking. And Mommy kept trying to convince him to stop. We hit turbulence so the captain said all tray tables should be up. Leo was having no part of this. Whenever Mommy tried to put up his tray he screamed. And apparently fought. Daddy who was sitting across the aisle told him Mommy doesn’t like it when you pull her hair and then, Mommy doesn’t like it when you hit her. WTF? Don’t they know you can’t reason with a four-year-old? He’s obviously running the show and turning into a little monster. As we stood up to deplane Mommy apologized to me. I just said, “no problem” and left, glad to be free from her constantly redirecting Leo. As I headed up the jetway I heard a sudden blood curdling scream. I looked back and little Leo had thrown himself on the floor at the entrance to the plane having a full-blown old-fashioned tantrum. I feel sorry for little Leo. It’s not his fault. But he will one day have a rude awakening. Maybe people should have to get a license to have a kid. Small children are nothing but id. The Lord of the Flies demonstrated what happens when left to their own devices. Our job is to civilize them. A long time ago in a rom-com with Rob Lowe and Demi Moore (a very long time ago) her best friend was a kindergarten teacher. She said, “My job is to break their spirit.” Pretty strong but not far from the truth.

Bon voyage!