Direct Versus Indirect (Cont.)

My experiment in driving down to Portland to catch a direct flight to Columbus yesterday worked like a charm. The weather was clear, I enjoyed a fine, mask-free drive through the pretty Maine countryside with a soundtrack provided by the Maine classical music network of stations, I arrived at the Portland airport in plenty of time, and my direct flight on United left on time and got in early. Portland has a very nice, newer airport, with high ceilings and lots of room and charging stations for electronic devices, and the long-term parking lot is literally right next to the terminal building. It’s ridiculously convenient. The only mishap occurred when I missed an exit and had to loop around, but I had given myself plenty of time so it was no big deal.

I think direct flights from Portland are definitely a viable option, although I recognize that yesterday’s experiment involved practically perfect conditions— no rain, no traffic-snarling accidents, and no slow-moving trucks to hold me up on the two-lane roads that make up most of the drive. In the future those conditions obviously could change and make the trip less effortless. But boy, it sure was nice to reduce the hours of annoying and uncomfortable mask time, and all told my travel day was a bit less than taking a one-stop trip from Bangor.

The big issue is that the direct flights from Portland are not an everyday occurrence. I therefore was encouraged to see that the flight, on a regional jet, was totally full. Maybe if United sees the demand, it will add some additional flights. So let me encourage my central Ohio friends: fly to Portland and visit Maine! I’d be much obliged.

Direct Versus Indirect

Today I am going to try a personal experiment of sorts.

Normally when I fly back to Columbus I fly from Bangor International Airport and connect in Philadelphia, or LaGuardia, or Reagan National for the second-leg flight to Columbus. But the last few times I’ve done that, my flight out of Bangor has been delayed and my connecting flight has been blown. As a result, I’ve had to spend hours in airport concourses, waiting for another flight back to Columbus. Normally, this wouldn’t be too bad, but the current masking requirement means you spend 9, 10, or 11 hours straight in a mask, breathing your own exhaust and trying to resist the constant urge to scratch your nose, and that pushes the experience into the “to be avoided at all costs” zone.

So I did some research, and found that there is one direct flight from the Portland, Maine International Jetport to Columbus. I’m on it today, It will require a long drive–a bit over three hours, total–because Portland is well to the south, and there are no short drives when you are talking about the shoreline-hugging roads of coastal Maine. But I like driving, when I’m in my car I can listen to music in a blessedly mask-free environment, and if Mother Nature and air traffic controllers and aircraft maintenance technicians and all of the other things that might delay a flight cooperate, I’ll minimize the masked time and probably spend about the same amount of time in transit as I would doing the two-hop trip from Bangor.

I respect the governmental air travel masking requirement and will faithfully comply with it, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it, or that it isn’t worth seeing whether there are viable options to avoid it. Today will test the direct versus indirect hypothesis, and the limits of my mask-avoidance options.

The Great Unmasking (Cont.)

Yesterday I was on the road and in an airport for the first time in months. It was my first exposure to a mandatory mask environment after weeks of mask-free or at most temporary entry/exit masking on Deer Isle, where you see fewer and fewer people—residents or tourists—wearing their masks. I adjusted to a no-mask existence pretty easily and quickly, so being back in a mandatory mask environment was a bit jarring.

My travel day got messed up due to mechanical and weather issues, so I spent a lot of time in airport concourses, watching the world go by. And based on one day’s experience I’d say people are a lot laxer about masking now than they were at the height of the pandemic.

In part, I think this is due to the reopening of most businesses in the airport concourses, especially food businesses. Once you plant your behind in a chair in an airport restaurant or bar, you’re magically freed from the mask mandate. It’s kind of weird to think that food consumption creates a magical no-mask zone, but it’s a recognized loophole and people were taking advantage of it. I had dinner in a typical pub/restaurant place in Reagan National, and it was packed with people, crammed into seating areas that, like every airport dining option, was set up to leave you elbow-to-elbow with other patrons, and everyone had their masks off, chatting and laughing and inches away from unmasked strangers. No one seemed troubled by that. And yet, when you leave that magical mask-free zone, you’ve got to mask up again. It doesn’t make a lot of sense, and it makes me wonder if patrons are lingering longer, or consuming more, just to enjoy a few minutes more of unfettered breathing. I would guess it is boom times for all airport bars and eateries.

