December 18, 2014

Friendly Skies

If you’re flying somewhere this Thanksgiving, good luck. Not only will you be joining millions of other passengers in the friendly skies on one of our busiest travel weekends, but you’ll be on planes that have become more like cattle cars than the civilized cabins they once were. (Thanksgiving is our biggest travel weekend, but not the biggest for air travel. Those largely fall in the summer, travel experts say.)

Flying isn’t what it used to be. No longer can we run into an airport terminal and book a same-day flight without a satchel of credentials, a body search and myriad questions from security personnel. Seats sure seems smaller, too (even as we get bigger). We have to pay extra for luggage, drinks (even water, on some airlines) and snacks. We can carry-on our own food if we don’t wish to subsist on peanuts (also missing on some airlines). Some of this inconvenience is the result of security needs, but others are profit-driven, thanks to fewer airlines with fewer seats to sell.

We can still call a travel agent or airline to book flights, but it’s often faster and cheaper to go online and do it yourself. That’s intimidating, too. An internet search can reveal a squadron of possibilities, ranked by cost and date; organized by airline. Do you fly out in the morning or on the red-eye? Direct flight or connecting? Carry-on luggage or checked? By the time you’re done making decisions, you’re worn out and don’t even want to think about packing.

My wife Barbara and I have family scattered around the country, so flying is sometimes the only smart option. Still, we try to avoid it—mostly because it’s often more trouble than it’s worth. Flying is easy from gate-to-gate, but home-to-home can be a different calculation. We figure that the hours waiting in airport lines and sitting on the tarmac might be worse than driving or even staying overnight on the way, if the scenery is decent and interesting, the traffic is acceptable and we can visit friends along the way.

Then there are the germs. Is there any better place to catch an illness (other than a hospital)? That closed cabin with hundreds of people inside is the perfect place to latch onto a tricky virus just waiting for a host. Almost every trip we’ve taken recently has ended with one or both of us sick. When I see an airplane now, I think of it as a ferry for viruses spreading from one part of the country to another.

But serendipity does happen on planes sometimes.

A month ago we went to Arizona, where we visited Barb’s brothers, drove a restored 1960 MGA into the mountains, participated in an old car show, and got sunburned.

We got there in five hours’ flying time, but it took us all day with a plane change in Denver, and we never caught up on the sleep we missed until days after we got back home. We had a great time, but we don’t travel as well as we once did.

The trip back from Phoenix was uneventful until we changed planes in Denver. We had only 36 minutes between planes. I asked the flight attendant if we would have a problem making our connection. “You’ll have the same problem everybody else will have,” she said. Like that really answered my question. It occurred to me that the airline would like to charge extra for information, too.

We made our flight, but sat apart because adjoining seats weren’t available when I booked it. I sat next to a mother and her young son, Jayce. He was a handful, as all 22-month-olds are bound to be on a long flight. (I remember those days with our boys.) They were on their way to visit his grandfather in Macomb County. Jayce had trouble sitting on his mother’s lap. He squirmed and jostled, ate snacks and drank milk, kicked the seat in front of him, tried coloring and watching a “Cars” video, played with a “Cars” metal replica, and started dropping it in hard-to-reach places. His mother tried reading to him. He wasn’t having it.

I found a card of oxygen mask instructions in the seat pocket, folded it to make a tunnel, put it on the tray and showed Jayce how to push the car through. It intrigued him for several minutes. Then he started calling me “daddy.”

He finally settled down, with about a half-hour left in our flight, as his mother had predicted. He grabbed one of my fingers in his small hand and pulled it to him. He fell asleep in his mother’s lap, holding my hand in his lap. There is nothing quite like the human connection of a child’s grasp.

So, sometimes flying is worth it.

But it’s always good to be back home, in Michigan, with reasonable temperatures, four seasons, real trees, snow, lakes, and your own bed.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Mike Buda is editor emeritus of Country Lines. Email him at mike.f.buda@gmail.com or comment on his columns at countrylines.com/ramblings