Air Travel, or When Will It End?

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I recently had an obscenely early flight. The flight time required me to get up before the ass-crack of dawn in order to be at the airport a full two hours prior to departure. (Yes, I'm one of those people, preferring to wait at the gate rather than rush breathlessly onto the gangway at the last minute.) Luckily, I've flown enough that I can go through the motions of check-in and security only half awake. After all, flying is not something that's new to me: I took my first flight at 1 month old, and really, I haven't stopped since.

As I walked around bleary-eyed, clutching my tall, nonfat, mocha latte (no whipped cream) like Grim Death, I reflected on how much air travel has changed since my first flight in 1967. Not just because of planes flying into skyscrapers, either -- it's just that societal customs have also changed so much in the last 4 decades, we all view something as illogical as air flight with a rather startling sense of nonchalance, including, I might add, a rather boundless tolerance for invasion of personal space. To illustrate, a quick recap of my own travel history reveals the following:

1972: During this, my fifth year on the planet, travel was considered something of an event, prompting my mother to dress me in the poofiest, most impractical itchy dress that money could buy. The chosen garment would have the effect of making me look adorable while simultaneously inspiring indescribable misery in my discomfort. Further, and perhaps my perception is skewed, but it seemed to me that the space in front of each airplane seat was cavernous, allowing passengers to actually lay their heads on their knees, should the need to assume the "crash position" arise. My father became known for never flying without his "pen knife," a tiny pocket knife he always kept on him because, after all, you never know if you needed to cut something: you know, a loose string at the hem of your trousers, the little hermetically-sealed plastic bags the cutlery accompanying your piping-hot in-flight meal, that sort of thing.

1981: Now 13, I have long, drawn-out arguments with my mother prior to every flight. The reason? She believes that my choice of blue-jeans as travel attire indicates a slovenliness of which she despairs; I find her stodgy and old-fashioned, reminding her that I'm growing up in the 80's and not the 50's, and this is what is currently worn on airplanes, M-o-o-m. Our bad mood is mirrored by my father, who resentfully leaves his pen knife behind on his dresser, since news of airplane hijackings in recent years have resulted in airlines prohibiting the bringing of any blade, regardless of size, onto the aircraft. Our family doesn't get any happier when we're actually in-flight, seeing as legroom has severely diminished over the years, and the inflight meals, while still somewhat warm, now taste like cheap TV dinners.

1993: I'm 26 years old. My mother no longer tells me what to wear, and since I view air travel as a sort of drudgery, an old t-shirt and ratty sweatpants comprise my usual travel uniform -- and if I'm feeling snazzy, I trade my house slippers for some beat-up trainers (my mother studiously pretends not to know me whenever we're at the airport together). The recent bankruptcies of several major airlines have forced those who survived to severely cut back, including providing so little legroom passengers are required to contort themselves unnaturally to get into their seats, and hot meals are replaced by peanuts, or, if you're lucky, "bistro" service, where passengers are invited to pick up a cold, misshapen sandwich before boarding the plane (otherwise known as "get-your-own-damned-meal"). Flight attendants are crotchety, passengers are crotchety, and flying just doesn't mean anything good anymore.

Post 2001: Ah, the Era of the War Against Terror: thanks to Osama Bin Laden and his crazy minions, the entire industry operates in fear of being subject to a terrorist attack. Silver cutlery is completely removed from airplanes (which is sort of ridiculous, since they stopped serving meals ages ago), replaced by plastic cutlery, for safety reasons (incidentally, silverware remains in the first class section of most airlines because, apparently, most terrorists prefer to fly economy). I start dressing just a little nicer, so I'm not mistaken for a terrorist (because, apparently, in my completely illogical mind, terrorists must wear old t-shirts and ratty sweatpants), but nonetheless, all my clothing can be easily removed, since I'm now required to strip completely down to go through security, a process which includes getting inappropriately felt up, and now takes anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour. All blades are still strictly prohibited (although, my father would be happy to know, nail clippers are now allowed again); however, to add insult to injury, no liquids or gels are allowed in the airplane cabin, which wouldn't be so bad, except that airplane bathrooms remain nasty, and I haven't perfected how to open and close the door with my elbows, since now I'm not allowed to bring Purell antibacterial gel on board.

It's funny, but given what air travel is like nowadays, I almost miss the itchy clothes and my childhood discomfort -- because at least then, air travel was something to be excited about, not feared and dreaded. Unfortunately, I suspect that it's going to get worse before it gets better.

At least my mom's happy I'm getting dressed up again.

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