August 26, 2008

Skies Are No Longer Friendly to Fliers

By Christine Hicks

I love to fly. Well, I used to. My first trip by air was to California, an adventure conceived by my parents and great aunt, to visit a contemporary cousin living in Long Beach. I flew American Airlines; it was about 1964, and the aircraft was likely a first- generation Boeing 707. Televisions were mounted in the ceiling, clunky boxes that quarreled with passengers over headroom. At 13, I discovered the magic of flight.

I entered the travel business in 1975, and subsequently married an airline man. We flew standby everywhere, and frequently, many of these trips to California where his family resided. I loved the immense expanse of time we devoted to crossing the country, grabbing what flights we could, often in first class, for such was the luxury of airline-employee travel.

Airports were a locus of interest, decorated with eccentric bars, uncomfortable chairs, an interesting populace and unlimited travel potential. We'd check and carry too much luggage at a time when it didn't matter what or how much you took. Without a second thought, I'd tote nail polish, polish remover and metal emery boards, accompanied by enormous tubes of toothpaste amid ample bottles of shampoo. This eclectic collection sat with us, an unheeded heap beneath the seat in front of us.

In-flight, we sipped wine in crystal and ate roasted tenderloin of beef on china, wielding forks, spoons and serrated metal knives to transport bites into our waiting, watering mouths.

I flew to Arizona last month. Did I tell you how much I used to like to fly? "There'll always be Paris," as Bogey said, that memory of enjoyable travel -- for the tantalizing anticipation that was the journey has been wrung out. Air travel is now a primary obstacle to a great vacation.

Did I get a good price? Have new fees been tacked on? Are there meals, or must I bring mine? How much can I pack? What can I carry - - that will withstand being weighed, inspected, X-rayed and judged? Then, take off your shoes, coat, belt, bracelets and empty your pockets. Turn on your computer; turn off your cell phone. Watch what you say walking through the metal detector. You may already have been randomly selected for special screening. It's your vacation. Have a nice day.

A stern official dourly subjected the contents of my clear plastic bag to her best official scrutiny. My offense was sizable: a gallon-sized clear plastic zipper lock bag instead of a quart-sized clear plastic zipper lock bag. My punishment? Trash $50 worth of toiletries, or check my carry-on luggage.

My partner placed his acknowledged, oversized cologne bottle in our single checked bag. His punishment? A bag delayed 24 hours. Because he had packed his liquids, they warranted their own desultory, behind-the-scenes scrutiny. The pecking order for baggage inspection knows no logic. No matter that flight delays had already added five hours to our trip.

And then they confiscated our mustard packets. Confounded, I wondered, "What if I had already put the mustard on the sandwich? Would sandwiches fail inspection? Or would we be required to eat them in a secure area?" Sigh.

It's criminal what's happened to what once was a friendly sky. I'm guilty of the gallon bag. But mostly, I'm saddened that the experience of travel has lost all wander-luster. Oh, yes, I'll fly again. Until the alternative transport mode is perfected, we're stuck with air transport as the quickest alternative to destinations inaccessible by car, bus or train. Still, I hope someone's working on it.

Originally published by Usta.

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