And speaking of consumption, travelers seemed to be taking advantage of the food consumption loophole to doff the mask and chow down in the gate areas, too. I saw one guy buying an armload of every kind of junk food you can imagine being sold by an airport concourse outlet—chips, soda, popcorn, jerky, cookies, and candy—and later saw him, mask off, noshing away on his calorie hoard. Others had bought take -out from fast food places and were taking their time and enjoying multiple gulps of maskless air as they ever-so-slowly ate their food. And one guy at National casually walked around, mask cinched up on his upper arm, carrying a cup of airport coffee, as if holding a beverage and taking a sip every few minutes excused him from mask requirements. He talked to a gate agent for a while without masking and she didn’t call him on it, either.

In this food loophole setting, the dire broadcasts over the loudspeakers about wearing only approved masks (no “gaiters”!) and being disciplined for not fully complying with mask mandates seem almost antique. Airports and airplanes will be the last bastion of masking, but I wonder how long it will be before they give it up. Yesterday’s food exception experience suggests the population is ready to bare their faces and accept the consequences.

In Search Of Healthy Options

I’ve written before about how difficult it is to find any kind of healthy food options in airports. That reality has only been exacerbated by the COVID pandemic. When we took our recent trip to Arizona, many of the restaurant options, whether sit-down or carryout, at the various airports we traveled through were closed, and there were long lines at other places that sold food items. That means hungry travelers who didn’t think to pack their own food are going to be looking at vending machines as a viable option.

The photo above is of one of the airport vending machines we saw. It’s not exactly brimming with healthy options. Instead, it offers the unholy “four Cs” of snacking: chips, cookies, cheese crackers, and candy. What’s the healthiest option among this assortment? The Pop Tarts, perhaps?

Ironically, this particular vending machine was right next to another one, selling beverages, that had a big sticker on it that proclaimed: “Calories Count. Check then choose.” I’m not sure how you are supposed to apply that advice in airports these days.

Up In The Air Again

We flew back from Tucson yesterday, connecting through Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, which is traditionally one of the nation’s busiest airports. Here are a few additional observations about air travel during the COVID period.

  • Every flight we took, to and from Tucson, was absolutely full of passengers. I’m not sure whether the airlines have reduced the number of flights to ensure packed planes, or whether people are just sick of staying at home and want to get out, or whether we were seeing the tail end of the spring break rush, or whether it was a combination of all three factors. For whatever reason, we rode in full planes.
  • Tucson’s airport was not very busy, and when we arrived in Columbus at about 8 p.m. last night the airport was almost empty–but O’Hare was jammed with people and looked like the pre-pandemic O’Hare. Obviously, navigating from one gate to another in a crowded airport doesn’t give you much opportunity to practice social distancing. You’re dodging and skirting people in the concourse, standing in long lines if you want to get something to eat, and sitting cheek by jowl with other passengers in the gate area. Our airports aren’t designed for social distancing; they are designed to pen as many people as possible into the smallest space possible, and there is really not much you can do about it.
  • The social distancing impulses developed over the last year made me more irritable than I expected as I moved from one concourse at O’Hare to another. I’ve written before about the fact that many travelers seem to lack any meaningful spatial or situational awareness, but the problem is compounded when you are trying to practice social distancing and people just stop dead in the middle of a concourse walkway, or abruptly turn around against the flow of traffic, or act like they are out for a casual stroll in the park when people are rushing to catch their next flight. Is it too much to ask for people to be aware that they need to move with the flow of pedestrian traffic, keep pace with the crowds, and work toward the edge of the crowd when they need to exit the flow to get to their gate?
  • I will sound like a whiner, but wearing a mask for hours with no break on a busy travel day is not pleasant. When we finally got home, it felt great to take the mask off and breathe a few hearty gulps of unmasked air. I don’t know how long the federal mask mandate will last, but I suspect that it will ultimately affect travel patterns, if it hasn’t done so already. If I were going somewhere that is within reasonable driving distance, I would much prefer to hop in my car and take a mask-free trip, even if it meant longer travel from portal to portal, rather than masking up for hours of sitting in crowded airports and planes.

