“It can hardly be a coincidence that no language on earth has ever produced the expression, ‘As pretty as an airport.”
― Douglas Adams, The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul
It’s a constant migration. Every hour of every day of every year. A single year’s migration consists of more than 200 million travelers on over 2 million flights. Short hops and long hauls, they pass through podunk airfields and airports that are self contained cities. Not unlike the Arctic Tern, the travelers are moved by an instinct. Unlike other species that migrate for food or reproductive instincts, the travelers are driven by an impulse to see new things and new places and to meet new people.
It all seems so chaotic. Imagine if a giant hand were to peel the roof off of San Francisco International Airport. From an airliner’s eye view, the observer might think he was looking down on an ant colony. A horde scurrying in all directions, each individual with his or her own mission.
Cora and I were gliding on a moving walkway in the Dallas Fort Worth Airport, one of those city sized airports. The long steel belts can seem like a Godsend after you’ve unfurled yourself from a cramped airline seat and are faced with a trek from one end of a boundless terminal to the other end. That’s when they work. If you’ve caught a walkway that’s worn out from hauling the migration then you pack it and hack it. We’d just deplaned from San Francisco (SFO) and were headed for another terminal far, far away to catch a flight to Madrid.
As we were swept along with the mass, moving without moving, I watched a hollow eyed multitude, confused and harried, being hauled unconsciously along the steel belt and I thought of parts on an assembly line. They dragged bags, kids and the elders who couldn’t keep up, and wore polar expressions of anticipation and exhaustion.
As I glided along in my own stupor, it occurred to me that there was something Orwellian about this airport migration. Directed by LED status boards and the instructions of a spiritless omnipresent voice from unseen loudspeakers, the weary travelers reminded me of automatons; silent, weary, eyes front, unflinching and unquestioning, conveyed from one unknown point to another.
The moment we enter the airport we give ourselves and our persons over to various agents, guards, attendants, handlers, assistants and machines. From one line to another and through detectors and into a scanner that sees through our clothes but, ‘not to worry,’ we’re assured, the scanner doesn’t reveal the goodies.
When was it that the excitement, the glamor and the romance of the airport turned into a temporary layover in purgatory? Was it when armed nuts demanded that planes be diverted to Cuba? Was it Bin Laden or that other nut who tried smuggling a bomb in his shoe? Maybe it was when the airlines decided that stock prices count more than the comfort of the flying public. I mean, what’s the traveling public gonna do about it? Take the bus? I guess it’s some measure of all of it.
During the times when we weren’t trudging somewhere, or being verbally or physically inspected, Cora and I were able to enjoy comforts previously foreign to us; traveling the way of the other half. We were flying American Airlines Business Class. Actually it’s more like the other 11 percent. That’s the ratio of Business Class seats to the various peasant class seats. And if we’re talking economics, it’s more like the other 3 percent. Shit’s fucking expensive.
It’s probably a well known fact that there is no admiral at the American Airlines Admirals Club. I had to wonder why an airline would name its airport luxury lounge after a naval flag officer. I guess it has a better ring to it than the Generals Club and it just wouldn’t do to name it the Airmens Club. No offense to all of the airmen out there, but an airman is at the bottom of the Air Force org chart.
Not everyone can get into the Admirals Club. If they could then it would just be another restaurant. Gaining entrance is sort of like getting into a speakeasy except there’s no password or secret knock. One gets into the Admirals Club by flashing a Business of First Class boarding pass at the front desk.
As we stepped up to the entrance, the woman at the desk, the gatekeeper, eyeballed us with the chilly bearing of someone trying to gauge our worthiness. I fumbled with my phone and when I produced our Business Class boarding passes her aspect softened into a smile, and with a flourish of her left arm she directed us to an elevator which carried us to the inner sanctum. This was new ground for us. We normally fly with the traveling bourgeoisie, in Economy, so on this particular morning I felt like Charlie presenting the Golden Ticket to Willy Wonka. Tell the Oompa Loompas we’d like a table by the window please.
If the admiral wasn’t a metaphor I’d have complimented him on his little club. The avocado toast topped with smoked salmon and served with a side of fresh fruit was top notch. The bacon was done just the way I like it, just a little bit limp and glistening with fat. Because, is it really bacon if there’s no fat?. And the eggs? Real scrambled eggs, unlike those nasty, plastic looking, nuclear yellow discs you get at the Days Inn buffet.
The coffee was hot, and fresh with an earthy aroma. For those who don’t like the taste of their coffee and like to mask it with loads of crap, you know, sugar, cream, hazelnut syrup and enough spice to infuse a pumpkin pie, there was a frou-frou coffee machine.
