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Flying with turtles and hogs

This morning I looked out the balcony of our hotel room and saw a billowing line of smoke moving south along the coastline. Malibu is on fire and the smoke extends past LAX. This made me think of our Airstream, which is parked up in the hills north of Los Angeles. Will a wildfire consume the park while we are gone? I can’t imagine anything worse than coming back from our trip to find it a melted puddle of aluminum. It’s still our primary home at this point.

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Well, there is nothing I can do about it right now. This morning we could only stare at the news video on the TVs while eating the breakfast buffet at the hotel. With grim images of glowing houses in our heads, we went to the airport.

Long-time readers of this blog know that I have no love for commercial airplane travel anymore. I used to travel a lot via air, for business purposes, but now I am happy to have a job that requires me to travel via the surface of the Earth most of the time. Still, once or twice a year I find myself riding the air bus, either for a family visit or for an overseas destination, and it reminds me of the long string of hassles and annoyances that come with air travel these days.

The overwhelming feeling I get from air travel today is crowdedness. You have to abandon any sense of personal space from the moment you arrive at the airport. This is particularly upsetting to the RV’er I think because we are accustomed to privacy on demand, and a huge amount of freedom in our travels.

The process at the airport seems designed to strip away your individuality and any pretensions you might have that your life is under your control. Start with a line, a long one to check in bags, with unpredictable delays and malfunctioning “self check” machines. Then wait in another line to present your checked bags for scanning, then another line to have your identification compared to your ticket. By the time you reach the final line to be stripped of your shoes, have your pockets emptied, and present your personal toiletries in a see-through bag, you’ve come to accept the system. Fast “institutionalization.”

lax-767-300-er.jpgSo the subsequent wait to shuffle down a line and wrassle for overhead storage bins doesn’t jar you as much as it might have an hour earlier, when you were still free and living outside the institution. I’m amazed that people who don’t travel by RV but who do travel by air tend to ask us how we bear up “crowded together” in the Airstream. I’d rather spend a rainy day in my Airstream with my family than five hours on a Boeing 767-300 ER “¦

“¦ which is where I am at this writing. The “ER” designator means “Extended Range”, and it’s the version that is favored by long-haul carriers for overseas flights. Two big jet engines and an extra-long fuselage means Hawaiian Airlines can cart a whole herd of tourists over the Pacific in complete safety and moderate comfort, albeit with only a few cubic inches of personal space.

Not that I have anything against the Boeing. It’s a remarkable piece of technology and my immense respect for what it represents as an achievement helps temper my feelings about riding inside it. Just seeing the smooth fuselage gives me an awestruck feeling. I can’t help think about where it has been. Yesterday perhaps one of the jets might have been in Paris, this morning parked at Dallas, and in ten hours it might go back to Europe. The one we are huddled inside at the moment is hurtling at about 500 MPH back to home base, Honolulu. So now you know where we will be for a while.

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From observing the other passengers on the plane, I see two common responses to the lack of space in a jet airliner. Most people withdraw like a turtle and try not to notice the outside world, even when the guy who bought four gin bottles from the flight attendant is now lurching around inches from their lunch.

Sitting in seat 44G and trying to read a book I have a wide range of body parts thrust into my little space, including a variety of buttocks, the occasional hip, and a pair of orange-striped breasts. I really could have lived without any of those intimate presentations. My sandal-clad foot, when it wanders an inch over the little dividing line that separates my space from the aisle, has narrowly avoiding being stepped on several times. Like other people in the “turtle” category, I have been pretending those things didn’t happen.

The other major response is to redefine the boundaries of the aircraft and simply take over as much space as one wants. This is akin to sharing a bed and hogging the blankets; it works great for the hogger and not so great for the bedmate. We are surrounded by “hogs” here in the cheap seats, and frankly they are having a better time. They lean over the aisle to shout boisterously to their new friends. They grab the backs of seats as they walk with total oblivion, and laugh loudly to each other. They stand in the aisles until the flight attendants ask them for the third time to please sit down. Their personal space is pretty much all of Rows 43 through 45, plus the aisle between G and H, plus the back kitchen when the crew is not serving meals. The turtles around them are cowering.

On a long flight, the airplane forms a sort of community, much like living in an apartment building. There’s the hog couple in 43J/H: she talks so loudly that I pity her neighbors, he’s constantly befuddled but eager to let his traveling companions use his Hawaiian Airlines VISA card for their drinks and movie rentals because he gets points. Together they are a sideshow that is occasionally worth watching.

The turtle family in 41 is just trying to survive the trip with two small children, one of whom periodically shouts something unintelligible to all of the coach section. The baby behind us in 45G starts to cry sympathetically when the baby in 41 does, so we get stereo crying every 20-30 minutes. When the movie ended, the airline began playing scorchingly loud Hawaiian music over the public speakers which didn’t improve anyone’s mood and woke up all the babies.

This flying experience will end, as they all do, with the screech of tires on the runway, everyone standing up to await the jetway, and a huge sense of relief that it’s all over. I see the same look on the faces of people coming off the jetway as I see on people leaving the dentist. At least until they get to the baggage claim and the car rental counter “¦

Still, at the end of the day there is a nice reward. We’re in Hawaii now, and it is beautiful as always, and ahead of us lies a promising range of possibilities. The plane ride will be worth it in the long run. We have no worries except for the slim prospect of our Airstream being burned in a wildfire while we are gone, but I’ll try to concentrate on the snorkeling instead.

2 Responses to “Flying with turtles and hogs”

  1. Jay and Cherie Guerin Says:

    Hi Rich….Your flight description brings back the irritating memory of our last flight. We were returning from a cycling trip in Ireland. We’d been in the air about an hour. We had just been served meals when a very fat lady tried to walk in front of us and upended Cherie’s tray…. leaving a sticky mess in her lap for the remaining 7 hours of flight time.

    That was the last flight we ever took. Instead we bought the first Airstream and have traveled alone ever since.

  2. Jack Palmer aka Craftsman Says:

    Rich, I too traveled every week by plane for three years. One year flying to Chicago 34 times. I guess the more you fly the more you learn little survival and coping techniques. Still I don’t miss it at all. It’s like living your life in a kind of limbo. A different plane, city, rental car and hotel. After awhile they all seem to blend together. It gets you there fast but it’s in no way enjoyable.

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