Up in the air
Flying has become so ubiquitous, we do it in our sweatpants. We carry on sandwiches like we’re 10 years old and headed on a field trip to the La Brea Tar Pits (I bring this up because I went to the La Brea Tar Pits a lot in grammar school, and I always had a sandwich—although it didn’t come from a kiosk or cost $17).
When I was 8 years old, my family moved from New Jersey to California. The morning we left on this great adventure, I remember my aunt clinging to the window of our car as my father tried to roll it up. She was crying, “When will we see you again?!”
In 1967, it wasn’t a far-fetched notion to think that we might not see each other again. Ordinary, everyday people didn’t just jet around the country or search the Internet for the cheapest ticket price. Flying then was akin to being at a cocktail party on wings—everyone dressed for the occasion. When my grandparents visited us, they arrived in full regalia: my grandfather wore a hat, a jacket, a tie and his false teeth (a rare nod to decorum).
Everything about flying was exciting then. Even the trip to the airport was thrilling. Without cellphones and access to the internet, we had no way of knowing what traffic lay ahead on our route or whether a flight was delayed. And, we could pack almost anything—my Italian grandmother once traveled across the country with raw veal cutlets in her carry-on bag (and yes, we ate them later that week!).
At Newark International Airport, we exited the plane downstairs. We felt like movie stars, alighting from the cabin and squinting out at the tarmac. At Los Angeles International Airport, the iconic Theme Building looked like the Jetson’s apartment building and conveyer-belt sidewalks delivered us to terminals.
In a wonderful, democratizing move, the airlines were deregulated in 1978 through the Airline Deregulation Act, and suddenly United and TWA and PanAm and American were competing for travel dollars. Everyone started flying. And even though that was a good thing (because I got to see a lot more of my grandparents), flying became a little more like taking the bus. One by one, the niceties disappeared, in coach at least. There were no more hot towels, no more menus and meal selection; some airlines even eliminated seat assignments and the boarding process started to take on the aura of a cattle call.
Last month, I, and my immediate family members, logged approximately 24,000 miles on airplanes. To do so, we navigated a slog of airport traffic, a flabbergasting maze of parked cars, accordion buses, Ubers, Lyfts and the Department of Homeland Security. We packed itsy-bitsy bottles of shampoo, bought those ridiculously expensive sandwiches and squeezed into seats that have decreased in size by nearly two inches since 1985 (even as I have increased my personal width by that many, if not more, inches).
And through it all—the lines, the bumps, the person eating something very smelly nearby—the fact that I am flying through the sky in a metal tube, watching movies and playing video games still never ceases to amaze me. And, also, that I am eating a sandwich while I’m doing this. Best field trip ever!