The Piano Baseline

Many of the Italian airports we traveled through, including Rome and Palermo, had pianos in the gate areas. it’s a nice feature, I guess, but pianos can be intrusive, too. Some of the people who sat down to play weren’t exactly proficient, and listening to bad piano playing is much worse than silence. In fact, a crappy rendition of a favorite song is more annoying than the whine of a dentist’s drill. And some of the people who played also sang, which has its own issues.

Here’s a takeaway—don’t sit down to play the piano in a public area unless you’re really good at it, and don’t sing unless you’re in a bar.

JGI, Concourse C, 4:35 a.m.

I’m on the road this morning, with very early flights. Being the prototypical Uptight Traveler, I got to Columbus’ John Glenn International Airport early to make sure there were no snags, which meant I encountered a gleamingly clean and mostly vacant terminal when I headed to my gate. (And, for those who make fun of my U.T. tendencies, I should note that there were long lines to check in bags at many of the airline counters when I arrived, so I am firm in my view that getting to the airport early remains a good option.)

This is the first flight I’ve taken since the mask mandate was lifted and masks became optional. Some travelers are wearing masks, but the vast majority are unmasked. I’d say the ratio of unmasked to masked is about 9 to 1. It’s kind of weird to be in a mostly unmasked airport after two years of pandemic-fueled masking. It makes the two-year masking period seem like a strange, unsettling dream.

Airports Without CNN

Airports changed during the pandemic. One change, of course, is the mask requirement, but there’s another significant one: the TV sets playing CNN Airport News at all times are gone from the gate seating areas.

This is truly a positive development. Every airport I’ve flown through on this trip—Columbus, Santa Ana, and Phoenix—is noticeably quieter without the constant background noise. And the reduced noise levels seem to have reduced the stress levels among the people in the gate area seats, too. Maybe being forced to listen to a barrage of news reports about bad things that are happening in the world just isn’t good for the traveler’s psyche.

The mask mandate will hopefully end soon—perhaps sooner than we thought possible just a few months ago—but I hope to never hear a CNN broadcast in an airport again. It really makes for a much more pleasant travel experience.

Travel Roulette

We had a great vacation in St. Lucia over the holidays, but boy–traveling these days isn’t for the faint of heart. I’m not talking about spending long hours in a mask, either. There is so much uncertainty about pretty much everything, plans can change on a dime, and you’ve got to be willing to endure some stress and be quick about making alternative arrangements if necessary.

Here are some of the things that make travel so difficult:

  • Departure COVID tests — Many overseas destinations, like St. Lucia, require them. Some people have experienced long lines to get tested; that was not a problem for us (we took one of the self-administered tests at the CVS drive-through pharmacy). Other than the basic unpleasantness of the test itself–I always think of the Vinnie Barbarino comment from the ’70s sitcom Welcome Back Kotter, “Up your nose with a rubber hose!”–the main issue for us was trying to time the test to provide the results in time to meet the reporting requirements while also falling within the three days of departure time period. If you’re getting ready to travel, you’ll probably spend a fair amount of time checking your phone for results.
  • Flight cancellations — There were a lot of flight cancellations over the holidays, and you wonder how long the cancellation problems will continue. The cancellations seem totally random and unpredictable, and the airlines tend to rebook you as if there is no problem (or schedule disruption, or cost) iinvolved in your staying longer somewhere. We lucked out and didn’t experience a cancellation, but our travel partners did and had to stay an extra day. Fortunately, it didn’t mess up their plans too much. If you’re traveling, I’d recommend building a potential “cancellation day” into your travel plans.
  • Return COVID tests — In my view, the return COVID test is a lot more troubling than the departure test, especially if you are overseas. There are lots of reports of fully vaccinated people who faithfully followed mask rules and maintained prudent social distancing and still tested positive. Once that happens, even if you are asymptomatic, you’re looking at multiple days of quarantine, and in some places you apparently have to go to a special quarantine facility. When your departure test comes back negative, it is an enormous relief.
  • The condition of airports — Admittedly, our return flights yesterday probably were on one of the peak days of the holiday travel season. Still, the conditions were pretty grim. There not only were long lines, documentation issues, and lots of trying to understand what masked people were saying, but when we reached the U.S. the conditions at the Miami airport were pretty pathetic. Trash cans were full to the point of overflowing, lots of eating places seemed to be closed, and the restrooms didn’t exactly pass the white glove treatment. In fact, I’d be willing to bet that one of the levels of hell is eternity spent in a men’s restroom in a busy American airport during a hectic holiday travel day. I found myself wondering if the conditions were due to staffing shortages, which seems to be a problem with a lot of places right now.

We don’t have any travel on the horizon in the immediate future, and that’s probably a good thing. Perhaps, in a few months, the craziness will subside a bit

COVID Casualties Of The Travel Variety

COVID-19 continues to be the gift that keeps on giving, affecting not only health but also creating many other unexpected changes–in how, and where, and even whether we work, how we shop, how kids are educated, how we travel, and countless other aspects of American life. COVID has caused some business to close and others to reap record profits, and now it’s making life difficult for regional airports.

Those of us who don’t use regional airports probably haven’t noticed, but the airlines are retrenching and pulling routes back from the smaller markets, and are citing COVID as the reason. In November, United Airlines announced that it was pulling out of 11 cities, and this week Delta announced that it was cutting seven routes, including suspending service to three airports entirely. Lincoln, Nebraska, Grand Junction, Colorado, and Cody, Wyoming are the three cities that are being dropped from the Delta flight list. A Delta spokesperson said: “”Due to ongoing travel demand impact from the pandemic, we have made the difficult decision to suspend Delta Connection service to these markets.”

That’s hard news to take for the travelers who use the regional airports that are affected, because the law of supply and demand teaches that with every drop in supply–in this case, of flights–the prices of the remaining options are going to increase. That means if you’ve got to fly to Lincoln or Grand Junction in the future, brace yourselves for sticker shock, at least until some small regional airline decides to start service in those locations. And if you live in an area serviced by other regional airports, keep your fingers crossed that your travel demand statistics are robust enough to keep the airlines servicing your airport, thereby producing competitive prices and justifying the money that your tax dollars spent to build the airport in the first place.

The “ongoing travel demand impact from the pandemic” that the Delta spokesperson mentioned is worth thinking about, too. Are people not traveling because they are concerned about their health, or because they have seen so many things get cancelled as new variants crop up and sweep across the globe, or because people feel that the masking and testing requirements that apply to air travel are so unpleasant that they’d rather stay home? And in the case of the smaller markets, how many travelers have decided that they would rather just drive to their destination and avoid the cancellation risk and the masks? It makes you wonder whether the impulse to just drive rather than fly, like the impulse to work from home, will be a permanent byproduct of the COVID years.

Austin International, 5:09 a.m. Central

We have an early flight out of Austin this morning. We got here early, and thank goodness for that: the airport is jammed with travelers and a bit of a madhouse. The regular security line snaked along for hundreds of yards, filled with anxious people worried about catching their flights. It was the greatest advertisement for getting TSA precheck status you could imagine.

It’s officially Thanksgiving week, folks, and the packed airport proves it. If you’re traveling don’t take chances—get there early!

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.