For The Demure Dog

Many airports now have animal relief areas.  Often, the areas are just a square of bright green astroturf out in some corner of the concourse with a plastic red fire hydrant.  Phoenix’s Sky Harbor airport is the first airport I’ve seen where the animal relief zone is a separate room with a closing door.

I think it’s a good idea, and I hope that more airports adopt it.  Obviously, the room isn’t in deference to the privacy interests of dogs, who don’t seem to care much who can see them while they do their business — or where they do it, for that matter.  Instead, it’s a nod to the sensibilities of those of us who are traveling and don’t particularly want to see a squatting dog 50 feet away from where we’re sipping our Starbucks Cafe Grande and trying to tune out the blaring CNN broadcast from the TV sets overhead. 

More and more people are traveling with “comfort animals” these days, and the animals are coming in all shapes and sizes.  As I moved through the Phoenix airport yesterday, I saw more dogs than ever before, ranging in size from a Shih Tzu clutched by her human pal to a fully grown standard poodle striding down the concourse.  I’ve even read about passengers traveling with miniature horses as “comfort animals” — which seems to really push the “comfort animal” envelope and show just how blurry the lines have become.

With the undeniable increase in animals in airports, airport facilities need to change to keep pace with the trend — and obviously making sure that there are places where the “comfort animals” can take care of their own comfort has to be part of that process.  It shouldn’t be an issue, because airports always have plenty of space and seem to be under construction at all times — so why not a simple room to let dogs, cats, miniature horses, cockatoos, and the rest of the traveling menagerie answer the call of nature?  

TV On Wheels

Yesterday I flew home through an airport in Anytown, U.S.A.  As I walked from one concourse to another to get to the gate for my connection, I passed a woman pushing a stroller.  In the stroller, a little girl — who was probably about four years old — was watching her own little TV and had headphones on so her enjoyment of the program wasn’t disturbed by the surrounding hubbub.  She was oblivious to everything except what was happening on her nifty pink device.

It struck me as an interesting parenting choice.  Going to a modern airport has got to be a cool, interesting experience for a kid.  There’s a lot going on — bright lights, brisk movement, diverse shops and signs, announcements, unknown people, different languages — that would help a child to understand that it is a big world out there with many things to see and understand.  In short, it’s a learning experience.  And if your kid has lived a sheltered life, being pushed through an airport concourse under the watchful eye of Mom is a pretty good, and safe, way to be introduced to the bigger picture.

But this particular little girl was missing out on all of that.  She was in her own lworld, watching a TV program that she had probably seen multiple times already and plugged into her headphones, oblivious to pretty much everything that was going on around her.

In fairness to the Mom, maybe the little girl was exhausted and on the verge of a tantrum, and the path of least resistance was to let her watch her program until she fell asleep. avoiding a full-blown airport meltdown.  If so, that’s a parenting choice that the other travelers, myself included, would applaud.  But it’s also possible that for this little girl, with her very nifty portable TV screen, watching TV programs rather than the world passing by is the default approach whenever she gets into the stroller, whether her mood is good or bad.

We’ve read a lot lately about younger people feeling disconnected, unsatisfied, and at times depressed by the on-line, TV/computer screen world in which they spend so much time.  Maybe the answer is to take away the TV and let kids have a bit more interaction with the real world and the real people in it.  A stroller ride through a busy, bustling airport seems like a pretty good place to start with a device-free approach.

