Take these broken wings and learn to fly again

Wow. This was a short trip. Five days. I think the only time I’ve ever done this short of a day-to-mileage-traveled ratio.

While I won’t burden you with the details of my trip – and believe me, it’s no burden, just another set of stories for another time – the travel never fails to meet expectations.

On this return trip, things seem to have gone slightly more smoothly – partly because I was unencumbered by a travel companion that did not have the same set of travel credentials that I did. Apparently, when travelling with El Al, the assumption is that Israeli citizens (passport holders) are less of a security risk and may not need the full treatment.

While waiting in the initial line that wasn’t moving, a mindful attendant figured out that someone at the entrance to the routing was not balancing the queues, and simply shuffled a bunch of us to a faster-moving line.

I happen upon a young woman, whose job it is to perform the initial questions – the good ol’ ones that I know how to answer clearly and firmly to instill confidence in the asker that I know what I’m doing, and that we can do away with this formality. After she is done, we spend a few moments chatting, not a normal occurence, more flirtatious, probably because this is a rare moment in her day when someone is actually smiling at her, and not making her life miserable. I recognize that this probably isn’t her dream job, and that she processes some multiple of thousands of people a day, and wishes she could be one of us, taking flight to another destination, or returning from some fabulous experience, but whatever the case may be – she probably doesn’t need me to add to her misery, so instead I try to lift it up, offer a friendly smile and word. She sends me through the fast-track line with no requirement to scan my bag, or shudder the thought, open it at the second security station for further inspection.

Making my way to the check-in array of counters with hard-working boys and girls, also probably only doing this job to pay for something greater, I wait, patiently, for people to get ticketed, and moved along.

When it’s my turn, I reach a young man, probably in the range of 22-26 years old. He quickly punches me in, double checks my meaql preferences, seating, and we chat briefly about where I’m going, and I ask him when he is making the trip. He’s happy to tell me that he is traveling to Thailnad in two weeks and is very excited about it. He speeds me along, gets me my boarding pass, takes my checked luggage, and we part smiling.

Since I have a little time, I had coordinates with a friend of mine to meet at the airport, since he works nearby, and this trip was so short, that I barely got to see him. My last visit, he had his spouse were on vacation outside the country, so this was a nice opportunity to see each other, catch up over a coffee, and talking at the speed of light to cover so much in a short time.

After a bit, we bid each other farewell, and hope to see each other during the next trip.

On to the security scanner.

Oh boy.

This time, I’ve got it down. I’m wearing synthetic shoes, cargo pants with absolutely no metal in them, nothing in my pockets. Everything goes into the backpack, and I proceed to the detector. In Israel, they did not require removal of shoes. I guess they have not gone completely nuts yet.

I step through, and sure enough, the buzzer goes off.


There’s NOTHING to set it off! Maybe at some point in these five days, I was drugged, kidnapped and secretly implanted with some device that an organization is looking to retrieve on the other side through other nefarious means? Probably not, since during the trip it’s been non-stop family and brief interludes with friends.
So I get pulled to the side to get wanded. Oh boy. This guy looks like he’d rather be shewing on broken glass than doing this as he tells me to raise my arms, runs the wand over me, covering each area efficiently, and finds nothing. He does it again, and then shrugs, and nods me to move on with my life. I smile, shrug, and say in Hebrew “Go figure.”

Apparently the man in front of me at the scanner is STILL figuring out how to retrieve his articles from the scanner – something I tohught we knew the mechanics involved by simply looking at the return capacity tray and seeing that if you leave your large items there, new articles cannot move into there until there has been room vacated. Instead, he reaches into the tray that is still halfway in the tunnel for his hat and jacket, puts them on, before pulling his bag and laptop from the tray area, allowing me and the fiive people behind me that have now built up a queue to get our stuff in a record time of 0.3 seconds and move on to passport control.

This spot is the one place that I can truly appreciate. Efficiency. Technology. Let me get on with my life.

About four years ago, the Passport Control Gang (I guess they are really the Border Police?) figured that despite having lanes for Israeli and Foreign citizens available, there was constnantly a delay in processing enough people to get through in a timely fashion.

They set up a series of automatic kiosk-style biometric scanners that validate your palm-print and spit out a border crossing receipt that is legally allowable and fast. To get a card, you simply had to wait in line at another desk for maybe 30 minutes for them to register your hand with your passport, magnetize the card, and you are on your merry way. Passport control, for entry and exit, takes me a total of under 60 seconds. I Like This.

You take your receipt and head through another gate where a border partol gal looks at the receipt, tears off a corner, and sends you along to the main hall – where you can now shop for perfumes and such, drink coffee, connect to the free wireless signal, even connect to well-places power ports to top off the charge for your laptop prior to your trip.

