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.
Yesterday I was flying back home, connecting through O’Hare. As we sat at our gate, crammed in the overcrowded, narrow seating area, there was a small child screeching somewhere nearby, three guys in the next row over were talking loudly, and a woman sitting two seats down was speaking into her cell phone. And above all the din was a TV set tuned to CNN, broadcasting at sufficient volume so that anybody who was interested could hear talking heads yammer about Stormy Daniels and her alleged tryst with President Trump.
Let’s just say it wasn’t exactly a peaceful, relaxing waiting area. Instead, it was close to the exact opposite — an area seemingly designed to jack up the tension and general unpleasantness that could have been made worse only if somebody was dragging their fingernails against a chalkboard or running a dentist’s drill with that high-pitched whine over a loudspeaker.
There’s not much you can do about a crying baby, or the talking habits of your fellow passengers. Those are things that you just have to endure when you travel. Notably, however, so far as I could tell nobody in our cramped waiting area was watching the CNN broadcast on the TV monitor overhead. It was just a big part of the background racket contributing to the general unpleasantness. And while you can argue about whether following the news at all these days is good for your mental health, do we really need to have the TV news on in public areas, bombarding us with more noise during every waking moment? At an airport gate waiting area, at least, there’s no way to turn the TV off to try to minimize the tumult.
Finally getting on the plane, where it was a little bit quieter, was a relief. The experience made me appreciate our Columbus airport, where there aren’t TVs blaring at every gate area and you actually can sit quietly while waiting for your flight. I don’t know if the O’Hare airport authority gets paid something by CNN for broadcasting the news in every waiting area, but I’d sure appreciate it if they junked the TVs and reduced, at least a little, the noise pollution and the din at the gate.
O’Hare. It’s unavoidable if you live in Columbus and need to go just about anywhere to the west. You’re likely to be routed through O’Hare on the way out and on the way back. You keep your fingers crossed that there won’t be a line of thunderstorms, or snow storms, or wind storms that blow out your travel schedule and bring the nation’s air traffic system to its knees. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself wandering through one of the bustling concourses at O’Hare, wondering how you’re going to get to where you want to go.
O’Hare. I spent the night there once, after my flight in from the west coast was delayed and I arrived at O’Hare at about 1:30 a.m. to learn that every hotel room in the airport was booked and my flight out would leave at 5:40 a.m. There was no place to sleep and no where to go so I walked back and forth on the concourse, like one of the dazed passengers on The Poseidon Adventure, counting down the minutes until my flight left. It was probably the longest four hours of my life.
O’Hare. I’m heading there today, and I’m hoping it doesn’t rise up and bite me, again.
I was sitting in one of the countless terminals at O’Hare yesterday, waiting for my flight back to Columbus, when I heard a series of announcements from the Department of Homeland Security over the PA system. One reminded me of the 3-1-1 rules that apply to carrying liquids (no more than 3 ounces, in 1 clear plastic zip lock bag, and 1 bag per passenger). Another advised us all to sneeze or cough into our arms, so as to avoid spreading germs.
Seriously, is this what we’ve come to? Americans can’t even sit in an airport terminal without being hectored repeatedly by a federal agency about how to sneeze and cough, and using a particular kind of baggie when going through security? Can’t we leave it to the mothers of America to teach their children to cover their mouths when they sneeze or cough? And why should it make a difference to the feds whether my liquids are stored in one plastic bag versus two?
I’m tired of our ridiculous Big Brother government. And when the announcements made me think of Big Brother, I thought of this classic song from Rare Earth. Our Big Brother government is far more intrusive now than it was in the ’70s when this song was recorded — but at least humming this tune made me feel a little better.
Today I drove to the airport, caught an early morning flight to the Windy City, then took the Chicago Transit Authority Blue Line train from O’Hare Airport to my downtown meeting site. I therefore completed the John Candy-Steve Martin business travel trifecta when the day was still young.
The train ride was a pleasant way to get from the airport to the city — much more enjoyable than a cab ride through stop-and-go traffic. The trip took a bit less than an hour. We sat in a clean, relatively quiet car with no exhaust fumes pouring in, rolled past some interesting neighborhoods and buildings, and heard recorded announcements that encouraged us all to be polite to our fellow passengers by not listening to blaring music or having annoyingly loud conversations on our cell phones. It seems like the Transit Authority is working hard to make the train trip more tolerable, and it was.
One part of the train ride made me laugh. At two of the Blue Line stops, you can get out and transfer to other subway lines — one of which is the Pink Line. Huh? The Pink Line? In the Stormy, husky, brawling, City of the Big Shoulders? Carl Sandburg would probably laugh and like that development, too.