 

Ode To An Early Morning Flight

Richard said he liked my occasional verse on the blog. Every wannabe writer likes a compliment now and then, and it’s been a while since I’ve composed some doggerel, anyway. So below is my ode to an early morning flight.

Ode To An Early Morning Flight

Whene’er I fly there’s a choice for me

Do I fly at 6 or half past 3?

The pros all say the morn is right

To avoid delay and cancelled flight.

From that viewpoint, a.m. is best —

But what about my lack of rest?

If I book a flight that heads out early

I know my sleep will be all squirrelly.

I’ll worry that I’m oversleeping

And miss the plane and end up weeping.

I’ll toss and turn, and slumber poor

And wake up when the clock strikes four.

But later flights I must beware

For fear of storms around O’Hare,

That leaves the schedule all akimbo

And put me in a traveler’s limbo.

There’s no good answer, sad to say

So I’m at the gate to start the day.

Anticipatory Improvements

I flew through New York’s LaGuardia Airport recently, and these signs are everywhere. The Port Authority, which operates LaGuardia, obviously wants appalled travelers to know that it also recognizes that the airport is an embarrassment for such a major city. Of course, the signs leaves unanswered the key question: namely, how did the Port Authority let LaGuardia sink to such a state in the first place?

I’m not sure that touting anticipatory improvements is a good approach. To me, the signs and their slick representation of the supposed LaGuardia to be are a pointed reminder of just how crappy some of the bleak and overcrowded existing concourses are.

The No Low-Carb Zone

Where’s the worst place to be if you’re trying to faithfully follow a low-carb diet in hopes of shedding a few pounds? Any American airport, basically. Airport concourses are probably the most carbohydrate-rich environment on Earth. You can’t navigate your roller bag even a few feet without encountering a Dunkin Donuts or a Pinkberry or something similar, and virtually every food option is served on a bun with a side of fries.

If you’re lucky, you might find something suitable in one of those “to-go” shops connected to restaurants, or in the refrigerated stands in a concourse. The other day I was in Salt Lake City, half-heartedly looked at the options offered in one of those places, and found a small packet of just prosciutto and cheese slices that was perfect for my stand-at-the-gate dinner. I felt like a prospector who found a few nuggets of gold in his pan.

SNALU

What is it about flying through New York City’s LaGuardia Airport?  Over the last few years, it has become increasingly difficult to fly in and out of New York without suffering some catastrophic travel failure that involves flight cancellations and having to stay over in some crummy hotel room.

250px-laguardia_airportThe most recent incident happened this week, when I flew in to New York and was advised that my flight out was cancelled outright more than 24 hours before the flight was set to depart, due to anticipated winter storms.  The airline then booked me for new flight that required staying another night in NYC.  This latest travel snag follows up on my last use of LaGuardia, in which my flight back was cancelled, no flight out was available for days, and I had to rent a car and drive back to Columbus.  On yet another recent LaGuardia excursion I spent 7 hours waiting in the terminal for an outbound flight that was repeatedly, and annoyingly, delayed in half hour increments for no apparent reason.

By the baseline metric that defines a successful flight — do you actually leave reasonably close to your designated departure time? — LaGuardia has become a consistent, exasperating failure for me.  It’s worse than a coin flip.  You could just use the acronym SNALU — Situation Normal, All LaGuardia’d Up.  And it always seems to be the outbound flight that’s the problem.  Going to New York through LaGuardia is liking checking in to the Eagles’ Hotel California.

If you’ve been to LaGuardia any time during the last few years you know the airport is in the midst of a massive renovation project.  I’ve heard that there is a new Southwest terminal that is very nice.  But I really question whether pumping a bunch of money into LaGuardia makes much sense.  It’s a very old airport that’s penned in.  The runways are where they are, and it may not be situated in the best place, local weather-wise.  Given the problems I’ve had in using the airport recently, I wonder if fixing up LaGuardia is like putting lipstick on a pig.

