"Now Boarding, Zone 4…"

I know I have covered this topic in a previous post, but airports, airplanes, and just air travel in general are such magnificent little social Petri dishes that they just scream for a re-visit.

Some, hell maybe all of you at this point, know that Nativenapkin is making a big move later this summer, back to the South and Atlanta, GA.   More on that topic as the story unfolds and we hit the road; but in the meantime there has been some back and forth travel required.  What with purchasing a home and the necessary job-search, I have been on an airplane with what is, for me anyway, a bit more frequency.  I have, of course, been flying Delta, as any good Southerner should.  There is just something comforting about flight attendants with Southern accents.  We actually had enough frequent flyer points to make this last trip almost free, and Delta has developed a bit of a sense of humor, after surviving bankruptcy and all.  On Flight 1649 from ATL to SFO last Monday night they announced the names of the flight crew as Captain Roger Waters and Co-Pilot Jimmie Paige.

It’s good that an airline can have a sense of humor because most of its passengers most decidedly do not.  I lamented in that previous post about all the little courtesies that most travelers ignore, and after this last trip I am beginning to see why.

I have come to understand that there is absolutely no practical advantage in arriving early for a flight.  If you follow the airlines’ suggestion of arriving 90 minutes early for your flight, that’s all you will be:  early.  You will not get to board first; you will not get a better seat, a free cocktail, a hot towel, or any other acknowledgement of gratitude for going by “the rules”.  You will simply wait longer.  You will wait for the flight to board.  You will wait, even though you have checked your bag and have only a carry-on that fits nicely UNDER your seat, for everyone in front and behind you to stow all their crap, cramming it into the overhead bins.  You will wait for the beverage cart, for your little bag that contains 8 peanuts (the one and only free thing left in air travel);  you will wait for the toilet so you can stand there and attempt to pee while the plane jostles you about, giving you the experience of what peeing while riding a skateboard might be like.  And you will wait as all of your fellow travelers grab their bags, coats, put away their computers, and put their clothes and shoes back on when you finally reach the blessed stability of the gate at your destination.  No, better to just be “That Guy”, who arrives just in time to board in front of the closing door, and walk unimpeded to his seat, like some inconsiderate celebrity.

I am at Hartsfield-Jackson airport in Atlanta, where I will be boarding Flight 1649 to SFO, and I have done all my required waiting.  I have actually secured an Exit Row seat, the Holy Grail for us 6’ 4” guys.  I don’t mind sitting in “The Hero Row” and Hell Yes, I will follow all instructions in the event of a water landing, open the door, and risk my life for a bunch of inconsiderate bastards that won’t even pay to check a bag, you betcha!  All I want, or will receive for this magnanimous risking of life and limb is that extra ten inches of legroom afforded those of us so brave as to sit in the Exit Rows.  So I am walking toward my Exit Row seat and am realizing as I approach it, that this plane is a “two-three-two” configuration, and my seat is on the aisle in the middle three.  It’s technically not in the Hero Row, but I still have to listen to the schpiel, agree to help, yet I get no extra legroom.  The only upside here is that it is pretty close to the door, so I’m pretty sure I can shove the two people in front of me out of the way if I have to go screaming my way to the life raft.

My row is one behind the most coveted of all Coach seats, the Bulkhead Row, the row on the plane that has enough legroom to park a Winnebago in front of it; and as if to prove to me, yet again, that there is no justice in The Universe, the people in front of me are a man and woman, neither of which is taller than five-five.  AND they have an empty seat between them.  I now get to watch in horror, as the woman in front of me does a Goldilocks, and shifts back and forth between her two seating options, trying to find the one that’s “just right”.  She settles on the aisle seat, gets her laptop, headphones and coat situated on the empty middle one, and takes off her shoes.  And twisting the knife into my ribs just a little bit more, puts her feet up on the bulkhead wall in front of her, extending her legs fully.  If she were to raise the arm of her seat she could actually lie down.  After we have ascended to  cruising altitude, she adds the final insult of reclining her seat-back into my face.  Oh no you did not!  My cramped back is so completely broken by this final straw, that I give her a tap-tap and explain my predicament; that I will need corrective surgery on my knees if forced to keep them in the position required by her intrusion into my tiny bit of space.  She seems a fairly unsympathetic type, so I add that I am borderline claustrophobic and don’t want to risk “FREAKING OUT!” by being constrained any further.  The slightly crazed look on my face and tone of my voice is enough to get her to comply, and the seat back goes up.  We do not speak again, but I did get several over-the-shoulder glances of paranoid concern from her during the 5-hour trip.  Thanks for helping!

Flight 1649 turns out to be one of the very rare occasions these days, of a plane that is not completely full; and, I too, find myself with an empty seat next to me in that middle section.  Having an empty seat next to you in an airplane is a situation that demands caution before allowing yourself to exult in your good fortune.  As people are still boarding the plane, there is a very real danger that someone is going to walk up, point to the little oasis of potential comfort that is the seat next to me, and say, “Uh, sorry, that’s me…” which will necessitate my unbuckling, pulling my substantial frame out into the aisle, and begrudgingly allowing them access.

So I am hopeful, yet vigilant, as the potential interlopers present themselves.  Giant men, very large women with children, and old people pass me by and continue on.  As each one approaches I glance up, thinking very loudly to myself, “Oh no. Oh no, no, NO!!!” Yet one by one, they pass.  I will be left to have my way with Seat 26D for the duration.  Safe.

Seat 26E however, is another story.  The guy two seats over from me turns out to be the Oscar Madison of airline travelers.  This hairy, bearded, smelly gent, is dressed in dirty Levi’s and a ratty T-Shirt from some 70’s Rock Band, and has laid claim to half of “The Blessed Space” by taking off his smelly shoes and actually putting them ON the seat between us.  Later on, he will put down the tray table of the empty seat and proceed to pull out a Styrofoam To-Go box and eat, WITH HIS HANDS, the most God-Awful, unidentifiable meal.  He has preapplied so much Worcestershire to this pile of Mystery Meat  that a cloud envelops the entire section.   His beverage of choice to accompany this culinary horror show is a room-temp can of Tomato Juice.  The combination of B.O., athlete’s foot, and bad food is absolutely oppressive.   He proceeds to finish his ghastly repast, pile all the garbage on said tray table, and goes to sleep; leaving me to bask in it’s odoriferous glory until we are well over Ohio.  He finally awakens, and allows the kindly Flight Attendant to don a Haz-Mat Suit and bring a dumpster-sized bag to haul it all away.

So, being the Nice Guy that has literally finished last every time in this scenario, I have had enough.  By the time the plane has landed and is pulling up to the gate, I am ready.  My headphones are disconnected and stowed in my bag, which is now in my lap.  As Flight 1649 taps the jetway, and the engines stop churning, I spring out into the aisle.  Before anyone in the 25 rows in front of me can so much as grab their armrest to move themselves out of their seat, I am sprinting forward towards the door.  As I move quickly along, people are filling the aisle behind me like the Red Sea behind Moses and the Israelites.  I am within sight of my goal, the opened door of the aircraft (“…two are forward, two are aft…”); and, making a final side-step move around a smallish, Asian gent that would’ve made Reggie Bush proud, I am out the door and up the jetway, racing past the line-up of Flight Attendants as they are drawling their perfunctory “Thank yoooo…buh-bye, now.”   The Baggage Carousel, Ground Transportation and a Camel Filter await.

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