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flying the unfriendly skies
when did airlines become so much like greyhound?
by jason gilmore (@JasonGilmore77)

I am old enough to remember when long flights were a pleasurable experience. My first plane ride, at 13, was glorious: my 5-hour flight from Detroit to San Francisco seemed like five minutes, as consumed as I was with the in-flight movie, reasonable meals and enough elbow room to stretch my skinny arms. But now, in a post-9/11 climate where every major airline is bankrupt or headed there, most of these conveniences have been sliced. Airlines hope we’ll remain pacified until they get back on track.

I took a recent weekend trip from L.A. to the University of Iowa, to attend a marvelous fiction workshop taught by Bret Anthony Johnston. And I am thankful that the class was marvelous, because the ordeal that traveling there required made me feel like an extra in Passenger 57. For your benefit, and to prove my point, I have enclosed a loose itinerary:

Los Angeles to Minneapolis July 15th

LAX’s Burger King was overcrowded. People bumped and held and pushed, it felt like football practice. But this is what happens when airlines don’t feed their passengers on flights over two hours long. After staring me down over the last straw at the condiment stand, a little boy with a bowl cut kicked me in the shin, grabbed the straw and ran. Later, a musclebound young man with cornrows entered and yelled ahead to his friend, “Yo, dog, order me a Double Quarter Pounder up in this mug!” When the friend yelled back that Burger King does not sell, and for that matter, has never sold Double Quarter Pounders, the young man punched the wall and stormed out.

The flight itself was long and uneventful. I spent it cramped and seated directly in front of a newborn who cried the entire flight. His parents made no effort to quiet him; they were more engrossed in their iPods. We received no movie and no food for three and a half hours. It sucked.

Minneapolis to Cedar Rapids, Iowa July 15th

Because Cedar Rapids is a small town, we had to take a prop jet, which I, the eternal optimist, have often referred to as “La Bamba planes.” I sat in the very front row next to an Indian student who refused to share the arm rest between us. We engaged in a long, bloody elbow shoving match for the majority of the flight. A temporary truce was called when he showed me how to pull my tray out of my opposite armrest. (I have never sat in the very front row of a plane before.) To show my gratitude, I quickly elbowed him in the ribs as the plane descended. It knocked the wind out of him. I'm from the streets.

After landing, I learned that half my flight’s luggage had been lost. Thankfully, mine was not. (Apparently, God had decided that being the only black person in the entire airport would require enough of my energy.) Still, I end up at the airport for nearly an hour, as Sheri, the young lady who shared my shuttle to the university dorm, turned out to be one of the luggage casualties. She and I struck up a conversation on the way to Iowa City, however, and she ended up being one of the coolest people I met the entire weekend. Unfortunately, her luggage didn’t arrive until the following evening. We were told this was a common occurrence at that airport.

Cedar Rapids to Minneapolis July 17th

This flight really wasn’t so bad except that this La Bamba plane had only one row of seats on the left side of the plane, which left me feeling imbalanced. To counteract placing me there, the airline sat a young woman twice my size directly behind me. I felt her hot breath on my neck the entire flight. It smelled like burnt sushi. As we left the plane, she turned and winked at me. I fainted.

Minneapolis to Los Angeles July 17th

After I came to, my head began throbbing, as I had not eaten in the eight hours since my class went to lunch back during our last session. My concourse, naturally, was on the other side of the airport. So, somehow, while delirious from hunger, I had to scurry across a major airport, carry a heavy bag with a laptop and a camera, find a place to eat, and board my plane, all within twenty minutes. My first mistake was jumping on the tram. Though it claimed to cover the entire airport, it took me from the beginning of the C concourse to the end of it -- then back. My flight was in the G concourse. In addition, we almost collided with another tram on the way back over. I got off, upset that I had already wasted five minutes, then ran and power walked through the entire airport, with a third of my body weight inside the bag that hung from my left shoulder. Countless passengers sauntered in and out of my way, wandering as aimlessly as zombies.

McDonald’s was the only restaurant open anywhere near my gate. The line was long and slow, and when I arrived, my flight was already boarding. Decisions, decisions: miss eating today or risk missing my flight? My stomach won. Fifteen minutes later, with a Double Quarter Pounder Meal in my hands (they were out of Whoppers), I boarded my plane. I rushed to my seat and ate, thrilled to finally be headed home.

The plane didn’t leave for another hour.

