The armrests of my middle seat had been tilted up to accommodate the passengers on each side. Arms drawn to the front in a stooped-shoulder position, knees touching the seat in front of me, sweating profusely, I employed an escape mechanism that had served me well decades earlier in U.S. Army basic training when standing at attention in the hot sun for prolonged periods: I imagined myself somewhere else.
Such flights of fancy usually put me on a beach in Hawaii, on a Chugach mountaintop or boating across a calm lake with fishing pole in hand. This time my mind drifted toward some of my early experiences with air travel.
I recalled a trip with my mother in the mid-1950s from Seattle to Minneapolis in a Boeing Stratocruiser. All of the passengers, including my mom and I, were dressed up as if we were going to church. I was only 9 years old, but I felt a sense of importance as we ascended to the stratosphere.
I was an extremely curious (and undoubtedly annoying) child as I endlessly queried the stewardesses for data on the aircraft: its weight, flight range, cargo and passenger capacity, etc. Finally, after we reached cruising altitude, one of the flight crew took me to the cockpit and allowed me to talk with the captain and co-pilot. I was thrilled. In the meantime, my mom enjoyed a beverage in the commodious cocktail lounge, located on the airplane's lower deck.
On this flight and others during the following decades -- from the 1960s through the 1980s -- air travel was a special occasion. It made me feel important to step onto the latest and greatest jet aircraft. Granted, I was younger, but back in those days I don't recall issues with personal comfort and overcrowding.
On my quasi-astral projected flight of fancy, I was wading into a gentle surf on the island of Kauai, when a voice broke through:
"Something to drink, sir?"
"Just some water, thanks." She handed me the water along with a small bag of pretzels.
The passenger on my right was wearing a baseball hat and jean coveralls and looked like he might be a construction worker. He glanced at at me and said: "Bet this is your worst nightmare."
Inwardly, I agreed. But I mustered a smile and replied: "That's OK -- they might be able to find another seat for me somewhere." But I'd later learn the flight was completely full.
Then the baby behind us started its revolt against the world. Like quick-draw Clint Eastwood in one of his spaghetti Western movies, I reached for my noise-canceling headphones -- the 21st century's most critically important piece of air-travel gear.
So here's the rub: You seat-select for the rear of the plane because you board first and have the possibility of an overhead space for carry-on luggage. But if you're in the aisle seat, it's quite disgusting to be at waist level with people lined up for the bathroom, which later into the flight you can sometimes smell. So you opt for a seat toward the front of the plane, but of course by the time you board, all of the overhead bins are crammed with steamer-trunk sized luggage stashed earlier by people seated toward the rear of the plane.
From anchovies to sardines: People are getting larger, but not airline seats. Today's seat width in coach class is about 17 inches. Seat pitch, the distance from one row to the next row, is a measly 30 inches. Some seat widths in first class are more than 30 inches and the seat pitch is up to 80 inches. According to an industry expert who spoke to CNN in 2013, years ago airlines flew at 70 percent of seating capacity. Today it's about 80 to 85 percent.
So we know it's all about the bottom line and airline company shareholder value. When oil prices were as high as cruising altitude, it was predictable that cost-cutting measures would be forthcoming, such as paying for extra luggage, meals on pay-only basis, no pillows or blankets. Thankfully, oxygen and bathroom use are still free. But today, with oil prices below cloud level, those cost-containment measures are still in effect.
Overall, flying is indeed safer than many forms of travel, and most everyone would agree that quality maintenance and stringent safety standards are more important than comfort. Perhaps a good print advertisement for airline companies might be a two-photo panel, with an 1800s vintage stagecoach embedded with arrows on the left and, on the right, an interior shot of a fully loaded 737 passenger jet with a caption: "You might not enjoy your trip, but we'll get you there safely."
My wife and I are planning a trip to the Lower 48 in 2016. We'll opt to drive to Haines, load our car onto a ferry and enjoy a three-day, 1,537-mile ocean voyage to Bellingham, Washington.
I think today's air travel is best summed up by the late B.B. King's song lyric: "The thrill is gone."
Frank E. Baker is a freelance writer who lives in Eagle River.
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