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Recreational Software Advisory Council


IMPRESSIONS ON
COMMERCIAL AIR FLIGHT

by Roger Werner

Over the years I have had the misfortune to travel extensively, both nationally and internationally, by commercial air line.  Admittedly, by the standards of the "professional" business traveler, the number of flights I have taken is rather minuscule.  I take perhaps 10 commercial flights a year; some of these are, by any standard, of substantial duration requiring 10 or more hours of flight time. I am absolutely terrified of flying, I thought that my comments on a recent memorable trip might make for amusing reading.  The following flight occurred in the summer 1995.  While no two trips are ever the same, my feelings towards all plane travel are well expressed in this brief narrative.

Unlike most of my overseas trips, I arrived at San Francisco International Airport more than two hours before my jet was to depart for London.  My co-worker, a frequent companion on jet flights, is one of those people who is perpetually late.  It doesn’t matter what the event, or when and where it occurs, he will manage to make the trip to the airport interesting if not frantic.  I was therefore more than a little surprised, that when my family picked him up at his apartment he was for once ready.  I had been to London several times and was looking forward to being in that delightful city but dreading the prospect of flying there.

The trip to San Francisco International Airport was uneventful.  As always, I was accompanied by my wife and three children.  My kids have a firm rule:  whenever Dad travels on lengthy excursions they have to accompany him to the airport and watch the jet take off.  In that this was to my longest, exotic, and perhaps most "dangerous" trip, the need to accompany Dad took on even greater significance, especially for my then 11 year old.  Pre-teen girls are almost always in love with their fathers and my daughter was no exception.  Her devotion makes dealing with the day-to-day routine of parenthood a joy.  I knew that she had real concerns about my traveling so far away and for so long a period of time—more than five weeks.  She was, however, resigned to the fact that I was going but she was not especially happy about it.

Even when my children can’t go, my wife doesn’t mind driving me to the airport—secretly I think to make sure I get on the jet.  She has a love/hate relationship with my travel.  She hates being the only one around to deal with myriad of family-type problems that surface all too routinely but likes not having to deal with me and my many idiosyncrasies on a day-to-day basis.  I am sure this has absolutely nothing to do with love (or hate); she simply likes having one less person to deal with (I hope).  I never, ever find myself asking "why don’t you ever take me to the airport anymore?"  For those readers who happen to enjoy Billy Crystal’s humor, that question is a line from When Harry Met Sally.  If you haven’t seen the movie, I recommend it; as it contains numerous witticisms and truisms on male-female relations generally and marriage specifically.  Be sure to see it after you are married!

If you have ever traveled overseas on a commercial airline, then you know that a trip through U. S. and foreign customs can be either a breeze or a huge aggravation.  When a person carries as much equipment as I do, the term aggravation is understated; it becomes, as I was to learn, a trial and an exercise in perseverance.  Most Americans do not appreciate the fact that our customs agents are professional, efficient, and usually courteous.  It takes dealing with foreign customs agents, especially one’s who work for second and third world countries, to appreciate this.  On this trip, the U.S. Customs agents were completely perplexed by the amount and array of equipment being carried by two people.  It hardly seemed possible that two people could use so much gear.  While the job of customs agents is not to question the reasons why United States citizens certain baggage, they do take serious their obligations to find out what individuals carry abroad and occasionally ask why, and make sure ALL paper work is in order.  They do this with gusto!!!

We were traveling to the Ukraine with four large personal bags, two lap top computers, two back packs, shoulder cameras, belt pouches, two carry-on bags, and six very large boxes of computer and surveying equipment.  All of the gear was itemized on what is known to the international businessmen as an Carne’.  A Carne’ is a recognized legal document--at least it is recognized in most of the developed countries of the world; it lists equipment and various items that will be used on a temporary basis outside of their country of origin.  It differentiates equipment used for temporary work and that will be carried in and out of a particular country as opposed to items imported for sale.  Items listed on a Carne’ are not subject to import duties because it is assumed that they will leave with the owner.  U.S. Customs agents check the equipment list on the Carne’ upon departure from the United States, and as a person travels through various counties, foreign customs agents check the equipment list as it enters and leaves their various points of entry.  Theoretically, when a person returns to their point of origin, in my case San Francisco, the Carne’  lists all of the counties entered and exited.  U.S. Customs agents then check the list to see if all of the equipment is present.  Interestingly enough, no one ever checks the boxes to see if the equipment is present therein.  I suspected that the trained eye of these professional watchdogs could detect a smuggler without difficulty.  All things considered, we didn’t look like smugglers and apparently every customs agent we met though so as well.

Now if a Carne’ sounds complicated, I can attest to the fact that this is beyond complicated—incomprehensible or Byzantine would be far more accurate.  The Carne’ comes with the a set of so called "instructions" that are, at best, confusing and, at worst, incoherent to the point whereby a novice Carne’ user can get themselves into serious trouble with U.S. and foreign customs offices.   So…although the trip through U.S. Customs took some time, the agent merely asked a half million polite questions, poked and fondled our boxes, reviewed our paper work, and then let us pass with a mournful look that said "lots of luck buddy".  Little did we know that at that point we were on our own as far using the Carne’ was concerned.  Upon clearing customs, we moved to the TransWorld Airlines luggage check.