The captain said something about we were waiting for some passenger who was on their way or something. And I said out loud what we all thought: Who holds up 757s? Muhammad Ali? Bill Clinton? Oprah? No, just a mild-mannered older black couple who sat three rows ahead of me. They arrived at our section with apologetic faces. But tired, overcrowded passengers are not sympathetic to any cause. We booed them. We said mean things about their children and pets. I threw a leftover fry and hit one of them in the neck. It didn’t used to be this way. The airlines’ lack of comfort has turned us into animals.

At long last, we took off, and after another long flight without a movie -- but with another screaming infant -- I was never so glad to see smoggy, sweltering, overcrowded, evil Los Angeles in all my life. My trip was a journey, to be sure. But next time, I’ll pursue a means of transportation more comfortable and expedient than commercial flights.

That’s right, I’m going horseback.


Jason Gilmore is a film director, screenwriter, novelist and unrepentant Detroit Pistons fan. Track him down on Facebook.

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lisa r
8.17.05 @ 7:15a

I suggest a Western saddle. More leg room and a built-in arm rest.

david damsker
8.17.05 @ 8:27a

Yes, I actually deleted my column about flying in first class because that's not even much fun anymore.


tracey kelley
8.17.05 @ 9:43a

SHERI was one of the coolest people you met in Iowa City?

But tired, overcrowded passengers are not sympathetic to any cause. We booed them. We said mean things about their children and pets. I threw a leftover fry and hit one of them in the neck.


I'm quite upset. I had a column written about airline travel from the flight attendant's pov - and now have to ICE IT because of you. :)

sandra thompson
8.17.05 @ 9:52a

If I can't drive there, or if Amtrak is all booked up, then I ain't goin.' You gotta prollem wit dat?

Has anybody else noticed what I perceive as a higher level of hostility than before in the last few years? I think it's perfectly correlated with the price of oil. I'm not suggesting causation, but it is interesting, is it not?

jason gilmore
8.17.05 @ 9:57a


My friend was just telling me last night that people in Texas have been siphoning gas from parked cars. It's become that serious.

And Tracey, I said she was one of the coolest, not THE coolest.

brian anderson
8.17.05 @ 10:05a

I've become happier and happier with airlines who don't even pretend to have first class.

Living in a town served by La Bamba Air, I can vouch for the fact that passengers will sometimes be switched around by the crew of a 19-seat Beechcraft in order to balance.

I also have a co-worker who *prefers* the small turboprops, because if something goes wrong, there are more places for them to land. He might have a point.

jael mchenry
8.17.05 @ 10:35a

I have ridden many, many prop planes in my day, and the only ones that freak me out are the ones that are too small to stand up in and have three seats across the back row like a bus.

sarah ficke
8.17.05 @ 11:07a

The last time my flight was held up, it was because we were waiting for a woman in a wheelchair to board. The unbelievable part was that she'd been at the gate when I got there, but apparently they realized that they couldn't get her and her wheelchair out to the plane (it was a La Bamba type that you board from the ground) from the gate. So they had to take her back through the airport (apparently with a detour through Florida, considering how long it took) to find an elevator to get her down to the tarmac to get her onto the plane. At least our stewardess was honest with us about whose fault that was.

russ carr
8.17.05 @ 11:37a

No one around could have tossed her over his shoulder and just carried her down and up the stairs?

dave lentell
8.17.05 @ 12:42p

I did just the opposite for my first plane ride back in 1997. Iowa to L.A. It was hell. First, our flight via Denver got cancelled and we had to wait 7 hours to go to the opposite direction - Chicago. Barely made the connecting flight at Chicago... sat on the tarmac for 4 hours. Have you seen the movie "Turbulence?" A Sunday drive compared to our flight from Chicago to L.A. I thought we were going to die. Instead of arriving Thursday late morning, we arrived close to Friday morning.

Most often heard quote from me that entire trip? "What fresh Hell is this?"

russ carr
8.17.05 @ 12:56p

Countless passengers sauntered in and out of my way, wandering as aimlessly as zombies.

I have never understood how roughly 90 percent of air travelers, upon setting foot in an airport, even a familiar one, lose all sense of direction, equilibrium and locomotion. Walking in an airport is generally as simple as walking in a straight line for an extended period of time. That seems to be next to impossible for the slow-footed rubes who lurch down the concourse, jerked like marionettes by gate announcements, the piercing wail of a courtesy cart and the spicy lure of free Cinnabon samples...

brian anderson
8.17.05 @ 1:01p

It's twue, it's twue.

