For the first time in a year, I took a trip via airplane last weekend. Man oh man oh man, if it’s another year before I fly again, I can stand the wait. I didn’t feel so much like I’m a giant or superhuman among the Liliputans, that I’m superior especially, but air travel has gotten to be a very strange culture that I no longer understand. That’s what makes me feel like Gulliver: the unfamiliarity of it all.
To start with, the general public announcements at the airport made a point of mentioning that the terrorism alert level had been raised to orange. Um, does that have any effect on anyone? Is there anything that we could or should do differently once a trip is underway? In some ways, that warning creates a niggling unease that’s probably worse than the preposterously intrusive charade that passes for airport security. (Maybe those folks know something I don’t about hiding dangerous stuff in personal hygiene products larger than 3 oz., but I rather doubt it.)
Many other travellers are just like me, getting from point A to point B with the least obtrusive and unremarkable behaviors possible. The thing is, though, they pass mostly unnoticed. It’s the ones that behave like nincompoops who attract all the attention and cause me to wonder what planet I’m living on. The first thing to notice is the utter lack of personal space. People crowd and jostle and act like their own place in line or in waiting areas is unrelated to anyone else. I also can’t get over the conversations folks have, usually on cell phones, fully within earshot of everyone and without the slightest sense of decorum. No doubt, there is a lot of needless “I’m at the gate” and “we just arrived” chatter that is merely functional or the usual banalities about weather and delays and getting to and fro. But the number of just insanely stupid things being said that I had the misfortune of overhearing was breathtaking. I also wonder whether folks can even choke out a sentence without using the word fuck at least twice. (“I left my fucking hair dryer back at the fucking apartment. Fuck.”)
Inevitably, airports struggle to manage the connecting flight situation very well. Outbound, I had 45 mins. to traverse 3 terminals — which felt like it was halfway across the state — to get to the second plane, and I was the last on to board (the door closed just behind me). Inbound, I had a 2.5 hour layover (I paid $19 for two tacos and beer, woo hoo!) and the gates were side-by-side. The herd of people stampeding the gate at boarding time is frankly embarassing. But I gues it’s no worse that the difficulty of getting your carry-on stowed and sitting down in the narrow confines of the passenger compartment. Again, most folks are quite cooperative and accomodating; it’s the idiots that rivet my attention, though they’re blithely unaware of anyone else.
The in-flight service is fine, I guess. It hasn’t changed much, other than peanuts being outlawed. In fact, the basics of flight really haven’t changed much in 30 years. It’s just the trappings and the behaviors of fellow passengers that now make it so foreign to me. Nowdays, the overhead bins have LCD screens to pacify the passengers during flight, just as the terminals have massive arrays of flat screens everywhere to ward off any hint of boredom. (Ironically, most of what’s broadcast is stultifying anyway, as evidenced by travellers’ blank stares and the pools of drool formed under them). It’s actually difficult to find a quiet place to escape the din of announcements and media vying for your attention. I was also disheartened (I’ve conditioned myself, unwittingly) that when I lowered my tray table, I was face with — what else? — an advertisement. I stewed over that for about 45 mins. Oh, and in the terminals, I saw pay-per-use recharging kiosks that I railed against in a post about Exciting New Market Opportunities.
The one positive comment I have to make is that the Internet and travel sites like Orbitz and Travelocity make booking travel, hotels, and rental cars much simpler and probably cheaper than in the past. It all worked seamlessly for me, except that I rather dislike the sense that I’m a number, some disembodied demographic, interacting with a computer rather than a person. The security and airline personnel certainly treat you as though you’re a cow or a pig being shuttled from pen to pen. That’s the price of being one of a mass of people. Crowd management becomes dehumanizing.