I made my first plane trip when I came to the United States for graduate school in my early twenties. That was over thirteen years ago. I’ve clocked a lot of miles for domestic and international trips since then. I have many issues with flying: I’m short and my legs dangle, which is uncomfortable; I get bloated, which is uncomfortable; airlines won’t feed you for anything shorter than a four hour ride, which is uncomfortable; airport security has gone beyond absurd but I feel sad for TSA agents, which is uncomfortable; flights leave and arrive in my home country in the middle of the night, which is–well, you know. But the best part about flying: I can go halfway around the planet in just over 24 hours. That’s pretty amazing.
When I lived in the Midwest, I used to fly to Europe, have a short stopover for about 3 hours, and then fly to Asia. I have kept up this practice even after the introduction of direct flights. I need the break, especially if there is a small, sobbing person on the plane. (I understand the crying but my sympathy, nerves, and eardrums only stretch so far.)
I try to only tote carry-on luggage when I fly because apart from the fact that most airlines only allow one free checked bag, waiting for checked baggage to emerge on the carousel after you have arrived at your destination can be an exercise in frustration. Moreover, as some frequent traveler once said, there are two types of luggage: carry-on and lost. Since I often travel alone, traveling light is also valuable, allowing me to easily walk the stretches between the transportation hubs/stops. (I may lift weights but they are usually more balanced than my duffel, which I pack in higgledy-piggledy fashion and which bangs the sides of my leg.) It also means I don’t have to wrestle and stack multiple bags into a bathroom stall and then worry about having them turn into an avalanche while I’m on the loo.
On my most recent trip, I flew out of NYC’s John F. Kennedy airport, which happens to be in Queens. It’s less convenient than LaGuardia but close nevertheless. I usually walk to a bus, which takes me to the subway, which takes me to the airport train (prosaically called the Airtrain), which takes me to the correct terminal. To catch the subway, I go two stories down; to catch the Airtrain, three stories up. The Airtrain has maps of its routes printed inside the carriages (with stops like “Federal Circle,” which is rental cars and parking), and lists of terminals divided up by airlines. The whole trip from home to the correct terminal takes just over an hour and costs $7.50 ($2.50 for the bus+subway and $5.00 for the Airtrain, with the latter’s ticket kiosks located at the local transport end—when you ride the Airtrain to the airport, you pay before you board; on the reverse trip, you pay when you exit.)
JFK gets a bad rap as an outdated airport in desperate need of a structural and cosmetic overhaul. I don’t mind it. Again, flying is pretty amazing (as Louis C.K. agrees). Still, I am a bit disconcerted during my recent trip by the long line I encounter there for security and by the fact that I am first turned away by a TSA employee who tells me they don’t accept e-boarding passes from any airline but Lufthansa. This sounds like a made-up rule to me but I go to the AirFrance desk and get a print-out of my boarding pass. (I have checked-in the previous night so I don’t have to get to the airport three hours early–just two.) I join the line again and shuffle along like every horror/sci-fi movie extra you have seen. People around me are the usual mix of folks: perfectly made-up travellers who seem to be going to a formal cocktail party, suits who talk loudly about their business deals, pre-teens who don’t yet hate their parents, teens wearing tights with no pants, and new flyers who are freaking out because they didn’t realize that it can take close to an hour to get through security sometimes.
When it’s almost my turn, the TSA agent asks me to step back while he talks to the person ahead of me. Apparently I have crossed a line. I comply. Like I said—TSA agents make me sad. When it’s my turn, he looks at my face, my boarding pass, and my passport several times. I make a great effort not to smile, blink, sneeze, or do anything else that will cause him concern. He waves me forward. I then start the ritual undressing at the conveyor belt: coat, shoes, sweater, watch, and earrings all go in one plastic tray. My laptop goes in another. My phone, Ipod, wallet, keys, belt and plastic baggie that contains fluids (under 3 oz.) go in a third. Then it’s my backpack and duffel. Nothing beeps as I walk through the scanner. I am like George Clooney in Up in the Air. Have Ziploc, will travel.
I try to time my arrival so that I’m not running around looking for my departure gate and panicking about missing the flight but nor am I waiting for the flight for an hour. Once I have seen where the gate is and verified that the flight is on schedule for departure, I walk around the airport, the prospect of having to sit still for the next 8 hours looming in my mind. (These airport walks are another reason I keep my luggage weight to a minimum.) JFK is not all that different from other airports. I find its mundane familiarity comforting. I am directionally challenged and new spaces can be confusing; airports are ideal for me: everything is marked at uniform intervals, there are plenty of bathrooms and water fountains, and you are clearly told where you should not go.
When a check of the monitors shows that my flight is boarding, I visit the bathroom and then walk over to the gate. I tend to board after almost everyone else is done–I don’t see the point of rushing to my seat and then waiting while two hundred other people get on. I am also apprehensive about flying AirFrance because the online reviews are mixed. I am pleasantly surprised. The staff is genial, the food service is preceded by a menu even in Economy (in English and francais, naturellement), and when I ask for hot chocolate, they beam and bring me the real stuff. Even the white wine is excellent. There is a wide selection of movies, tv shows, and games for each video console, and we depart JFK and arrive in Paris on time. Marveilleux!