When I flew to Bermuda for my wedding trip on July 4, 1968, I wore an ensemble, a matching coat and dress, heels, straw hat and white gloves. Dressing to fly is a bizarre concept from the perspective of 2018 travel, but that is what one did.
Flying was an occasion. We were in the economy cabin on now defunct Eastern Airlines, but the seats were roomy and the full meal we were served was yummy. It was lunch, and everyone, even those of us in the low-end seats, was offered a choice of beef or chicken.
I felt sort of like a movie star actually taking a flight to someplace outside the United States, and the amenities onboard were commensurate with the extravagance of the experience.
All this came to mind when I was unceremoniously crammed into the window seat on an American Airlines flight last week, and fell victim to the malodorous feet of the stranger in the middle seat next to me. I was physically closer to that guy for five hours than I have been to anyone aside from my husband. His body was overflowing his space and, like lava, inexorably edging into my territory.
I was homeward bound from Reno, Nev., which is the closest international airport to Truckee, Calif., where I was visiting my kids. It’s OK as an airport once you get past the stuffed long-horned mountain sheep in the waiting area.
The actual ride was an abomination. I’m a small person, but the window seat, the only spot left when I booked, isn’t the right fit for a human body. Strapped into an upright position inside a metal tube traveling 600 miles an hour at 35,000 feet felt painful and demoralizing. And I paid $320 for the ride!
I used to love traveling, even the flying part, but this recent experience rang every neurotic bell in my head. Ding, claustrophobia, dong, germ phobia, ding, terrorism phobia, dong, fear of flying, ding, fear of crying babies, dong, fear of bedbugs, and ding-dong, fear of having to go to the bathroom when you’re blocked into your seat by two hulky, bulky men over 6 feet tall.
The man next to me was barefoot, having tucked his flip-flops into the seat pocket in front of us. He’d brought his own food, an offensive gyro with enough onions to asphyxiate everyone in economy class.
I had a moment when I almost bolted. I thought, how will I do this for the five hours to JFK? What if we hit turbulence? What if I need to make a dash to the bathroom?
And then I remembered that I’d just read a piece in The New York Times reporting that airlines had downsized their bathrooms to the point that passengers could not fit into them, no less maneuver themselves into a position to do any real business.
The holiday season has commenced, and many of us will be taking to the airways in the next few weeks. We just got through Thanksgiving, and my kids flew from California and Florida. They were blessed. Their flights were on time and smooth. Oddly, we have become so tolerant of poor service and discomfort on airplanes that if we land alive and free of deep vein thrombosis within hours of the scheduled time, we feel lucky. “Good flight” we tell one another.
The class system perpetuated by the airlines adds insult to our injuries. You need to be “priority” or “sky” or “mosaic” or be schlepping children or have a gold medallion or a platinum badge or some other kind of special status to scramble onto the plane first and grab the overhead bin space for your carry-on. Then you’re in lockdown, the plane goes airborne and the attendants begin the wildly absurd cart service, blocking the aisles and offering beverages and snacks to folks who scarf junk food as if they haven’t eaten in weeks.
As flyers, we’ve been trained to lower our expectations. It’s too bad, isn’t it, that getting there isn’t half the fun anymore. My personal consolation is remembering that if I were doing the cross-country trip 150 years ago, it would take my wagon train weeks and weeks, rumbling along at 3 mph. We might die en route from starvation or disease or at the wrong end of an Apache spear.
As for food service over the Rockies, see “Donner Party.”
Copyright 2018 Randi Kreiss. Randi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.