Does anyone remember when flying was fun? While I may have missed the heyday I saw depicted in Mad Men, even I can recall when arriving at the airport to fly to a new location, maybe even in a different time zone, felt exciting. These days, though, the emotions prompted by the tasks of getting to a gate and boarding a plane are no longer thrilling. In fact, they’re much more likely to be described as anxiety inducing and nerve wracking.
My Sunday flight out of JFK to Palm Springs provides only the most recent evidence of the demise of civilized travel. The journey began in Albany, well, actually in Rensselaer. The Amtrak train was completely sold out, making for a crowded ride down to NYC. Fortunately, I ended up with a window seat for eagle viewing along the Hudson – and I saw two!
After numerous flights from JFK, I’ve finally mastered the trip from Penn Station to the AirTrain. I’ve messed this up in the past when I tried to go as cheaply as possible and took the subway over the LIRR. I won’t make that mistake again, especially with the improvements to Penn and access to the railroad.
Despite having missed my stop on the first loop around the airport, I made it to Terminal 5 two and half hours before my flight. These days you just don’t know how long security is going to take and after missing a flight years ago in Barcelona, I vowed to never let that happen again. So, even though I was already checked in and didn’t have luggage to check, I aim for early.
At this point, things were “normal,” or at least what is now considered normal. Shoes were off, electronics were out and plastic tubs were filled with travelers’ no longer personal items. This part of the airport experience always feels the most stressful to me – did I pack any liquids that I’ve forgotten about? Are they going to tear apart my carefully arranged luggage contents? Is someone going to take my stuff accidentally, or not?
Once I made it through that gauntlet, I thought I was home free. All I needed to do was find a water bottle filling station and settle myself in at the gate. Unfortunately, on both counts, these simple hopes were dashed in no time.
To begin, there were no water bottle filling stations, just water fountains to awkwardly tilt one’s bottle in an attempt to get more than a few ounces. The gate, at the very end of a wing of gates, was fine. Until it wasn’t and an announcement came over the PA advising us of a gate change. Our flight’s passengers made their way to a different gate, in a different wing, which came with far less seating.
Now things were getting interesting.
I observed as people began jostling for position. Obviously, they must be the folks who always seem to score Boarding Groups A-C, which always seems to relegate me to Group D, no matter how promptly I check in 24 hours in advance. Babies cried in a preview of what was to follow as we flew west. I fit checked my co-passengers, surprising only myself with the disappointment I felt looking at the way people present themselves in public. Pajama pants? Athletic slides revealing grungy toenails? Giving off unwashed vibes? Check, check, check. Welcome to 2023, people.
We boarded, only a few minutes beyond the time we were scheduled to take off and I was fortunate to find enough space for my airline official carryon bag in a close enough to my seat overhead storage bin. I did need to shove a coat out of the way, but that’s a minor detail. I buckled up and settled in for the show that is transcontinental travel – and I’m not talking about the on demand movie offerings.
The first thing that drew my attention was the lucky guy perched in a window seat in a row of three seats which were otherwise unoccupied. I leaned over and asked him if it had been something he said (to have prevented anyone from sitting next to him), to which he responded jokingly with “yes, and it was intentional.” Sadly, he didn’t invite me to sit on the aisle in his row.
Hours later, I awoke from a nap to see that someone bolder than I had taken that available aisle seat. It was an admirable move offset only by the woman’s choice to place her baby on the floor beneath her feet. Yes, her baby (who looked to be about 10-12 months old) was laid on the floor of the plane to sleep.
I’m sorry, but that’s just gross.
Also gross are the facilities, especially if you’re a larger sized person. As I made my way to the rear of the plane for a bathroom break, bouncing off seats as the plane sped along, I witnessed a substantially sized woman who needed to turn sideways to make it through the aisle between the seats. I know I had a challenge to make use of the bathroom due to the one piece jumpsuit I was wearing and the minuscule amount of available space. I can’t begin to imagine how anyone over 175 lbs could comfortably make use of those bathrooms.
The temperature control in a plane is always unpredictable, thus my habit of always bringing an oversized wrap onboard in my accessible bag. I watched a woman a couple of rows up from me as she retrieved her coat from the overhead compartment, leaving the bin open when she sat back down. Who does that? Why in the world wouldn’t she have closed it?
It turns out that the thoughtless, but warm, woman was seated next to another woman who happened to be traveling with a young dog in a pet carrier. The puppy wasn’t completely content under the seat and was quite direct about expressing their displeasure with intermittent spells of barking. Well, Ms. No Longer Cold was not impressed with the dog’s complaints and demanded that the dog be kept quiet, to which the owner replied with “I’m sure you can find another seat somewhere else.”
Had Ms. NLC attempted to relocate herself, it would have needed to be at a precise moment in time as the flight attendants were busy traveling up and down the aisle delivering snacks and retrieving trash, making it difficult to move about the cabin. And, to be completely honest, the flight attendants were not particularly accommodating when people were out of their seats. Getting to a bathroom required planning akin to the storming of Normandy, hyperbolically speaking.
Pushy people, crying babies, barking dogs…all included in the price of my fare. Anxiety about the plane crashing, or being overtaken by terrorist, is only part of the reason I dry swallow a low dose Valium for the trip. Can’t wait to see what the ride back East brings.
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