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Published: Sunday, 4/17/2011

Air travel is no fun anymore

BY MARY ALICE POWELL
SPECIAL TO THE BLADE

Many times at Detroit Metro, Baltimore Washington, and Charleston airports last week passengers were singing the same sad song: It's no fun to travel by air anymore.

I have my share of delays and security episodes that explain why I drive instead of flying when it's possible. I never thought about the air controller taking a nap while my flight was landing or taking off, but a recent incident has made that a concern.

One bonus of traveling by car is being able to take more luggage than you could possibly need and still have room for packages as you shop along the way. An increasing number of plane travelers are packing everything in a suitcase that will fit on board to avoid paying to have baggage checked. More carry-on baggage means more boarding hassle and possible head injuries as bags spill from overcrowded bins.

I question the wisdom of the boarding procedure on last week's flights on Southwest. Boarding passes are marked A, B, and C and with a number, like B-57. No seats are assigned. You pick your own when it's your turn. The A passengers board first, the Bs next, etc. People with the high numbers in C have limited choices on full flights and can almost plan on center seats. However, you can go online 24 hours in advance of the flight time to request a preference.

There are few people who suffer if we miss a meal while traveling. Still we remember the good old days when airlines served meals we complained about but now miss, and graciously accept complimentary packets of snacks in their stead. If we're still hungry and have failed to pack a lunch, the attendant will sell us a pricey sandwich.

I wonder what the airlines did with all the pillows and blankets they used to offer to assure us comfort, even on short flights. The small fuzzy blankets and lumpy pillows used to be on each seat when we boarded and were exceptionally welcome on early morning flights. I want to think they are in storage and that one day they will be brought out again.

A major bonus in car travel, of course, is that your security issues are limited to fastening the seat belt, making sure you have plenty of gas, and having the brakes checked. Then you are good to go on your time.

We certainly want to be safe when traveling by air and I believe most regular travelers have come to understand the steps taken in our behalf are necessary. My approach to security measures is to make it entertaining. Will it go smoothly or have I messed up while packing and dressing, like wearing shoes that lace instead of slip on and extra layers of clothing that must be removed?

How many bins will I need to hold my belongings to send through the sensor? One for my shoes, one for my jacket, one for the laptop, and one for my purse and any removables like a belt or jewelry. That's four bins that are all mine for the moment so watch them like a hawk as they travel down the conveyor belt and you step through the security arch. Will it be your lucky day with nothing to attract attention that causes other passengers to turn with that "they got her" look?

When I asked why my shoes were pulled from the bin and inspected at a second machine, I was told it was a random check for shoes. The shoes passed, but my purse didn't. The cough syrup with codeine was the ticket to quell congestion in South Carolina, but in relying on it and not wanting to cough during the flight, I stupidly packed it in my purse. Six ounces of liquid was a red flag. After being inspected, the syrup was declared medicine and was returned to the purse. It was my mistake not to notify anyone.

It was my first flight on Southwest and as luck would have it, it was three days after the fuselage had torn loose in one of the aircraft, causing an emergency landing. I have always figured that the safest flying is probably after an accident so there was no fear, but there was definitely a lack of patience and understanding during the unexpected three-hour delay in Baltimore. The word in the waiting area was that there was a shortage of planes because several had been pulled for inspection. Passengers want to believe that it doesn't take an accident to bring inspection to attention.

When the flight from Baltimore seemed hopeless I asked the woman I had been chatting with if I rented a car would she share the driving to Charleston.

"You can't be serious," she said. "That's a long way." Driving obviously doesn't give her the contentment it does me. Then a plane to Charleston was announced and the notion to drive was shelved.

Mary Alice Powell is a retired Blade food editor. Contact her at: mpowell@theblade.com.



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