I spend some time musing around, take a bit of a jog through the area, find a new cologne, walk around and see that not much has changed since my last time here. There’s not much I want here. I can find virtually anything for sale here at my destination, and I don’t want anything here anyways. The only thing I do get is some Elite Cow Chocolate (named for the cow imprinted on each bar). Yummy. Something to munch on the plane.

Headed to my gate. There’s always a million people flying to New York. While there are many, they typically are easily categorzied just by looking at them. There’s the young parents with many children, the young couples with screaming babies, the old couples that don’t speak a word of English or Hebrew, and the Orthodox men – so easilty identified by their black hats, and The Israelis. I hate to say it, but this deserves a category of its own.

There is something very particular about the Israeli attitude – that usually exists with Israelis that are about middle-age, and traveling to New York. I don’t know where it comes from – whether there is some sort of meeting where everyone agrees that a degree of self-entitlement should be professed when having dealings with others, or that since they have shelled out their hard-earned money for a flight in economy class that they should have the height of comfort. I have no idea.

Then there’s people like me – the loners. People simply trying to get from Point A to Point B while retainig a modicum of sanity. Maybe we are going on a business trip, maybe returning from one, maybe a familial one. But basically, these people are usually the least hassle of all, because we recognize that everyone else is going to put that much more pressure on the trip that there’s no need for us to add to it. I just want to get out of this alive.

Invariably, no matter what seating arrangment I book when choosing my seats – front of the plane, back, winodw or aisle – I’m going to be stuck right next to either the young couple with the scraming baby or the family with a bunch of unruly children that insist on screaming about some sibling doing something to them.

Today I got the latter. The mother looks like she needs someone to take the kids, feed them some Xanex-laced chocolate, so she can finally get a couple hours of respite. The father simply looks clueless, and is trying to juggle too many seat assignments – who’s going to sit next to who, wait – she can’t sit next to him, because they will fight, he needs to sit next to mommy, she wants to watch the DVD, he needs his diaper changed, and on and on.

The mother catches my eye and I see a fleeting look of desperation, a silent cry for help, before she turns her attention abck to her brood. She glances at me again, I smile, and chuckle lightly. She smiles too, and seems to relax a little.

This flight, I was lucky enough to have an empty seat between myself and the older woman in the window seat. This hasn’t happened in a long time, so I revel in the extra leg room, the lack of fighting over the armrest, and the ability to drop some articles on the seat between us.

As the flight progresses, Flight Attendants bring out the drink service, and I get a tomato juice and water, and place them on my seat tray. That in of itself is rarely noteworthy, however, as I put down my tomato juice and rest my arm for a slight moment, one of the restless children in front of me decides that at this moment he must jump and climb over his mother, bouncing the seat violently, toppling my water on to my lap.

Now, I don’t know if you’ve ever been on a transatlantic flight when your pants are pretty soaked, but let me clue you in to something – it’s no picnic. After the initial cold spreads far enough that the pant material has soaked it all up, then the slow process of evaporation in a climate-controlled cabin can begin. And it will take forever. Ah well. At least it was the water, not the tomato juice.

Anyways, we are now only three hours into our flight, and I’ve written a bunch already.

What have you done in the last three hours?

Spread your wings and fly…

Commercial flight is no longer something I look forward to.

There was a time that I would get excited about traveling through the air, it was different, exotic, something reserved for special occasions.

As I have grown, and flown more, it feels like when you can see beyond the intricacies of a magicians’ web of illusion, and realize that the trick wasn’t that complicated after all. It’s all simple mechanics, and seeing the same trick performed again and again, it becomes routine and mechanical.

I guess that’s true of anything though – take the fact that I am writing this mid-flight, over the Atlantic Ocean, on a device that did not exist a few years ago – a netbook computer – and how much that has become a routine part of our lives and like many technological advances is taken for granted soon enough.

My traveling companion for this trip is my uncle, who rarely flies internationally, and just requested that I don’t write about him. Apparently he doesn’t realize that the request in and of itself a reason to do so – everyone say Hi to Uncle Dennis!

Today’s trip started with us meeting at the airport, and spending a few moments weighing our bags with a mini-bag scale that I carry on trips, to verify that our checked luggage would be within the weight parameters and not incur hefty overweight fees. A short re-distribution took place, where we exchanged some items for others between our bags so that we were both at the appropriate limit of each bag being under 50 pounds (or 22 kilos).

Then we joined the line of the many people trying to be processed at the El Al check-in desks. This is a different procedure than any other airline, as El Al has their own security screening process, which isn’t that secure, I hate to tell you.

Once you finally get around enough of the line to reach an actual security person, they ask you a few standardized questions – pretty much the ones that George Carlin has ridiculed in epic words – before sending you off to the right, to wait in line again, where your checked luggage (only checked luggage!) will be scanned by their heft X-ray machines.

Waiting in this new line showed a degree of inefficient operation that I have grown accustomed to, and just like everything else when it comes to international flight, I simply sigh, suck it up, and ride the waves of despair. There are two large scanners, and only one person loading bags on to them. One line shuts down while we are waiting there due to a large family with a bunch of children having some sort of issue with putting the stroller through, or something else.

