The Dark Side of Airline Travel

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What is it with dark airplanes? Those of us addicted to sunlight, open air and cloud-watching may have to establish our own airline. Or unionize in favor of at least a passenger area dedicated to open window shades. We might, I fear, find it slow going.

I am a confirmed window-seat person. I have nothing against aisle-seat people; endowed with a better-than-average (I’ve been told) bladder, I generally don’t bother them. Middle-seat people, unless they are part of a devoted couple, simply had the misfortune to book their tickets late; for purposes of this essay they count for very little. What power do they have, anyway, poor squished-in things.

On settling into my window-seat corner, the first thing I want to do is raise the shade. More and more often it seems there’s a rule against this until we are at least airborne. Which is OK with me; I’m a cloud-watcher, not necessarily a greasy-runway-watcher. So once we level off above the clouds I am eager to slide my shade up.

That’s when I get the frantic motion from the aisle-seat occupant who wants it shut. If window shades were open elsewhere in our sardine can I might be emboldened to resist. But no, a glance around reveals nothing but gloom. Every shade drawn tight. We might as well be in a submarine.

“Folks,” I want to shout, “it’s 10 AM!” But I do not. There’s enough hostility loose in the land as is.

So we travel across the country in darkness. Outside are rivers and plains, the Rocky Mountains, the Grand Canyon, too many cloud formations to name. Sunsets. Weather conditions creating phenomena we may never again see. What can I say?

Naps, you argue. Well OK, I’m a #1 proponent of naps. But what’s wrong with eyeshades? We’re all masked up; we might as well be fully hidden from sight. I’ve tried napping on airplanes myself. You can take this to the bank: approximately 45 seconds into a deep sleep the captain will come on with some 80-decibel announcement about how grateful the crew is for our loyalty, and how he (it’s always a he; she-captains at least generally speak at an acceptable decibel level) wants us to sit back, relax and enjoy the flight. We are supposed to enjoy being rudely awakened just to be reminded we are being held captive in a dark-grey tin box for five or six hours? Lacking any other announcement excuse we will encounter rough air that mandates an interruption about tightening our seat belts. My seat belt was already tight.

 Small children whine loudly. Who can blame them? There’s no glimmer of daylight into which mommy can point to say “Look at the pretty puffy clouds.” Or even rain. We drought-weary Californians would so relish the sight of rain on the wings – but no, everybody wants to plunge westward in solemn gloom, back to the wildfires without even a small memory of possible salvation.

It’s enough to drive one to train travel. Or cars. At least you can’t drive a car with all the windows covered over. Uh, oh. I may have given the self-driving car crazies a new idea.

Finally there is the closing announcement. “We’re beginning our descent into San Francisco. Thank you for flying Shut-in Air.”  

Bridging the Poverty Gap

On a recent cross-country flight I sat one row ahead of a family I had first noticed in the gate area: a young mother with one child about four and a baby, none looking as though they’d had a bath, a new pair of shoes or a good night’s sleep in some time. They were one row behind me, and I was one row behind six rows of excited high school kids accompanied by several adults from Salinas, California, heading off for spring break. (It was not a quiet trip.)airplane interior

The child was hungry, the baby cried, and the mother looked helpless. Mother and child wore ill-fitting clothes and sandals not well suited to the 40-degree weather. The baby might have needed changing and the mother made me feel sad. In fact, the entire family made me feel sad. At what cost, I kept wondering, could they be flying all the way across the country, to find what relief?

It could have been my imagination, but it seemed as if everyone managed to make them invisible in a way more extreme than how we generally avoid noticing each other when strangers are in close quarters. It felt as if there were two parallel universes – the Regular People one degree removed from the First Class people, and the ignorable family.

airline snacksWhen the flight attendant came by with snacks I was grateful to be able to pass my caramel-filled wafer to the child. This was nothing magnanimous on my part; I’m gluten-intolerant and couldn’t eat it. But what balanced my sadness for the little family happened after we landed. As the exiting unfolded, a young man in an Ivy League college jacket wound up right behind the mother. She was struggling with baby, small child, huge diaper bag and a canvas bag retrieved from the luggage rack. “Here,” said the young man; “Let me help.” With that he slung his duffel bag onto his back, grabbed both diaper bag and canvas sack and smilingly sent mother and brood ahead of him down the aisle. When I passed them at the end of the jetway he was pulling something out of his duffel bag – presumably a snack of some sort – for the 4-year-old.