The next few times I have to fly in and out of New York City, I’m trying Newark.

Traveler’s Triathlon

Today I am attempting the traveler’s triathlon — a three-leg trip with tight connections, heading into snow country, in winter. Add in a government shutdown and what that potentially means for TSA workers, air traffic controllers, and every other federal employee who works in the nation’s air traffic system, and the degree of difficulty ratchets up to just about Iron Man Triathlon levels.

So far, though, so good. No bad weather, no security delays, no de-icing issues, and no mechanical problems. I had to run through several terminals and concourses at O’Hare, but that just gave me some much-needed exercise.

If my last leg leaves and arrives on time, I may just need to buy a lottery ticket when I read my ultimate destination.

Rating Restrooms

I flew through the Houston Hobby airport recently, and when I made a pit stop I saw this restroom rating apparatus on a wall near the exit.

My first reaction: a touch screen rating device, in a public men’s room in a busy airport? Really? I mean, really? I don’t think I’d touch a touch screen device under those circumstances even if my best friend was responsible for restroom hygiene and his job depended on getting good ratings. How many people are going to provide ratings using that methodology?

My second reaction: why even offer the smiley face option? How many people who use public facilities at airports do so with an ear-to-ear grin, even if the restroom is spotless? The best rating I would ever give is an impassive face with a flat line for a mouth — neither happy nor sad, but at least not enraged or disgusted by the condition of the restroom.

My third reaction: I know airports want travelers to think they really care about restroom hygiene, but soliciting ratings seems like an empty gesture. Why not take whatever you would spend on touch screen ratings devices and use it instead to buy better quality paper towels that don’t dissolve upon first contact with a wet, soapy hand?

Failing The Toilet Test

The New York Times is reporting that researchers have examined the presence of germs and viruses on airport security trays and have (surprise!) made some findings that will undoubtedly alarm any germaphobe.  The scientific team swabbed surfaces at the Helsinki Airport and found traces of rhinovirus, which is associated with the so-called “common cold,” and influenza A on half of those plastic bins that travelers regularly handle in dropping off and then retrieving their shoes, belts, purses, laptops, and other belongings as they pass through security.

cc168b22f8cb28c4d95df2d6b73510a8What’s more, the researchers compared the presence of the viruses on the security trays with results from swabs they took of the Helsinki Airport toilets — because toilets always seem to be the crucial baseline comparison in studies of this nature.  They determined that none of the viruses were found on the the toilet surfaces at the airport, which means the security trays at the Helsinki Airport failed the time-honored “toilet test.”  (It also probably means that the toilets at the Helsinki Airport are regularly and carefully cleaned, thankfully, whereas nobody is cleaning airport security trays, but that no doubt will be the subject of another study.)

I read the Times article, which is just the latest in a never-ending flood of reports about the prevalence of germs and viruses and other troublesome microorganisms in modern society, and thought about how tough it must be to be a germaphobe these days.  Any surface that is regularly touched by the unwashed masses — ATM machine buttons, subway train poles, turnstiles, the moving rubber handrails on escalators, and the list goes on and on — are likely to be teeming with all kinds of nastiness, especially during the “cold and flu season.”

Some people, like me, simply accept that exposure to germs carried by random strangers is part of modern life.  We’re fatalists about it, and figure that if a virus has your name on it, you’re just out of luck.  But what’s an ardent germaphobe to do?  Wear gloves and face masks, as you see from time to time when you travel?  Up the ante by wearing hazmat suits?  Pay for the TSA pre-check status so you don’t need to take off your shoes and belt and touch those germy security tubs?

Or maybe airports should take the “toilet test” data to heart, and establish special seating areas for germaphobes in every airport restroom, because that always seems to be the cleanest place around.