The experienced tourist always travels with as little gear as possible.  The novice tourist, on the other hand, always brings more stuff then they could ever use.  A business traveler, especially one involved in a high technology field, generally must carry everything he/ she will or may need to perform his/her work.  I can imagine what the ground attendant at the TWA baggage check thought when she observed us roll up three carts of boxes and bags.  The attendant looked regretfully at me and announced that we had entirely too much luggage and that we would be required to pay and extra $800.00 for the privilege of letting TWA transport all of it to London.  I grumbled just a bit and then paid the money.

We received our assigned seats in "steerage" (that’s economy seating for the uninitiated) and had more than an hour or so until departure.  As I do on every plane flight, I sought a bar and drank a double martini or two.  I joined my family in a nearby snack bar and grabbed a quick bite to eat.  I took a couple of tranquilizers to make the take off a little easier.  Like clock work, it is precisely at this time that my anxiety attacks begin in earnest.  I looked at my family and thought how much they meant to me.  I spent the next hour in physical contact with them all.  My wife rarely complains about my travels, although she would rather that I didn’t make them; not due to concern of my dying in a crash.  She has to deal with three children while working full time.  That puts a tremendous strain on her.  I am very fortunate to have her as a companion.  She is truly amazing, and while I am gone I don’t have the slightest concern that everything that needs to be taken care of will be dealt with efficiently and timely.  Without her I would not be able to travel as much as I do.

We began a slow walk to the security check point.  I took off my backpack, my belt pouch, my vest, my camera belt, slipped off my laptop shoulder bag, emptied my pockets, putting all of the gear on the conveyor belt through the x-ray machine.  Walking though the metal detector I heard the alarm sound—as usual,: it always goes off for me.  Think dummy, what was I wearing that had metal.  It would have been easier to list what I wasn’t wearing with metal.  The security officer used a hand metal detector and found metal studs all over my Levis.  My shoes had metal plates in the soles.  My watch was metal.  When the security agent was satisfied that I wasn’t a terrorist or mad bomber he let me pass.  I picked up my gear, dutifully putting back on each item in its proper order.  My co-worker walked through customs without a hitch as did the rest of my family.  We walked down the corridor to the gate where the plane would depart and sat down.  The flight would be boarding in about 15 minutes.  Time for a few more hugs.

I was very nervous.  Like I said, flying for me is a bit like taking those last 13 steps up the scaffold.  I hugged each member of my family, and then did it again just for good measure.  I talk softly to my wife telling her a few details that I thought might be important when she received news that my plane had blown up in mid-air.  Like a psychologist listening to an neurotic patient, she listened respectfully and intently.  I knew she thought I was crazy.  Finally, it was boarding time.  I remember standing in line and feeling the double martini and the tranquilizers "hitting bottom."  I managed to fumble for my passport and tickets and gave each member of my family what I thought was surely a last goodbye; turned and walked down what seemed like a very long ramp to the entrance of the plane.  As I approached the entrance to the plane the executioner dressed as a flight attendant greeted me with a smile.

As always, as soon as I walked down that boarding ramp I make it a point to put my normal life behind me.  I am alone.

I managed to find my seat and stow my gear appropriately.  I seated myself and discovered once again why I really detest flying.  In a world full of creativity, the designers of aircraft seats have managed to create a product that puts every part of your body to sleep except the part that really is in need of rest—your head.  I tried to get comfortable and thought to myself just how long is eleven and a half hours?  The doors to this flying "chamber of death" were closed and the plane slowly taxied away from the ramp—and then stopped!

The flight attendants began their ritual dance, explaining to the passengers what to do in case of an emergency.  I dutifully listened or at least thought I did.  I always think to myself that in the event of a disaster I must place my head firmly between my legs and kiss my ass goodbye.  I then remember the pilot announcing that there was to be a "slight delay" due to a backlog of jets trying to takeoff.  We would be on the runway  for about a half hour.  He was sorry for the inconvenience.  Right!  Well, so much for eleven and half hour trips I thought.  Twelve hours at least.

That was my last thought for about 5 hours.  It was at that point that I passed out.  Never mix martinis and tranquilizers on an empty stomach!

