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Fasten your seatbelts

Jess Shaffer | Wednesday, October 31, 2007

“We are just about 140 nautical miles out of Chicago O’Hare.” While this may seem like a pleasant update, it’s really just nonsense. Note what follows: “Hope you’re enjoying your flight.” Now back to that first comment. Let’s play “one of these things is not like the other.” If you guessed that the word “nautical” makes no contextual sense when you’re miles above any water mass, you’re 100 percent correct.

This is just one of the many oddities that pervade air travel. It seems that even the often repeated phrase, “pleasant trip” is a contradiction in terms. I mean, what’s really fun about cramming into a tin can that is about 20 yards long, but only 15 feet wide? And moreover, what’s fun about being in this cramped space with 100 other people? What’s appealing about company like that guy who dozes off on your shoulder or the inevitably screaming child who’s kicking your seat?

Okay maybe air travel isn’t all that bad. There’s a romantic nostalgia associated with flight. Put on Frank Sinatra’s “Come Fly with Me,” and I’d probably be persuaded to repeat my combined 27 hours of fall break travel. I’m sticking with Frank when I insist that there is a charm in seeing towns dissolve into what looks like a distant monopoly board.

But, with that said, this little slice of sky heaven is enveloped in an environment ridiculously akin to what I imagine hell is like. After enduring traffic and getting rid of your burdensome luggage, the daunting obstacle of security looms. Somehow, I’m almost always the one pulled out of line for an extra-thorough check. I thought there was a limit to how many times I could be frisked by airport security in a single year. Apparently not.

In those mundane lines of “remove your laptops” and “no liquids exceeding four ounces,” I just can’t seem to do anything right. Case and point: I accidentally forgot to remove my centimeter-thin flip flops, and was forced to repeat the entire process. I was additionally subjected to the glares and jostles from the irritated people behind me. I guess my threadbare (trash-bound) sandals are actually incognito weapons. They were so well disguised that even I, their owner, couldn’t pick them out as dangerous. Good thing I have airport security to protect me from myself. It’s probably for the best that I couldn’t harness my shoes’ nun-chucking potential or else that guy who kept coughing his infectious germs onto me would definitely not have had such a “pleasant trip.”

You’d think that waiting at the departing gate would be unexciting and therefore not irritating. Time at the gate is intended for sipping your morning latte before you endure a claustrophobic’s nightmare. But regrettably the gates, once havens from airport anarchy, have now become locales for positioning yourself for optimal boarding capacity. Using totes, backpacks, and briefcases as weapons to defend their turf, passengers prepare to charge the gate. Those soccer moms pack a hard punch with their kid’s Dora the Explorer backpack. And once your row number is called, chaos breaks out with a rush to be the first to board.

Attention passengers: This is not an Olympic speed walking race.

My enjoyable traveling experience has been reduced to absently glancing at the scenery while pondering the odd smell of the guy who is sitting way too close to me.

I even once had fondness for flight attendants. They hand out drinks and peanuts with a freakishly glued on smile. Or, at least, that used to be their job. Now it seems that they feel obligated to baby-sit their customers. I missed the “no more electronics” announcement, and instead of getting a friendly reminder, the flight attendant stood over me to check to make sure that I switched off my iPod. Fascist state much? It was an honest mistake, not an intentional sacrifice of safety protocol. What happened to the sexist generalization of stewardess Barbie? I bet she would have fulfilled her duties with class and style, instead of just a glare.

And then suddenly you’re landing and there is a grand push to get out of the plane. There is a charge to be the first one out of your seat – an all consuming desire to be one of the few who get to stand at full height in the center aisle. And while the rest crouch under the overhead compartments, the vicious carry-on luggage rains down from the sky, attacking at random with a roller bag to the head. The Dora the Explorer backpack comes out of nowhere, again!

At least baggage claim is out in the open; it gives more space for bag flinging. But unfortunately, here you are subjected to the little boys and old men’s delusions of strength. Inevitably you always get an only half-retrieved bag thumped onto your foot. That last yank of your bag off the belt is about all any sane person can take. It’s enough to send anybody straight to bed as remedy for exhaustive irritation.

I’m considering not leaving my bed until Christmas so that I can start recouping for my next flying disaster. Sorry, Frank, it’s disappointing for me, too.