Two Words for the ‘Friendly Skies': Bye, Bye!

Trying to defeat the terrorists in my own small way, I’ve gone about my business, traveling a good deal since Sept. 11. The first few trips were uneventful, but then I ran into a blitzkrieg of perturbations on land and air. The airlines in particular–having done their best to make the skies unfriendly even before 9/11–now seem to be beating the terrorists at their own game. With such aggravated assaults on our peace of mind, who needs Al Qaeda to keep us paralyzed and homebound?

My first travel downer, a near-miss with a streetcar, occurred in an automobile in Southern California, a mode of transportation and a place never particularly congenial to my husband and myself. (I think it was the prospect of not having to own or drive a car that originally lured me to New York.) We were heading south from L.A., but a half hour of California-style speed-cruising on the San Diego Freeway (10 lanes, everyone going 95 miles per hour) had us reaching for our Valium. Trying to get to the Pacific Coast Highway from Ocean Boulevard in Long Beach, I found I’d missed the turn and was making a left over trolley tracks (I’d dimly noted the peculiarity of a streetcar running alongside us) when, in a whir of blaring horn and motion, the tram bore down on us. We escaped by a hairsbreadth, and as we crept forward, shaking, a motorcycle cop straight out of Psycho (the impenetrable dark glasses) pulled us over and demanded, “Are you from out of town?”

“New York,” I murmured–hoping to cash in on the good will our blighted city was momentarily enjoying.

“We have a special patrol just for this route.” Pause. “We pick up body parts here all day long.”

With that grisly image seared into our brains, he let us go, no doubt figuring that what we’d been through was punishment enough.

A few weeks later, I set out with my pal Anna for a spa weekend in Miami. At LaGuardia, after a thorough inspection, we boarded a jammed-to-the-gills American Airlines flight, with me (having failed to get my seat assignment ahead of time) sitting in the middle of a row. Beverages and a tiny packet of trail mix was our breakfast.

Two and a half hours later, we were making our landing when the plane swerved upward and began circling around, to no apparent destination and with not a word of explanation. Anna and I looked at each other; the atmosphere was tense and quiet. Had the wheels failed to descend? Or were we going to Guantánamo to rescue the prisoners?

It was Valium time again. I furtively swallowed half a pill and prayed it would take effect quickly.

As Anna chatted bravely, I gripped the arm rests (or my tiny share of them) and prayed for everyone I could think of, perhaps a way of saying goodbye: for my husband and my friends on the ground, for Anna and her husband. I apologized to my brother for not having all my financial records in one place.

I prayed not to be afraid of death, and I prayed that if this were checkout time, the exit would be instantaneous. The fear and the praying go together. It’s a way of seeking hope for something, for whatever Fate will grant–a diminishment of terror, a quick resolution, life everlasting, or a cocktail party with the risen souls of family members.

Eventually we landed. As we filed out, there were no stewards or pilots standing at the exit to wish us godspeed, so I stuck my head in the cockpit and asked the pilot what had happened. He cheerfully explained that as we were landing another plane was slow in taking off, so we had to abort.

“I was going to tell you, but the intercom wasn’t working,” he added.

Still shaking, Anna and I retrieved our luggage, whereupon I discovered that my retractable handle had been completely mangled. I stood in line only to be told that the airline is “not responsible for external protrusions.” I had one other errand: to get a better seat assignment on the return flight. At the counter I was informed that there were no more seat assignments being made, that each flight had a block of 40 seats still unassigned that would be released only on the day of the flight.

After a not-so-relaxing weekend, I arrived at the airport a full two hours ahead of flight time, but was told that those 40 seats had all already been taken. How can this be? Sorry, came the answer, the flight’s full–overbooked, in fact. I screamed, and eventually was rewarded with the last seat: in the middle of a row by the toilet.

At the gate, I discovered where the seats had gone: to those who’d been bounced off the preceding flight to LaGuardia.

The real trial of flying post-9/11 is not getting through security, or even getting over a fear of terrorist hijackers–it’s getting the airlines to honor a paid-in-full ticket purchased months in advance. Their old tricks have become common practice–which, if not illegal, are highly unethical. Airlines overbook flights and substitute smaller planes for unfilled 747’s, and then, just before boarding, request volunteers to take a later flight in return for money or flight miles. A regular auction ensues: $200 anyone? No, then $300? $1,000? Those who accept are guaranteed a seat on the next flight: my seat! And so on.

I guess I was lucky: A friend going to Europe had his half-full flight canceled and was flown out the next day on another airline!

Such outrages are not on the same order as the fear of imminent demise, but they are almost as wearing on the nerves. For a week afterward, I had what I can only describe as a case of rage, intense and free-floating, that seemed to come out of nowhere, like the flu. It finally passed–and with it any desire to leave home for any reason at all.

So how to travel without becoming hooked on tranquilizers? As the Maoists used to “re-educate” intellectuals by sending them to the farms, perhaps I could be reprogrammed to a locomotive languor. If every New Yorker would relinquish an airplane ticket for a seat on the train, Amtrak might become solvent again.