I don’t travel by air often. Perhaps twice a year at most. And I’m fine with that. I don’t particularly enjoy it. I’m not sure if anyone really does anymore, since pretty much any of the joy and fun has been sucked out of it. But it still beats having to drive for several days to reach a destination.
Today I boarded two planes, and set foot in three airports, to go visit my sister. Air travel can of course be challenging and frustrating – or, if you enjoy the art of people-watching like I do, it can be pretty darn entertaining. The airline industry makes up an interesting microcosm of very real people, a combination of travelers and those who are employed in the business of shipping those humans to various locations. From check-in counter associates to TSA agents to baggage handlers to ground crew to flight attendants and pilots, to the people who work in airport shops and services – they all have very specific responsibilities and roles, and rules to follow. For the most part, I’ve found that treating any of these folks with a friendly smile and respect makes the whole process a bit smoother and, well, more human. All of those workers are real people too, with bills to pay and families to care for. Just because they may wear a uniform and may have to instruct you to throw out the $4 bottled water you just purchased, doesn’t mean they are robots.
At my mid-way stop at the airport in DC, I had to go through a second security screening. As I went through the “hands up” machine, I was asked to pause on the other side so a female agent could pat me down – apparently something pinged in my scan. She asked me if I had anything in my pockets. Relieved to be speaking to a woman, I confessed quietly that yes, I had a couple of feminine products (panty liners) in my pockets. She smiled and apologetically said I would have to remove them and hold them in my hand while she checked me. Another female agent standing nearby said “sometimes I have those in my pockets too.” Yup. Real Women.
I enjoy watching other travelers navigate the security gates and kill time in the waiting areas. There’s the mom who’s keeping her three-year-old daughter entertained while she’s navigating a stroller and tote bag at the same time…and I know for sure that she’s saying a silent prayer that the little girl maintains a good attitude on the plane. Then there’s the gentleman sitting across the way, next to his wife, both looking tired and not really talking. He’s wearing a belt-buckle the size of Texas, so I imagine they are heading home after an exhausting trip to visit the kids. There were the two buddies who seemed fascinated by the items available in the gift shop, clearly new to the airport and travel environment. There’s the group of high school kids being herded by a chaperone, oblivious to the fact that they’ve all stopped and clustered right in the way of other travelers to discuss where they need to go next. And, of course, there are the frequent flyer business travelers. They exhibit a weary expression on their faces that reflects not only a bit of disdain for the inexperienced vacationers, but a fogginess of wondering which city they are in.
On my first flight, I sat next to a man in a suit and we chatted briefly. I explained that I was off for a long weekend to visit my sister, and that I assumed, given his attire, that he was traveling for business. He told me that he was “commuting” this week between Connecticut and Washington. He had decided to fly home last night because he had run out of clean clothes, and rather than get laundry done in the hotel or buy a new shirt, he took a flight home. He was headed back to DC this morning, to spend a few more hours there, then fly on to Chicago. I groaned internally, thinking “I’d rather have a root canal than have this guy’s schedule and job.”
Since I thankfully don’t fly weekly like that man, I always encounter something new in the process, or marvel at the changes that have taken place over the years – most of course, due to heightened security. For example, I’m not sure I understand the reasoning behind checking a bag at one counter, then having to carry that same bag over to a separate area to be then taken by handlers. Sure, I understand they have to scan or check the bags, but couldn’t they still do that from the handy conveyor belt that used to run behind the counter? I also found it interesting that one of the questions asked now is if I have E-cigarettes in my luggage. The avid anti-smoker that I am, I looked confused and said no…then later wondered what E-Cig smokers are supposed to do? Carry them on? Hide them in their underwear? Ship them ahead? I didn’t ask. (And yes, I will pay $25 so my bag can travel in the bottom of the plane because I can’t fit four days into a carry-on.)
Twice today, while in line at security, I had TSA Agents approach me to check my palms for chemicals. That was new. I wondered if I looked like someone who regularly handles scary elements with my bare hands, or if just happened to be the lucky number each time for random checks. Then, of course, I worried a bit about the amount of germs on those wands that were wiped across my palms. Glad I took my Airborne this morning.
I’m also glad that I bought some snacks in the airport shop, because apparently the free cookies or peanuts are a service of the past too – at least on some flights. If you want a little something to nosh now, you’ve gotta pay the attendant pushing the cart down the aisle and bumping your elbows because she’s only got a half inch of clearance. Maybe she can give you some free ice for your elbow while you enjoy your $3 bag of goldfish crackers.
As I settled into my cramped seat, prepared to swallow a couple of Aleve to help the back and leg aches I would get from sitting in a small space for several hours, I had a wave of sympathy for any person larger than I who also paid hundreds of dollars to be even more uncomfortably wedged. Except for those lucky ducks in first class, who sit with a smug and cozy expression, legs stretched out, waiting for their dishes of warm cashews and adult beverages to be served. Me, jealous? You betcha.
Snuggled in to my 12” square space by the window, I had some time to write, read, and contemplate a few things. First, of course, was if I would need to somehow get past the other two people sitting next to me to use the tiny closet of a restroom in the back of the plane, or if I could continue to hold my needs until we landed. Second, because of the cost to check bags, it is somewhat amazing watching people try to fit larger and larger carry-on bags into smaller and smaller storage areas. Until the bags have to be removed by attendants and stored with checked bags. For free…Huh. And lastly, I wondered if I could contort my body enough to reach the peanut butter crackers in my bag under the seat in front of me without laying my head in the lap of the seatmate next to me.
At the end of the day, I arrived safe and sound, although a bit tardy, and a lot sore and achey. And after all, reaching our destinations safely is the only truly important thing. Even if we no longer agree that “You’ll Love the Way We Fly” .