Columns » Derek Jennings

Infrequent flyer

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I'm an infrequent flyer. Never signed up for all those miles and merchandise rackets that seem to preoccupy so many people. I fly about once or twice a year, on average, and, that being the case, I don't consider air travel to be "routine." As a computer consultant, I work with a lot of folks who do crisscross the country routinely, often on a weekly basis, and I just don't see how they can do it. I always bring a little apprehension along with me in my carry-on luggage.

Last week I was in upstate New York on business. The flight up had been smooth enough, on a modest-sized jet. On the way home, I ended up switching to another airline to get an earlier flight and hadn't bothered with the minutiae, like seeing what kind of plane I was going to be on. I had a feeling that this would be interesting, as I readied to depart, since we had to walk outside the airport to get to the plane. I'm looking at everyone else, marching out into the afternoon like lemmings, and wondering why we're not going down that accordion thing that stretches out and connects airports to real planes.

Once outside, I look up and stare in disbelief--the plane has propellers. What's this? I didn't sign up for the Amelia Earhart Express. Why does the plane have to have propellers? As we boarded, I noticed, just as enthusiastically, that there wasn't even one of those portable staircases. Instead, there were flip-out stairs that were attached to the plane, putting me in mind of a Fisher-Price toy that I'd had about 25 years ago. I entered the plane carefully, intent on not meeting the same fate as the Weeble passengers on my toy plane (they had a bad habit of falling out while en route on the mid-day express from my bed to the toy box in the bottom of my closet).

Oh hell no, I think, ducking to get into the plane and seeing the luxurious accommodations. There're only three seats per row--two on one side and one by itself on the other side. That's probably sweet for the folks who can't make up their minds ("Hmm, do I want a window or an aisle? Can I have both?"). It reminded me of when daycare centers go on school trips, and they line up all of the baby car seats neatly along either side of the school hallway. For me it was miserable, especially since I wound up with the window seat on the two-chair side. After stupidly attempting to stow my carry-on bag in an overhead compartment that just wasn't there, I squeezed my way into the seat, placing my bag on the floor between my legs, just to wipe out the off chance that there would have been ample legroom for my 6-foot-3 frame.

To make things even more pleasant, we were lucky enough to have a Gen-X flight attendant with an appreciation for irony. He looked to be right out of college, thin, with stringy blond hair, and full of all the sarcasm and casual disdain for tradition that are a hallmark of my generation. The world's in for a treat when the baby boomers finally let us take over.

"Hey everybody, welcome aboard our huuuuge Jetstream Turboprop 41." He began reciting his rote list of safety features and instructions, then stopped abruptly. "Aww, man--this lady up here just messed me up. I have this whole thing where I just do the entire speech and like, don't even have to think about it, but she's up here asking me questions, so I gotta start over. Anyway, this is how you work the seat belt. And, um, oh yeah, if we should go down in the water and somehow survive the impact, you can float on your seat cushion. That's pretty much all you need to know, hope you enjoy your flight."

The captain then chimed in, informing us that there were some storms ahead of us, and that he'd drive around in circles for about five or 10 minutes on the ground to kill time until we were cleared for takeoff. "Don't worry," he added, "we probably have enough gas to do this for 15 minutes."

Without realizing it (the "two-drink minimum" sign on the cabin door should have tipped me off), I'd managed to get myself booked on the comedy flight. I knew this to be true because of the clown sitting behind me. He had one of those irritating marketing/broadcast-announcer-type voices, and for the entire length of the flight, the guy just would not shut up! He was delighted when the flight attendant made his way back to perch upon a little stool in the back of the plane, near us. Loudmouth guy regaled us incessantly, with tales of every flight he'd ever taken, laughing (loudly, of course) at his own jokes about plane crashes. I guess that was to show the guy whose job it was to be on planes every day how unafraid he was of flying. I scanned the facial expressions of the other passengers within earshot (oh, that would be the whole plane), and wasn't surprised to see that his carrying on about nose dives at 30,000 feet were making them a little squeamish. Gen-X guy must have tired of the routine, too. When Loudmouth made a comment about not being too keen on the whole propeller thing, he glibly replied, "Really? You should look out the window. Sometimes they stop in mid-flight. It's the coolest thing." Then he got up to hand out peanuts.

Loudmouth abruptly got off of the theme of planes and began wondering aloud why Andrew Dice Clay stopped making movies. "So this is how Air Rage starts," I thought silently. I searched through my bag for some type of diversion from the impending hour-and-a-half trip through anxiety, finding a CD player and a book. Some folks can just sleep through a flight, but I've never been able to sleep in any type of moving vehicle, be it plane, train, automobile. It doesn't matter. And I damn sure wasn't going to go to sleep on this crop-duster, to wake up to Captain Casual doing a barrel roll at 25,000 feet.

The batteries in my CD player ran out after about five minutes, leaving me back at square one, so I opened up the first Harry Potter book and started reading. (I have to catch up with my 8-year-old daughter, who's already on the fourth one.) I glanced over at the mousy lady with the misfortune of sitting next to me. Luckily, she was smaller than average, so the fact that I couldn't prevent my bigger-than-average body from protruding about an inch or so into her "space" didn't seem too problematic for her. "How did the ticket people know?" I thought, postulating some advanced computer telephony system which correlates passenger voice to body type, to allow for maximum cramming. She looked just as thrilled as I was to be riding the Spirit of St. Louis, and I briefly pondered whether I should strike up idle conversation to help ease her mind. Nope. Harry Potter was calling. How presumptuous of me for thinking that she'd even want to talk, anyway.

One of the things I usually say to people who are apprehensive about flying is to just think of the plane as a bus. OK, a big ol' bus that accelerates to a couple hundred miles an hour, pops a wheelie and jumps up into the air. As flying buses go, this one wasn't one of those nice, comfy, air-conditioned cruisers that whisk you off on charter tours. This was more like catching a Greyhound, which, I knew from my collegiate experience, had an unwritten yet ironclad guarantee that its passengers would smell like cigarettes, cheap beer and stale chicken upon reaching their destination. But at least on a bus, if you completely lose it, you can demand to be let off at Hoboken, where you can wait for another one with more pleasing accommodations or company.

With my tried-and-true bus analogy wearing thin in my mind, I continued to read, anxiously, until it was time for landing prayers. (Oh, you didn't know? God has a special hotline set up just to receive communications from people on planes.) Despite the Loudmouth Guy and some slight turbulence (I've felt worse crossing a suspension bridge while driving a Hyundai), I guess the flight wasn't too bad. Actually, to paraphrase a saying that's been around since the Wright Brothers, any flight which doesn't involve free fall and sudden loss of cabin pressure is a good one. Nonetheless, the extra contemplation air travel always affords me had me counting my blessings that I don't have to do this all the time.

Within my field, its not uncommon to see recruitment ads touting "Great Salary, 80-90 percent Travel Required." Um, no thank you. Although the "high-flying life of the I/T professional," as one of my friends calls it, is probably on the rise due to companies that favor temporary, contract "resources" over long-term skills and commitments, the jet-set lifestyle is certainly nothing new. Salespeople, professional athletes and countless others have been doing this for decades. Still, plane-hopping is not quite my cup of coffee, tea or milk. It's funny though. The same "how can you do that?" look I reserve for those who frequently fill the friendly skies is probably echoed by a lot of folks who can't fathom the 45-minute daily Raleigh-RTP commute which I unblinkingly endure as part of my own economic reality. I think I will sign up for a frequent flyer-program, though. I have to go to China twice over the next two months. I hope it's a nice bus. EndBlock

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