Friday, June 13, 2008

Flights of Fancy

I don't get to fly on airplanes much these days. Having children has put a serious damper in my travel plans. But I got to fly last week, and unlike most people, I look forward to the plane trip almost as much as my vacation. A couple of hours where I have to sit down in one spot and do nothing but amuse myself? Count me in.

I think air travel has come a long way in the past few years. When I was a kid, we used to go to Ireland every couple of years, and I remember that plane ride as the modern equivalent of the Bataan Death March. Not only were there no movies, no music and absolutely no diversions whatsoever, it took a day and a half to cross the Atlantic, and they allowed smoking on those flights, too. Plus they fed you, which everyone knows was folly of the highest order. Airplane food rightfully had a dreadful reputation, and now they have given up the pretense of trying to please anyone, and they don't bother feeding you at all. I brought my own snacks and was all the happier for it. Now Air Canada also provides you with a nifty personal tv set, with dozens of movies, tv shows, games, and music. I barely had time to read my book.

Also, the departure lounges at airports have improved dramatically since the 70's and 80's. Not only did I have the comfort of the familiar (I was able to get my usual skinny vanilla latte from Starbucks) but the excitement of the new. (Lunch was a big, slurpy bowl of Vietnamese pho, complete with spicy broth and crunchy, bright vegetables. I could have happily stayed there all day.) I recall being delayed at Pearson in a dreary, stuffy, uncomfortable departure lounge for a long enough time that we contemplated the idea that perhaps we were being held as political prisoners. Nobody would tell us what was going on, or why were still on the ground, and there was the threat of real bloodshed when the staff left because their shift was over. In contrast, the pilot of my flight home sounded sincerely apologetic when we had to circle over Toronto for 30 minutes because of thunderstorms. (Everyone else was very unhappy about it, but I just hunkered down and turned on another episode of "Grey's Anatomy".)

The people who run airports have figured out that the place is full of people who are trying to get somewhere, and need some direction. There was a time when gates and departure lounges were deep, dark secrets, and you had to be the member of some secret society to understand the signs, if there were any. Now they tend to have much more help, including real people to answer you questions. Calgary airport, which is marvelous in every respect, has dozens of volunteers who cheerfully point you in the right direction, and will even take you where you want to go on a little golf cart. I remember once asking an Alitalia worker where the international departures were in Terminal two, and he replied that he was "on a break". I think if I had dropped dead right there and then, the guy wouldn't have called anyone to clean up my body until his precious break was over.

Despite the delays and the security hijinks and the crowded conditions, air travel is still a delightful luxury to me. And one where I get to bring my own snacks.

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