Sunday, May 15, 2016

Not Don Draper's style of flying

I flew this past weekend for the first time in 8 years. I have been flying since I was 3 years old, and flying used to be like being in a "Mad Men" episode--well-dressed, nicely groomed, well-spoken, well-behaved smokers sipping cocktails and enjoying restaurant-quality meals served aloft. And this was coach. In first class, you got wine.

Alas, those days are gone, unless you enjoy quite expensive private travel. Most of my flying experiences have been pleasant enough, but based on the articles I have read over the past few years, about loutish and impertinent TSA agents, sullen and insolent airline staff, and brutish fellow passengers, I had made up my mind that I would never fly again if I could help it.

That is not to be, since my son has been in Greece for 4 years and will be begin Ph.D. study in Britain this Fall. I will fly to New York in 3 weeks and see my son for the first time in 4 years and meet my new daughter-in-law, whom I've never met at all. They are flying to New York for Mark to present a paper at a conference at NYU.

This past weekend, I went to Washington for a family reunion. It was a very quick trip--flying to Washington Friday night, back in Memphis by midnight Saturday--but it was not nearly as unpleasant or inconvenient as I anticipated. Here are the pros:

* You can get great hotel + flight deals through Travelocity. Other sites may have even better deals - I don't know - but I was amazed at how spacious my room was Friday night, for the price I had paid. At first, I seriously thought they had put me in a suite by mistake. I was at the Holiday Inn Rosslyn - Key Bridge, perfecty comfortable, just a block down the street from the Rosslyn Metro station, and with a great view of Northwest DC and the Washington National Cathedral out my bedroom window.

* You can visit your airline web site 24 hours before your flight time, do online check-in, and print out a boarding pass. (You can also do seat selection, if you wish.) I have known this was possible for about 15 years, but what I didn't know is that if you do this, you are considered a "preferred TSA pre-checked traveler" and get in a shorter line at the security gate and don't have to take off your shoes or belt--all you have to is empty your pockets and show your ID. No frisking, no wanding, no body scanning, and the agents seem noticeably more polite. Indeed, it was the first time I *hadn't* had to take off my shoes since 9/11. (And if you forget to do this at home, there are many kiosks throughout the airport where you can do your own check-in when you get there, including printing out your adhesive baggage sticker, and then all you have to do is take your bag to the counter, show your ID, and check in your bag.)

*If you are flying American out of Memphis airport and need to eat a light supper before an evening flight, you could do worse than eat at Home Team Sports, a café near gate C12. I had a perfectly serviceable Bloody Mary there and a grilled veggie sandwich that perfectly hit the spot and was very filling.

* Airline terminal gates now have outlets for you to plug in your phone charging cord, and even some airline terminal restaurants and bars have these. This was a complete revelation to me.

* If you are returning to Memphis from Reagan National and flying American, you could do worse than to stop in at the Kapnos Taverna, next to gate 37, a Greek-accented place with good food and a serious selection of wines and liquors, including Greek wines. I enjoyed a St. George Skouras red, and it reminded me of the Shiraz I usually have with my evening meal.

* Airline gift and newsstand shops seem quite well stocked, selling the magazines I read, including Time, The Economist, and even Foreign Affairs; a selection of hardback and paperback books, and modern travel equipment such as noise-cancelling headphones, which I need to buy before my flight to Greece in September.

* If you are flying out an airport 50 years old or older, such as Memphis airport, you can sigh with nostalgia at the sight of the empty brick alcoves that formerly housed pay phones.

* If you have reserved an airport shuttle with Super Shuttle, ferrying passengers from Reagan National to various hotels in the DC area, you will receive a text message while you are standing at baggage claim, welcoming you to DC and asking you to check in with the uniformed gate agent, to get you on your shuttle.

Here are the cons:

* You have to pay $25 extra just to check a single bag. I guess I was vaguely aware of this on some level but still found it deeply offensive.

* If you're using "airplane mode" for your cell phone, you might as well just have the damn thing turned off, even if the airline provides WiFi. It just doesn't work--or at least, it didn't for me.

* Even if you are flying a major airline like American, and into a major city like DC, you may find yourself on a subsidiary carrier such as "American Eagle Airlines, doing business as American" and, worse yet, you are on the smallest airliner you've ever been on, unless you've been on a 50-passenger commuter plane or something. I'm pretty sure I flew an Embraer 175. Forget Boeing 737s--this plane makes you feel shrink-wrapped. I could hardly even reach for my wallet to pay for my on-board glass of wine without risking elbowing my seat-mate. I am just under 6 feet tall--if I had been 6' 3" or more, my head would have been brushing the ceiling. This would have been the perfect airplane for the days of Henry Clay and Daniel Webster, when men were about 5'9" and weighed about 160 pounds. I understand that Memphis's hub status is gone with the wind, but this is what I would have expected if I were flying out of Dubuque or Owensboro. Holy crap. (In addition, I don't remember airplanes being this noisy, or at least not since my childhood days, flying the old turbo-props.)

* The last time I flew, in March, 2008, on some budget carrier, you could only purchase wine or cocktails aloft with a credit card. On the flights I took this weekend, you could only pay cash, a retro touch that struck me as rather odd.

* Your airline trip voucher may have a knife and fork icon indicating food service, but that actually means a "snack," which means a bag of pretzels or biscotti smaller than what you might get out of a vending machine.

* If you are flying to Reagan National and have made a reservation with Super Shuttle, mentioned above, and you have printed out your voucher from the Super Shuttle site with a confirmation number and even called to confirm that you are all set, they will


Even with a voucher with a confirmation number. Because your voucher doesn't have a *bar code* "And the driver can't get paid without a bar code."

You have to purchase another fare on the spot. Seriously. When you call their customer care number later that night to complain, the customer service agent will say "You should have had a bar code." It isn't until you reach a sane customer service agent the next morning that you get agreement that your voucher was, itself, evidence of payment, and you should have been let on the shuttle. I'm still waiting for resolution on that one.

So what I learned this weekend is that if you're traveling by air, do your check-in in advance, so you can be a "trusted traveler," practice yoga, so you can contort yourself into the small seat space on a modern down-sized jet, and carry some cash, so you can buy a drink to help you get through the flight.

© Michael Huggins, 2016. All rights reserved.

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