The bar was well stocked with decent hooch, but eight in the morning is a bit early to be tippling. There’s that and the fact that I don’t drink anymore – no matter what the time of day. My cardiologist has warned me away from demon alcohol. Doctors have a knack for treating patients like onions, peeling away layers of life’s pleasures, one visit at a time, until the flavor is all gone.
We typically don’t have the financial horsepower to fly Business Class and we actually didn’t when I bought the tickets. You see, I purchased them out of pure spite. There was never any real thought of flying in anything but Economy. That is until Cora and I went to war over the travel budget.
The trip had been in the planning stages for months and I’d been tracking ticket prices. By the time that I was ready to buy, the prices had gone up. “Cora, prices are up. I’m not sure we can do this.”
“Paul, we have money. Don’t worry about it.”
“Well, we won’t have money for long if we just keep tossing it around irresponsibly. What happened to the accountant I married?” Shots fired.
As I recall there were some slammed doors and plenty of bad language and once the battle began in earnest, Lexi skulked into her crate until the shooting stopped.
Well, finally I got so pissed off over the notion of spending all that money that I sat down at my computer, mumbled something along the lines of, “I’ll show her,” and then spent all that money and more, lot’s more, on Business Class tickets. In the end I didn’t really show her anything. I simply performed the economic equivalent of a soccer player booting an own goal.
At the end of the round trip transaction I’d spent about the same amount on airline tickets as I’d spent five years ago when I bought my, new off the showroom floor, Honda Civic.
Meanwhile, back at the club, Cora surveyed the spread. “Is it free?” she asked. No,” I answered in a wry tone. “It costs about as much as a brand new 2018 Honda Civic. Eat up.”.
Given that I was Willy Wonka with the Golden Ticket and given that this would likely be our one and only shot at this experience I intended to take full advantage. I ate like a drunken Roman senator at a bacchanal (Pardon me, could you please point me to the vomitorium?). The club offers shower suites. I considered it, because I was there. I mean you can never be too clean. I weighed the idea of going over to the business center to put together a spreadsheet. I would also make myself look important and managerial by glancing at my inactive phone, stroking my chin and shaking my head as if I was weighing the future of some fictitious company. Did it really matter that I’ve been retired for 5 years and can barely remember how to use Excel?
SFO is in a constant state of flux. You can see it in the ever changing dining options. A restaurant sets up shop, lasts for a few years and is replaced by something else. Time was, when there was no dining option. There was food, sort of, but not dining. The best one could hope for were candy bars or pre-wrapped sandwiches. For some perverse reason I took a liking to the packaged tuna fish sandwich, manufactured, is probably the right word, by a company called Host. Yeah I know, a pre-wrapped tuna sandwich sounds sort of like convenience store sushi. I was a kid. What do they know? They put ketchup on hotdogs.
As we headed towards our gate I noted how the idea of Host pre-wrapped sandwiches has evolved into real, albeit unreasonably priced, food. We passed Bun Me (Vietnamese), Goldilocks (Filipino), The Little Chihuahua (Mexican) and Gotts (Burgers and diner food). As we passed Mama Go (Filipino), I felt a little nostalgic for a Host pre-wrapped tuna sandwich. Not that I could stomach one. I was stuffed from the not so free food at the Admiral’s Club.
We passed plenty of bars, and they were all busy. White wine sippers, Mimosa drinkers and one or two of the hardcore, downing tequila shots. What the hell. Why not? It was 5 o’clock somewhere – in Eastern Europe. With all the news stories about unruly passengers, I’ve wondered why they just haven’t made the airport a dry territory. Seems to me that closing the bars would be like cutting the fuse. It’s not as if the airport would lose customers. Sure it might piss off the traveling public, but what are they gonna do about it? Take the bus?
If you called the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport (DFW) a metropolis you wouldn’t be too far off. We deplaned and then began a forced march to an escalator that took us up to another level where we marched to another escalator that took us back down. Then it was onto a shuttle which brought us to another terminal, where we went up some stairs and then down some stairs (Or was it down and up?) and then another forced march that brought us to our departure gate.
By the time we’d completed our trek and arrived at the gate we were down to 30 minutes until boarding our flight for Madrid. The status board counted down to 20 minutes. Twenty minutes passed and there was no movement. Thirty minutes, then forty. Tick-tock.
Gate agents huddled at the entrance to the jetway and conferred in hushed tones. A few grumbles circulated among the rabble. Finally an agent picked up a microphone and announced that our flight was delayed due to a mechanical problem with the aircraft. With status now set at indefinite, I decided to go exploring.