For some reason, British travelers on holiday tend to ask me for directions, as if I look like I know where I'm going.

jael mchenry
8.17.05 @ 1:17p

I have never understood how roughly 90 percent of air travelers, upon setting foot in an airport, even a familiar one, lose all sense of direction, equilibrium and locomotion.

To be fair, slow aimless walkers ruin my day in the Metro and aboveground in Georgetown as well as in airports.

People, please: walk at a reasonable pace. Don't stop suddenly. Don't block escalators or moving sidewalks with your fat ass and your fatter Samsonite. Yes, I understand that you have to stand and look at the monitor. But please do so without forming a wall of humanity that makes me want to bust through you like a bunch of Red Rover-playing third graders.

brian anderson
8.17.05 @ 1:34p

And indeed, keep in mind that the conveyor belt is a moving walkway, not a park'n'ride. Some people have to make their connection.

david damsker
8.17.05 @ 1:37p

Oh, Brian, don't get me started on the fat asses who stand on the moving walkways and DON'T WALK. It is faster to walk next to the walkway than it is to stand there on the belt and not walk at all.

Then, these same fat asses look at me like I'm an A-Hole for wanting to get past them.

lisa r
8.17.05 @ 3:46p

The size of my tush is my business, and not your perogative to comment upon. Ninety percent of the time I take advantage of the moving walkways to get me from gate to gate faster by keeping up a steady walking pace. However, once in a while it's nice to rest a moment and let the walkway do the work, especially if I'm loaded down with a heavy carryon. Either way, I keep left if I'm on the move or stay to the right if I'm not.
But don't grouse at me if I'm standing to the right and you can't get by--I'm following walkway etiquette and making my connection is just as important to me as making your connection is to you.


jael mchenry
8.17.05 @ 3:50p

Sorry to have started that particular line. People of all sizes can be nice and people of all sizes can be rude.

I have no problem with people who are standing on the right of a moving walkway... unless they are holding hands with someone standing on the left, or their baggage is parked on the left, or somesuch. Everybody just wants to get where they're going.

brian anderson
8.17.05 @ 4:02p

Indeed, if you're following the stay-on-the-right etiquette, you are far from being part of the problem.

russ carr
8.17.05 @ 4:08p

Why carry a heavy carry-on in the first place? To me, if what I choose to take aboard approaches being "lugged" rather than "carried," it gets checked. Trim the fat—that's figurative, for those of you of sensitive-but-voluminous carriage. Ditch all the crap you're hauling and you'll find yourself moving faster, while not getting so worn out that you feel the need to take five on the moving walkways.

A carry-on, in my opinion, is a book. Maybe a laptop. A purse for you female types. It is NOT two cases of grapefruit. It is not a collapsible playpen. If you're scared of lost luggage, fine, bring a change of clothes and your prescription drugs. But that can fit in a tiny duffel or bookbag. You don't have to bring honkin' big rolling square-rigger travel bags that barely fit down the aisle of the plane.

When we hit turbulence and the overhead compartment opens, I don't want to get smacked in the forehead with every volume of the OED that you, in your wisdom, felt you needed to bring aboard.

dathan wood
8.17.05 @ 4:16p

So right, Russ. I fly a lot and I carry a mid-sized backpack. I can put the necessities (books/water/salami) in there plus a change of clothes just in case. A backpack leaves both of my hands free and doesn’t slow me or anyone else down. Anything more gets checked, I’d rather wait 15 minutes at baggage claim than be all sweaty and inconvenienced.

juli mccarthy
8.17.05 @ 4:19p

And indeed, keep in mind that the conveyor belt is a moving walkway, not a park'n'ride. Some people have to make their connection.

Leave home earlier if you're in such an all-fired hurry. Or take a direct flight. It's not my fault the airlines are run by morons, and unless you've got a kidney in a cooler, you can just wait your damn turn.

dathan wood
8.17.05 @ 4:33p

Turn for what?

juli mccarthy
8.17.05 @ 4:35p

Whatever it is you're in such a hurry to get to.

jason gilmore
8.17.05 @ 4:40p

Yeah, like I shouldn't have taken my laptop to Iowa and things might have been a bit better. I thought it was a necessity, but for my class, it wasn't. Had I known that previously, my trek through Minneapolis wouldn't have been as stressful.

dathan wood
8.17.05 @ 4:47p

Whatever it is you're in such a hurry to get to.

