Life in limbo

I have spent a good portion of the last year up in the air.

And I am not just being metaphoric.

In fact, I spent most of yesterday afternoon in that state of limbo.

A slight professional flight of fancy coupled with a yearning to be in DC during the election has necessitated a weekly commute from DC to Miami. As the respective weather follows seasonal patterns, this trip provides for the best of both worlds, a first-hand look at our ever so dysfunctional political system during the weekdays and the fun and sun of the Truman show like bubble of Miami on weekends. Pundits then papayas.  “What’s the news”, then “que pasa?”

In order to get to and fro, I need to fly. I could write a Steven King length book about the quirky and neurotic world of aviation but that wouldn’t “fly” with my readers. As you know, it is a world like none other, aptly depicted in the George Clooney film “Up in the Air” and even more wryly in the David Sedaris essay I will post at the bottom of this blog. Nonetheless, since it is becoming such a big part of my psyche, here are some observations and tricks of the trade accumulated over the last half year of binge flying.

I encourage you to add these ten insights to your aviation survival kit.

(1) Tell Tall Tales If you need to make any modifications to your planned itinerary, be sure to over-exploit the fact, even if it’s not completely factual, that you have a wife and baby. I know I do. For instance, if you want to fly earlier in the day than your scheduled flight time, tell them you just found out your wife is pregnant again and you want to rush home to confirm it with her at the OB-GYN. The best time for that “appointment” is 11:30. Given the frequency with which I have told this story, my wife is now carrying quintuplets, all conceived at different times.

And if you need to push your flight later in the day, it’s because your son isn’t feeling well.

(2) Bring your own food, bring your own food – Despite the fact that airports offer more consumer benefits than a mega mall, in fact some savvy shoppers are now simply doing their holiday buying sprees at airports (In Dallas, some non-flyers actually spend weekend nights at the airport for food and fun), things are a little pricey. A shout out to my friend Radio who caught onto this around age 7 and likely empties half his fridge to travel with his large contingent. Nonetheless, bring food because if not, you will be out $20 for a bottle of water, a cookie and a turkey sandwich made with meat from a Jetsons’ episode.

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Should I buy two Valentines cards or one bottle of juice?

Below is my receipt from yesterday! Note the cost of O.J.

(3) Don’t follow the masses – airport gates are the worst example of conformity.

Q:  When is the best time to start getting comfortable in your seat while waiting at the gate?

A – When everyone else stands up.

This particularly happens with Southwest. As soon as two or more people stand up and start inching towards the ticket counter, everyone follows en masse. Mind you, this usually takes place before the incoming flight has even landed. I once asked a middle aged eager beaver why this was so common and his response was “ I guess they start forming a line to wait on another line before the actual line on the gangway.” My response – “Interesting”

(4) Don’t make time specific plans on the other end.

With American Airlines, always assume people are on Cuban time, unless you are in a rush. Then  American Airlines flights leave ten minutes early. But if they did usually follow ETD, I think the flight attendants will be bored.  Assuming you get to the airport with ample time to spare, just figure out ways to stay busy for another hour because your flight will invariably encounter some major problem like, the soap dispenser in the bathroom has been removed and the FAA has issued a airport wide man hunt to track the culprit down. Or we apologize but there was a granola bar undesirably found on the take-off runway and we are first  sending in Miami CSI to investigate before scrubbing the entire runway.

(5) Brown nose

Start simply, without ulterior motives, any and all flight attendants. Be inquisitive, ask them about their lives, their favorite cities, clouds, flight plans for the day, then after take off, move in for the kill. Refills without request, inside information about the flight, extra snacks and in some cases, a chance to move closer to the front. And if the flight gets delayed, don’t get on their cases… it’s bad karma, not to mention bad policy, eventually the flight does take off and you will need their help.

(6) Armrest/Elbow rest battles

Here’s the crux of the whole experience, the rising action of the flying novel, the part I have analyzed and kept large data records for years. This is where you find out if you have the testicular fortitude to literally “bump elbows” with the competition. Any flight over four minutes requires ample elbow space, but our neighbors often by virtue of girth, ignorance or poor observational skills, don’t like to share the space. Therefore you have to prepare a battle plan. Here are my four true and tried steps to reclaim your turf.