When I woke up, we were in the air and somewhere over Canada.  I started to calculate—525 miles per hour, the flying speed of a 747, multiplied by 5 hours was about 2000+ miles.  Looking at a map of North America in the back of the TWA magazine, I figured we were approaching  the southwestern part of Hudson Bay.  I am very familiar with the geography of Hudson Bay.  Discovered by Henry Hudson in the 1610s, it was a focal point of British fur trade 200 years ago.  In fact, York Factory, the headquarters of the Hudson’s Bay Company, was probably just about 43,000 feet below me right about now.  I thought about that figure and tried to estimate how long it would take a person to fall that distance.  I gave up, accepting the fact that it would take a long time indeed and the end result would be the same regardless of the duration of the fall.  I tried to look out the window leaning over my neighbor, but the ground was obscured by a thick cloud cover.  Oh well, so much for window seats and a view.  At that point I thought about food for the first time and realized that I was very hungry.  I waved to a flight attendant who was scurrying around and asked about breakfast.  She politely told me that I had missed breakfast.  I was sleeping so soundly that she decided not to wake me up.  She told me with a smile that they had saved me something to eat; a second meal would be served in about 2 hours.  Would I like something to drink?  At that point the though of alcohol was sickening but a Coke sounded just fine.  She brought me what was left of breakfast and a drink.  I ate a meal consisting of some bread, fruit, and cereal with milk.  I then carried the remains back to the galley and decided to stay for a while and chat with the flight attendants.

For the most part, I have found flight attendants to be really nice.  They have a difficult job and most do it with professionalism and dignity.  It is amazing what they have to go thought to earn a paycheck.  The thought of my wife as a flight attendant was so distasteful that I put the thought right out off my head.  On an earlier flight several years ago I made up my mind to treat flight attendants exceedingly nice knowing that most were married with children and that they deserved the same treatment that I would expect my wife to receive if she were so unfortunate to have the job.

The rest of the flight was, as usual, uneventful.  We ate our second meal and I read a lot; mostly about where I was going:  the Crimea.  The Crimea is a mysterious place in an unknown part of the world.  I wondered how many Americans had been to where I was going?  Just getting permission for the trip was an ordeal according to our travel agent.  We needed a passport of course.  A Visa to get into the Ukraine.  A second Visa to get into the Crimean Autonomous Republic.  Finally, a third Visa and official permission to get into Sebastopol (Sevastopol to almost everyone else except the English and the Americans).  What I read about the Crimea was mostly public consumption material; while I learned little about the people and the culture I got a pretty solid feel about the land’s history.  It occurred to me that I had no real idea what to expect.  I was traveling to the "Evil Empire", a place that in the early 1980s President Ronald Reagan said was the source of most of the world’s evils.  I was going to this place?  The only real direct knowledge that I had about the Soviet Union was from a college friend who visited the country in the early 1980s.  He came back with stories of how dreadful and dreary the place was.  Although he is a good friend, he is also a typical "ugly American" type tourist I thought; always trying to judge other counties by the values of his home.  Very unanthropological for sure; I intended to keep an open mind.

The last few hours of the flight went by quickly.  The pilot announced happily that we had picked up a nice tail wind and had made up the 30 minutes we had lost on the San Francisco International tarmac.  I imagined that the pilot was as anxious to get off of this plane as I was!  We began our decent over the Irish Sea and before long we were flying over London.  The landing at Heathrow International—any airport for that matter--was as always terrifying for me.  I expected the wheels to give way at any time and feel the belly of the jet hit the tarmac and then blowup.  As always, the landing went according to established procedures.  We deplaned and headed into Terminal 4, the most interesting of the four terminals at Heathrow.  We had a more than 8 hours lay over before we caught an SAS flight to Copenhagen, Denmark.  I had been to Heathrow several times in the past three years so I knew my way around.  I headed for a fish and chips restaurant, ate a satisfying but expensive lunch, and then walked to the other end of the terminal in search of the only English Pub in Heathrow.  I found that my traveling companion had beat me there.

With about six hours left, I managed to down about six pints of bitter and Scottish ale.  I felt in fine spirits.  We paid the tab; again not cheap, I thought, but the atmosphere was excellent and the beer even better.  Well worth the expense.  We meandered our way back through the crowded terminal to the security area.  Anyone who has ever been to Heathrow has experienced excellent airport security.  The procedures are rigidly enforced by scores of diligent professionals.  Nothing escapes their watchful eye.  We queued up and waited to go through the initial metal detector scan.  Then it was on to the individual scans.  I have never been able to figure out how the security staff selects people for "special" treatment.  On this trip it was my companions turn to be singled out.  Understand that this fellow is a redhead and has the look of a wild-eyed Irish terrorist (actually his family roots are in the "borderlands" of southern Scotland).  He was first frisked; then selected parts of his carry on luggage were inspected.  After what seemed like an eternity he was cleared and sent on his way.  No courteous thank you; nothing--just move along!  Fortunately, he never gets indignant but I was a bit annoyed for him.  We did have a flight to catch, however, and thinking about the situation I thought that it would be foolish to protest.  They might subject me to an even more intensive check; the thought of having my body cavities examined by British airport security was sufficient to move me along towards the check in area.

The flight to Copenhagen was over quickly.  Thank god!  I was really looking forward to this stop.  We would be in Copenhagen for three days before we met up with the rest of our group:  some 40 American students and faculty.  I had 72 hours to myself and I was determined to make the best of it.  As we approached the runway, all of my usual anxieties surfaced.  I held my breath, the wheels hit the tarmac, and we landed safely--as usual.  I wondered if I would get over my fear of take off and landings and of flying at 40,000 feet.  Probably not I thought.



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