Turbulence Jostles Air Travel

After so many years of foreign life, I’ve forgotten how many times we’ve traveled back and forth between Brazil and the U.S. We’ve flown all the airlines, from Bolivian’s low fares to Varig’s (former) excellent service, and the U.S. companies like Delta, American and Continental.

I’ve had luggage lost (and found), flights canceled because of broken airplane parts, airports closed due to bad weather, a full pot of scalding coffee dumped down my back from air turbulence. (No, I didn’t sue, and no, they didn’t bother to give me any compensation.)

Until 2006 we always traveled together as a family. That year, my wife wanted to spend some extra time with her ailing mother, so she and the daughter went ahead of me by two weeks. I was left at home to fend for myself.

My wife liked it so much, we repeated the horrid act in 2007. She has sadistic tendencies.

Since September 2001 flying has become even more of a hassle, with sour federal agents herding passengers in interminable lines through cattle chutes in order to humiliate them by removing shoes and beeping at metal belt buckles.

Fares rise faster than a 737 take-off, baggage limits drop, diminishing personal space squeezes the lungs and bumps the knees.

Once, seated at the extreme rear of the plane (our typical seating), I popped into the galley and thanked an especially attentive and helpful flight attendant for her service. She gushed and chatted until I was nearly hauled away with the plane. I suspect it had been some time since someone had made it a point to say thanks.

Airports have special committees and architects to make them the most inhospitable and uncomfortable places, ranking somewhere between Death Valley and the Gobi Desert. Dull. Noisy. Confusing. Boring.

But in Salvador, they have recliners in the boarding areas. Yes, reclining chairs, you know, like you have in your den. I was afraid to sit in one, though, fearing a nap would make me lose my flight.

The ideal flight can only be termed uneventful. Take-off at Point A, touch-down at Point B. No delays, no bumps, no ruffles. No excitement. Flying should be, of all activities, utilitarian. Commercial airplanes are not delta-wing gliders or military fighters. Adventure we leave to the extreme sports. I prefer to leave my flotation device underneath my immobile buttocks.

The no-frills airline has come to Brazil. Now the hoi polloi, of which I am one, are flying in record numbers. I have helped old ladies on maiden voyages release their flop-down tables, assisted a country gentleman fastening his seatbelt, wondered how tireless shoppers got their umpteen packages past the gate police.

I’ve sat beside fat, uh, I mean, waistline-challenged ogres who took up their space and half my seat. Dullards who never spoke a word. Conversationalists addicted to the sound of their voice. Snorers. White-knuckled panic buttons who would have jumped from the window if they could have opened it. And a few decent folk who made the time pass more quickly.

The human race can put a man on the moon but can’t produce decent airline food, which is pretty much like the world’s most famous fast-food joint: you know what you’re going to get. At least, the international supper tray still comes hot.

Nowadays we have to arrive at the airport even earlier, three hours for international flights, while we have longer delays for departure. And while agents give us hard stares and pretend to provide security, we hear of an increasingly overburdened traffic system and more near collisions that we’d rather not know about.

I’ve gone from being a giddy tourist, to a cool, experienced traveler, to a bored commuter.

Bored by the time I get to the airport and present my tickets at the counter. The ground approach, by car or bus, presents its own hazards. Vehicle breakdowns, traffic jams, airport parking, lines and more lines at check-in, luggage weigh-ins, overweight charges, document challenges. You either experience new highs in blood pressure or learn to adopt a been-here, done-this attitude. Just let me get through and drop gently on the other side. Ho hum.

Calm. And patience. The two key words for flying.

Like the time we had, in a single trip, flights cancelled and not one but two airports closed by storms. I kept reminding myself that if we’d lived a 100 years earlier, our ship would still be in sight of shore. I blithely let the clock tick away at will.

The reward on that trip: at the car rental outside DFW, where I’d arranged in Brazil for an economy model, I drove away in a brand new Cadillac.

Sometimes, the sun breaks through the clouds.

J. Randal Matheny

Be pithy.

What do you think?