This flight ended in Washington D.C., where a lot of millionaires are working to cut their own taxes and eliminate funding for a variety of services to people like my fellow-traveling family.

The day after my arrival I had a joyous reunion with one of my best friends from long ago college days, whose daughter drove her several hours through stormy weather so we could visit. Her daughter’s name is Lisa.

Lisa and her husband Gary, it turns out, are moving to the unincorporated hamlet of Lucketts, Virginia. Four miles south of the Potomac River, Lucketts features trailer parks and very fancy new upscale homes, an old schoolhouse now on the National Registry of Historic Places, one gas station, and a stoplight at the intersection of Route 15 and Stumptown Road. Vineyards developing nearby partially explain the fancy new homes; according to Wikipedia, you can hear distant train whistles, and bluegrass music every Saturday night at the community center (former schoolhouse) from October to April. Lucketts manse

Lisa and Gary, who have already met with community members from both ends of the Lucketts economic spectrum, will live in an old (built in 1924) manse across the road from a recently-closed (built in 1885) Presbyterian church. They plan to hold open house – you’ll know you’re welcome to drop in if the porch light is on – at (well, almost) all hours. If it turns out that people get to know one another and eventually feel so inclined, they will reopen the church. Gary had a successful career in business before going into nonprofit work in search of something more meaningful; with their children now grown the couple see this as an exciting new chapter in life.Lucketts church

The point of these two stories – interrupted by an observation on our current political scene that is simply too pertinent to ignore – is not that all shabby travelers are poverty-stricken, or that you have to be very rich to wear a Yale jacket (though you might) or that all baby boomer couples should seek new career paths. The point is: while the rich get rich and the poor get poorer in this divided country, it’s going to take a lot of random acts of kindness to keep us together. And that, happily, they do occur.

Tightened Airline Security Guarantees Rise in Stress Levels

Get ready for this: random wanding of hitherto unexamined body parts; syringe searches; interminable landing-pattern hours spent with hands in full view and no foreign objects in your lap — including that good book you were about to finish. This is what Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab has brought us, but it’s not all his fault. It has simply, quietly, come to this.

In the wake of the terrorism attempt Friday on a Northwest Airlines flight, federal officials on Saturday imposed new restrictions on travelers that could lengthen lines at airports and limit the ability of international passengers to move about an airplane.

The government was vague about the steps it was taking, saying that it wanted the security experience to be “unpredictable” and that passengers would not find the same measures at every airport — a prospect that may upset airlines and travelers alike.

But several airlines released detailed information about the restrictions, saying that passengers on international flights coming to the United States will apparently have to remain in their seats for the last hour of a flight without any personal items on their laps. It was not clear how often the rule would affect domestic flights.

Airline travel has traveled a long route from the days of white-gloved passengers (remember legroom?) and spiffy stewardesses asking if you’d like coffee, tea or milk. Most of us can recall the unlamented lunches and snacks on trays — although the salad dressing was spicy and the ice cream was good. Almost everyone can remember getting on a plane without first removing your shoes. And although we now stock 3-ounce containers of everything cosmetic and medicinal under the sun, everyone can recall, with a little effort, the day when you could bring a bottle of water from home in your purse.

All of the changes have now become routine, and hardly worth a grumble. Routine is reassuring. New ones will slide into the mix eventually. But it’s that “unpredictable” business that distresses more than a few of us.

The homeland security secretary, Janet Napolitano, said in a statement Saturday that new measures were ‘designed to be unpredictable, so passengers should not expect to see the same thing everywhere.’ She said passengers should proceed with their holiday plans and ‘as always, be observant and aware of their surroundings and report any suspicious behavior or activity to law enforcement officials.’

Here we are, with the back-zip boots, the 3-ounce plastic containers, the 10-minute book and the anticipation of no bathroom privileges on 90-minute flights, and we’re supposed to remain observant while expecting not to know what to expect?

Thanks a lot, Umar.

New Restrictions Quickly Added for Air Passengers – NYTimes.com.