DFW has the usual array of restaurants, services, and gift shops only with a ham handed, ‘only in Texas touch.’ The gift shops at DFW offer a variety of souvenirs emblazoned with “Everything is bigger in Texas,” bullshit – whatever. Come to think of it, Texas has the biggest asshole in the Senate in Ted Cruz, so maybe the tourist bureau is on to something.
Meanwhile back at the gate, an agent announced that the plane was beyond timely repair so American opened a new can of aircraft and herded the mob to a different gate. Any anticipation that we would board in short order was dashed by an announcement that the ground crew was loading the food onto the aircraft. I turned to Cora, “You know, it wouldn’t break my heart if they tossed everyone a Snickers bar and a can of Coke and got us moving.” A woman nearby heard the comment and chuckled.
During the wait, the gate agents continued to huddle while glancing out at the growing impatience in the multitude at the gate. I guessed that they were taking bets on which passenger would be the first to lose his shit and create a scene that would wind up on Twitter and CNN. My money was riding on the guy wearing the Philadelphia Eagles gear – but I guess that’s stereotyping. These days one never can tell who’s going to hemorrhage over some perceived slight or inconvenience. Could be a mild mannered looking dad, an entitled celebrity or, hell, even a nun.
Two hours late, the gate agent announced that boarding would commence and the throng let out a mass exhale. I had a notion that boarding over 200 passengers would take a good 45 minutes but when we scanned our tickets and passed through the portal, I witnessed the marvel of a jetway that branched into 2 bridges, each leading to a separate door on the plane. The herd was on board and seated in minutes.
As we entered the 787 Dreamliner, Cora and I were directed to the left. To call my seat a mere seat would be a slander. It was a damn cubicle, with a padded reclining chair and a little desk. In front of the seat was a 17 inch display and sitting on a little shelf, a touch screen handset to select from the entertainment options. On the reclining seat was a warm blanket and a pillow. Not the flimsy little bean bag they give you in Economy, but a bona fide pillow. A little cubby held a swag bag and next to the swag bag a Bang and Olufsen headset. And the overhead? That precious prized little piece of aircraft real estate was big enough to stash a dead mobster’s corpse in. And it was all mine.
I was the kid on Christmas morning. I sat down and stretched out my 6 foot, 1 inch frame and my feet never touched bottom. A touch screen controlled various sections of the seat so that I could adjust it to my own liking. There would be no armrest wrestling on this flight. Both armrests were mine, mine, mine! I wouldn’t have to worry about the person in front of me reclining his seat and putting his headrest two inches from my nose. Hell, I couldn’t even see the guy in front of me or the guy to the side of me. Cora was in the cubicle behind. I poked my head over the top and said, “That’s it, we’re never taking Economy again.” That was just a momentary, excitement induced fantasy. Of course we would be flying Economy – again and always.
As always happens after takeoff, the flight attendants handed out the requisite complimentary nuts. Ah, but these weren’t the usual cello packs of year old, stale peanuts. No. these were ramekins filled with an assortment of warm nuts. And let me tell you, there is nothing like having warm nuts.
After a dinner of prawns, salad, short ribs and roasted potatoes, followed by a cheese plate for dessert, I read for a bit and then extended my chair into a bed. Even with twenty milligrams of melatonin, sleep wasn’t sound – but it was sleep. A sleep that I wouldn’t have had back in Economy.
What’s the best part of a flight? It’s that moment when the seat belt sign shuts off and you uncoil your frame that’s been wedged for hours like “Spam in a can,” to borrow Chuck Yeager’s term, and then you hobble off the aircraft like a person who’s just been through a Mike Tyson beatdown.
When I woke up, we were ninety minutes out from Madrid. Here is where I experienced the best part of any flight I’ve ever taken. We were eastbound, on a collision course with sunrise. I put on the headset, found a jazz station and listened to John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Art Pepper and Charlie Parker, while watching the light show of a sky that was an ever changing palette of pastels; pinks, yellows, oranges, and purples.
There’s no escaping the fact that air travel is an impersonal drudgery. But once you’ve left the madness of the destination airport, something magical happens. There’s nothing quite like the cab ride from an airport in another country to the hotel.
During that ride, you just take it all in. The signs and billboards are all in a different language.
Lots of things are the same as back home, but not so much. It’s all different and new and exciting. The cab takes you into the city and your head is on a swivel. At some point in the ride there is that moment when you find that your jaw has dropped because you’re passing an attraction that you’d only read about in a travel book a few days before. It’s at that moment that, if you’re like me, your eyes moisten a bit and you exchange that look with your companion and squeeze hands because, in that instant, you know that the dream you’ve been planning for months has come true.
We made it. We were in Spain.