Most of the staff are American TSA workers – except two – an older Israeli guy who kept fluttering around and interrupting any kind of flow that was slowly being achieved, and a younger Israeli girl whose sole job, it seemed, was to place a “scanned” sticker on bags that gad been scanned. She couldn’t do that very well, as a family had to come back from their lengthy check in process to ask for a sticker – which she simply gave to them.

Insecurity Note #1 – who is to say that bag was scanned or not? What is to prevent me from taking the same approach, simply not choosing to scan one bag, then coming back to the desk and getting a sticker for the second?

Insecurity Note #2 – once the bags were scanned – only checked luggage, mind you – they are returned to our possession for a lengthy wait for the check-in desk. During this time, I literally could have placed anything at all from my pockets, or even anything larger from my carry-on or backpack into my luggage that now, thanks to the security girl’s ability to focus for a moment, has a nice, official “scanned” sticker on it.

Uncle Dennis and I chat about this, shake our heads in despair and continue on with the show. I could have brought a bag full of firecrackers with me.

The check-in desks never seem to operate fast – every traveler in line in front of me seems to have a very specific set of problems that has never been encountered in the past 40 years of flight, and requires involvement of a supervisor, a manager, and sometimes a quick chat with the captain. However, it must be me, that I take the time to figure out the rules of this stupid game and adhere to them, as the moment I step up, I am typically checked in, have my boarding pass and luggage tags all in under three minutes.

From this point forward is the move to the last security scan before the gates, and the last time beloved ones will see you – gone are the days where they can stand at the door of plane, wave at the aircraft as it taxis away to wait forever in line on the tarmac for clearance to take off. Now they say their goodbyes, and sometimes watch as the mass of humanity gets funneled slowly into another snake maze line, where their passport and boarding pass and given a cursory glance before shunting them into another processing line where the most exciting part of all of this takes place – the metal detector and carry-on x-ray.

Why is this the most exciting? Because it has become a challenge to me to beat this system at its own game. I have been stopped more times than I can count at this gateway.
My shoes are unlaced and come off, my bag pops open and the netbook comes out into a plastic tub, the shoes go in there too. Everything in my pockets – phone, wallet, and change, anything – goes into the bag. My belt flies off into the plastic tub. My jacket is already in there. Everything goes on the conveyor belt.

Then, with a deep sigh, I step forward to the beckoning TSA agent at the metal detector. And with a sense of “I know this thing is going to beep at me”, I walk through and stop, waiting for the questions about my pocket contents, any medical metal hardware or whatever else they can ask me.

Guess what? I won this time. Maybe the machine is malfunctioning. Maybe the sun is shining just the right way right now, or maybe the magnetic poles of the Earth are aligned perfectly for me right at this moment.

No call for a bag check, no red light went off, requiring a roundabout impromptu interrogation by a security idiot, for whom petty power has corrupted beyond all proportions, and no further hold up for me at this station.

Sigh of relief, grab my shoes, bags and laptop. I had almost considered doing this trip in only my pajamas.

Up until this point, I think I’ve waited in about four lines, and there’s one more – boarding the plane. Not the most efficient process to say the least – as this airline does not board by section, row or reason – simply board now. There’s a line that stretches to two gates away for this flight only. We take a seat, and wait for the line to be processed at a snail’s pace.

Once on board, again it seems like people have forgotten all semblance of “how things work”, not realizing that we’re all going to be compressed in this tin can for the next 10 hours or so. Crowding in the aisles, stopping and talking with people already seated, blocking the passage of everyone else from boarding, tossing their carry-on in to the overhead compartments and sitting down.

Before leaving home, I took the time to visit the El Al web site and look at their carry-on luggage policy – and got out the measuring tape to verify that my bag did indeed meet the required size limits, and it did. However, a Boeing 747-400 (how long ago was this particular aircraft made?) center overhead compartments are about 1 inch smaller than the advertised capacity. My frustration of trying to jam my own bag into their compartment were heard for a few rows, and a few people smiled in sympathy, and nod. I guess they had a similar experience at some point.

I walk farther down the plane looking for space in one of the overhead compartments that face the windows, large enough to share, and as I see an opening and begin to raise my bag, a guy tells me that his “seats are here and this room should be reserved for him and his family”. I grumble and move along further down, finally spot a vacancy 10 rows away, rush there, toss my bag in, slam the compartment shut and sigh in relief.

Fighting my way upstream to get back to my seat, I look and see that, of course, I’m sitting next to a guy that has had his (and mine and yours) share of good meals, and that his gut spills over on to the armrest, to squash against my right arm, prompting me to fly with my arms folded in front of me for most of the flight.

The woman in front of me comments loudly that she cannot believe how small the seats and space between rows is. I smile in sympathy and nod.

And we haven’t even begun to taxi to the runway yet.