Up in the air: Dallas travel routines and adventures

by Rob Tiller

I’m wearing a groove in the stratosphere at 30,000 feet between Raleigh and Dallas.  As we near a federal trial on patent infringement in the Eastern District of Texas, I’m learning well the routines of our airlines and regulators.  My former resentment at being required at the security gate to remove my shoes and computers and be scanned and sometimes frisked has mostly been replaced with resignation (“let’s just get this done”).  The required speech by the flight attendants on seat belt, emergency oxygen, no smoking, and exit rows has become like the Mass, almost impossible to listen to and understand because it’s so familiar.

There are, of course, better and worse routines.  I achieved Priority One status with American a few months back, and it made me happier than I expected.  Before I got Priority Oneitized, I had not realized that the reason I was generally among the last to be called for seating and generally seated in the back of the plane was that others had higher status in one of its several flavors.   Thus, pre-Priority-Oneitization, I was always, with reason, worried about finding a spot in the overhead bin for my rollaboard case; on full planes the bins were always close to full.  Post PO, I get seated early, hoist my case and wedge it in to a convenient overhead spot without danger to nearby boarders, settle into my seat, and watch the later boarders struggle with the problem of crowded bin space.  Do I feel badly?  A little.  Not too much.

I’ve also learned to work around some of the little difficulties and indignities that have become routine parts of air travel.  I make it a little game to see if I can nourish myself with only relatively healthy, relatively tasty vegetarian food.  Yes, it’s very challenging in airports, where the main food groups are “fast” and “junk.”  But it’s not impossible.  I typically pause in Terminal Two in Raleigh at Camden Foods to buy a hummus wrap, grab some paper towels from the men’s room to use as napkins, and look forward to a relatively calm dinner once on board.

One of the joys of travel, though, is unpredictability.  Last week my temporary assistant booked my Dallas trip, and being new she did not know to use my frequent flyer number.  I was again one of the unwashed, in the boarding group “not yet,” in the seat “way back,” between two other passengers.  Surrounding me were people who seemed unused to flying.  It was unusually hot and unusually noisy.  I had an eight-inch thick stack of memos, reports, and articles to get through.

The woman to my right (by the window), seemed to be turned toward me when I sat down, and I thought at first she was saying something to me.  She didn’t respond to my greeting and seemed to be talking to empty space.  I then assumed she had a cellphone somewhere.  It turned out that she was speaking with a fellow in the row behind us, and she continued talking between her seat and mine in the space next to my right ear.  At first I thought she was wrapping up a conversation started prior to boarding, but this turned out to be wrong.  I then thought of offering to switch seats, but the fellow seemed to be also chatting with another fellow next to him, and I couldn’t figure out the relationships.  Eventually I deduced that my seat mate and her aft friend were co-workers headed to a conference who had discovered a mutual attraction.  There was not a lot of personal content, but the tones were highly animated.  Flirting, in short.  It flared up, settled down, flared again, and so on.  At the earliest permitted moment (after “the captain has turned off the fasten seatbealts sign”), I got my noise-cancelling headphones in place and tuned out as much of the chat as I could.

In due course I unwrapped by hummus wrap, trying not to spread hummus on the memo I was reading and marking up, trying to avoid getting food on my pants (there were no back up pants) or shirt, hoping I wouldn’t run out of paper towels (my napkins).  And hoping that the one remaining routine meaningful service of the flight attendants, the drink cart, would come quickly.  It is difficult to eat a hummus wrap without something to drink.  I just learned this fact on that flight.  The mouth gets very dry.

At just this point a passenger on the flight passed out.  People craned their necks trying to see what happened.  I couldn’t see anything, but my aisle-side seatmate briefed me.  An attendant made an announcement in a serious voice asking if there were a doctor on the plane.  There was.  The passenger soon revived, and the doctor gave his opinion that an emergency stop was not necessary.  I was glad that the passenger was apparently all right.  I was sorry, though, that the flight attendants determined they could not distribute any beverages.  They announced that this was due to the medical emergency.  Given that the patient seemed normal and a doctor was watching the situation, I wondered at this explanation.  My mouth got dryer.

An hour later, I smelled a strange smell, similar to rubbing alcohol, which at first I thought might have to do with the “medical emergency.”  Then I recognized it as nail polish.  Then I realized that my seat mate had paused in her conversation to do her nails.  In the confined space, the odor was powerful and made my eyes water.  I examined the distance between the bottle of red liquid, the edge of the seat tray, and my knee, and wondered how likely it was that a sudden bump could cause the bottle to turn and spill its contents onto my pants.  I tried to remember if I’d ever seen anyone do her nails on a plane before, and couldn’t remember a case.  I wondered if this was because it was illegal or just impolite.

I worried a little that I might be getting to be a grouchy curmudgeon.  She dried them with by waving, fingers spread, the traditional method.  Then I noticed they were beautiful.