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.