1 – The faith stage. Give it five minutes. Just pretend that the person next to you as still trying to figure out that you also have two elbows. With some passengers, this could stretch to ten minutes. But hold out hope that they will eventually come around.

2 – If the faith stage doesn’t work, try the friend stage. Figure you can get them to lessen their elbow lock by befriending them. Simple pleasantries and even a compliment or two should get them to share the space.

3- Subtle hint stage. This happens after about twenty minutes. At this point, you are feeling the pinch. I usually start with a reference to food. Me – “Hey do you know if they are serving food on this flight?” Elbow hog – Yea I sure hope so”. Me – “Well if they do, I could go for some pasta, maybe some elbow, yea elbow macaroni. At his point you also give their protruding elbow a slight nudge. There are good variations on this theme. “Hey do you like watching hockey/” Passenger – Yea great sport. Very physical. “ Me – Agreed, especially when they give them a good elbow, you know really slam them into the boards with their elbows.

4- The elbow war. Just nudge their elbows, even a good aerial hit to get them to cede their space. This, while the last line of defense, can also be the most satisfying. Naturally this is a little trickier if your opponent is asleep, but don’t let their level of comfort deter you.

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(7) Study your neighbors:  

In writing this, I’ve come up with a thought. Airlines should force people to upload their pictures before claiming a seat. Either that or biographical data. Then we can pick a seat based on a number of variables including the potential for surrounding annoyances. Though I base my preferences on what the people carry on. If they bring next to nothing, lets assume they are a little bit boring and will likely have some ADD and therefore very fidgety. If they bring books, a laptop or a notepad, that’s your winner. They will keep to themselves, not to mention , likely respect the elbow rest rules.

(8) Don’t get all worked up before your flight – Somehow these pilots really know what they’re doing. I guess all that flight simulator practice pays off. Personally, as glorious as defying Newtonian Physics  and winning the man versus nature battle is, I can’t think of a job I would be less suited for. Maybe a professional organizer. Although I have overcome my fear of flying, I still get a little queasy for a minute or so before the flight and start reciting biblical verses every time we hit some turbulence. But all this high anxiety isn’t worth it. Have faith…. The skies really are friendly..

(9) If at first you don’t succeed, start writing in your journal:

Since you must share an elbow rest, not to mention, play accidental games of footsie, you might as well try to get to know the passengers next to you. Besides, and I’m sorry to be so honest, if you are anything like me, you will probably fart a lot during the flight (Yes I’m that guy). In my case, it must be a combination of nerves and bananas. But if you are a bit of a threat to the ambient air quality, at least buy yourself some leeway by befriending your neighbors. This could start with something simple like “Where are you flying to?” or “By any chance are you allergic to pretzels because I’m not?”. The point is, there will be times when you want to pass what feels like time suspended in air more quickly so fraternizing can speed up the process.

But if they are not too responsive, then grab a little more of the elbow rest and start writing in your journal. You could even write a little character sketch about them.

(10) Don’t check your phone until you reach the gate:

This is a bit of superstition but there were times that people actually waited until they got home, walked the dogs and thrown out the two week old spaghetti  left on the kitchen counter before they could check in with loved ones. Or at least there was the surprise of exiting security and seeing a loved one waiting for you, or in the case of some Latin families, twenty family members including the dog, all waiting with welcome home posters.

But my reasoning is a little different. Use whatever analogy jumps to mind, but I say savor the afterglow. Man you just traversed five states in 140 minutes. You even wrote two good poems and an apology letter to your former boss. Feel the ground, thank the pilots, fart once or twice more just to leave your final imprint. Then once you get to the gate, you can check your FB. Really just take note of your new surroundings first. After all, if you are flying American, your DC bound flight  may have just landed in the middle of Honduras.

P.S.: For another perspective on flying, I strongly suggest reading this essay –

http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2010/08/09/standing-by