You mean the flight? Seriously? People should have to pay (possibly hundreds of dollars) extra for a direct flight because individuals of the wide heiney persuasion might want to take a little cat nap on their way from the airport McDonald’s to their gate? I really can’t agree with that. Folks who are overburdened with fat or carry-ons should be polite and rest in a chair, not on the walkways.

russ carr
8.17.05 @ 4:55p

As far as I'm concerned, arriving much earlier at the airport only increases the amount of time I spend exposed to the mouthbreathing sheep grazing in the terminal.

Ideally terminals would be divided into lanes: the far right would be "saunter," the middle would be "walk," and the left would be "I'm late!"

lisa r
8.17.05 @ 5:26p

"Fat" (as in rear ends) and "heavy" (as in carryons) are relative terms. Unfortunately, I get the impression that for many people "fat" is appropriate terminology for anyone who fails to fit into a size 6 or smaller. For those who believe that--grow up, get a life, and get a perspective. Also, ny carryon can become heavy if you've been schlepping it from Terminal A to Terminal JJ for three consecutive airports, even if it only contains a novel, a change of clothes and toiletries. Anyone who carries the OED through an airport either is indulging in an odd version of resistance training or needs serious psychiatric help.

As for the snide comment to "rest in a chair"--you aren't the only one with lightning-fast connections that must be made--Newton's first law of motion must be obeyed at all costs in an airport. My brief, and all too infrequent, bursts of inertia on the walkway are not hurting you if I'm where I belong in the process--on the right.

Actually, I can tolerate terminal idiocies more readily than I can the moronic rudeness in flight--people on the ends of 3-seat rows (and it's ALWAYS men, for some reason) that feel the need to read the paper simsultaneously using arm spreads roughly as wide as the fuselage of the plane; people who dig their knees into the back of the seat in front of them for the entirety of a 4 hour flight; people who refuse to hang up their cell phones so the flight can get underway...the list is endless. Planes have been equated with being flying cattle cars, but at least if a cow steps on your foot it can take a hint if you give it a shove. These people couldn't get a clue if someone drilled a hole in their head and manually inserted it into their brains.

jason gilmore
8.17.05 @ 5:54p

I had this WHOLE section written about this girl who kept cutting her cell phone on during the flight from Minneapolis to Los Angeles. But alas, I didn't want to ramble on any further.

And for the record, the people who were in my way were of all ages and sizes. Skinny people annoyed me just as much as big folks. They were all major obstacles.


dathan wood
8.17.05 @ 5:55p

I don’t think I meant to be snide really. I was just noting the fact that the average person spends a large amount of time each day being in the way and clearly not even realizing it. Cutting people off or holding them up is simply rude any way you look at it.

I happen to be a big fan of the big booty and think that a size 6 is very small. When you start passing about a size 16 though, that’s when you’re probably talking about an unhealthy relationship with food.

Yeah, the newspaper-reading-knee-in-the-back-cell-phone people are just fuckers. Our society on the whole is pretty pathetic.

lisa r
8.17.05 @ 11:18p

They seriously need to develop some sort of signal that permanently jams a cell phone if it's turned on in-flight. And the FAA is full of complete idiots if they end up approving cell phone use during a flight. It's the one place left that we can escape the darn things. If they approve it, I want a button I can push that dumps any cell phone addict on my flight out of a trap door and drops them in the Mississippi.

Dathan--sizes are relative. And sometimes it's not an unhealthy obsession with food that causes people to have weight problems. Not to mention which, some of us are just blessed with skeletal frames that require sizes in the teens even if we're walking skeletons. Some forms of inheritance really suck.

You know, I think the airlines are really to blame for a lot of rude behavior. They treat everyone like cattle (I know, I've used that already but it's true), shunting us through chutes and gate and packing us into planes in seats that probably would be considered too narrow for elementary schools. They arbitrarily jack up seat prices as the departure date gets closer (I have yet to sit in any airplane seat that is truly worth what I pay for it). It seems to me that if its worth $118 dollars 3 weeks before departure it should still be worth the same amount 3 days before departure. And they insist on flying everyone through Pittsburgh or Atlanta or O'Hare, then can't understand why flights into and out of those airports are always delayed and slowing up the rest of the system. How an entire industry be completely devoid of logical individuals is beyond me.


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