- Speedy and accurate seat-picking: Who can pick the best seat in the plane knowing only the layout and airline? Who can remember not to sit near the back of the plane on those godawful small noisy ones where you feel like you're sitting under a lawnmower if you make the mistake of choosing 31C?
My seat was fine, although I was sitting next to a portly gentleman and there was really no choice but to be slightly smooshed against him at the arm and leg areas. He wasn't gross, and I survived.
- Speedy and accurate line-picking: Who can pick the quickest security line?
I was foiled yesterday. I knew to try to aim for a line with few children and few laptop-toters or people who looked like inexperienced flyers. ("I have to what? Take off my shoes? Seriously? And nothing in my pockets while I go through the metal detector? Not even my keys and cell phone?") However, a man in my line had--count 'em--two laptops, in two different bags, and first tried to put them both through in bins with other things (sneakers and jacket, respectively), and he also had what looked to me to be way too much carry-on. This was totally unexpected, though. He was a young, relatively unencumbered man without a laptop bag on him. I pegged him for an experienced traveler and a quick security-lane-passer. It only takes one to hold up a line!
- Speedy security-line passing: Who can take off a fleece, a jacket, a backpack containing a laptop, and tied shoes the fastest? Who can take off all of those things and put them into the requisite bins the fastest, avoiding disgustingly dirty bins? Who can do all of that and reassemble on the other end without benefit of chair or table, and with an onslaught of people coming through after you, the fastest? How about all of that with two kids, one in a stroller and the other in a baby carrier?
I have observed enormous variation in efficiency at these things. Some people traveling with kids clearly have it down, while others are utterly lost. I am pretty good, but far from a pro. (In other words, I would do well enough to place in this competition, but no well enough to win a medal.) I was helped this time by not bringing a (slightly broken) laptop and wearing shoes that zipped instead of tied. Of course, shoes without any closure at all are the best. Sandals are bad, because it's gross to go barefoot there. I've made that mistake in the summer. Also, I stuffed my fleece into my backpack, so I had one less layer to remove and retrieve.
- Stamina for staying cooped up in an airline terminal: Who can stay the longest without going totally stir-crazy?
I think the longest I've ever spent inside an airline terminal is nine hours at Heathrow. The six hours I spent at Hartsfield-Jackson yesterday was small potatoes compared to that, but I was still going slightly mad. I walked from the security/baggage area all the way to terminal C at the beginning, rather than taking the train, which helped a little. I also walked back and forth in the terminal for first hour or two of my six hour wait. I wish there was a greater variety of things to look at in the terminal. All of the newsstands were identical.
- Stamina for staying cooped up in an airline terminal for four hours without buying any junk food. (Maybe this is easier if you don't keep kosher and can, therefore, buy a real meal. The ice cream and sweet coffee drinks call out my name in airports, especially if I'm just stuck there and tired of reading.)
- Stamina for staying cooped up in an airline terminal without spending any money. I resisted the urge to buy books or magazines, aided by the hefty collection of reading material that I had in my backpack, but I did spend money on ice cream, a latte, and Pringles. Sigh. (I was there for almost six hours.)
- Largest percentage of a flight for which you remain asleep, or, alternatively, most hours of a flight for which you remain asleep.
(I've slept for all of 1 hour or 1.5 hour flights, but probably not for more than 3 or 4 hours at a time of 10+ hour flights.)
My actual travel woes: I was picked up by a taxi at 2 pm yesterday; dropped off at the local MARTA station at 2:15 pm; arrived at the airport at 3 pm; made it through security at record speed by 3:30 pm; and hunkered down to wait for my 5:45 pm flight. (The last time I flew from ATL, it took about an hour to get through the security line, and I got to the gate four minutes before scheduled departure, too late to get onto the still-there plane. I allowed extra time this time, but didn't need it.) However, all of the Airtran flights to LaGuardia were delayed by three or more hours, because air traffic control wasn't letting anybody from Atlanta fly into LaGuardia. I don't know why. Airtran didn't, either. They originally thought my 5:45 flight would be delayed until 9:20, but then changed to 8:50. Blah. I walked around a lot, both to keep from going stir-crazy and to get some exercise. It was the tail end of a vacation during which I had read a lot, and I just didn't feel like reading either the Newsweek I had purchased on the way down, or any of the books I had in my backpack with me. I think that part of why this delay was so frustrating was because I purposely picked an earlier flight than last time in the hopes of getting home before midnight and I carefully left the house so early to make sure I made my flight.
In conclusion, air travel these days sucks. On the up side, flights cost less than ever before in dollars, despite the rising cost of fuel. (See this article for a few reasons why.) However, the price we pay in aggravation is over-stuffed airplanes (and other cost-cutting measures like no blankets) and ridiculous delays about which the airlines do absolutely nothing. (An Airtran customer service rep told me yesterday that they don't give out any money or credit for delays caused by the TSA, air traffic control, or weather, since they have no control over those things.) They can do absolutely nothing because they know you'll keep flying them for their cheap fares and because the other similarly-priced airlines undoubtedly have similar policies. Have I shared this article ("Air Travelers’ Woes Likely to Worsen This Year," NYT, Jan. 10, 2008) with you yet? Read it and weep, or just vow to stay home.
I won't stay home because I like getting out and about, but it's almost enough to make me take the train. Or maybe a boat. My three-year-old friend whom I visited in Atlanta informed me, on Sunday, that there were boats before there were trains. For some reason, I had to think about that for a minute before confirming.
I don't want to be accused of being a nativist, and I am actually quite pro-immigration, but I noticed both on my flight yesterday and on another flight I was on semi-recently that the flight attendant making the "how to buckle your seatbelt" and "in case of emergency" announcements at the beginning of the flight was not a native English-speaker. I could barely understand him because of his accent, and it worried me.
I don't think it is right to discriminate against people for having foreign accents. In most cases, a small barrier to immediate understanding is not really a problem. Discrimination, as it is used today, refers to favoring someone over someone else for a bad reason, such as preferring one color of skin over another. Favoring someone over someone else for a universally-agreed-upon good reason is, I think, acceptable. On an airplane where most of the passengers were English-speakers, I think that picking the the flight attendant with the clearest and most understandable speaking voice to make these announcements--and, much more importantly, actual "get out of the plane now, we're going down!" announcements--is both safer and non-discriminatory. I wonder if I would feel the same if I was not a native English-speaker.
As an aside, I have always found flight attendants on non-Anglo airlines to speak very crisp, clear English. Presumably, they are hired for their ability to make announcements in both the language of the airline and in English. Why are American flight attendants not hired on the same basis?