The frustrating dance of flying domestically

19:48, Nov 28 2011

Domestic American air travel is one domain of life where I think that a liberal use of the phrase "post-9/11" is still acceptable.

On my way west for Thanksgiving, I rose at 4.15am after three hours' sleep and over the next 12 hours made a voyage across America: Boston to Washington DC, Washington DC to Denver, Denver to Sacramento.

It wasn't so bad. I was worried about coming face to face with a gruelling run of holiday travel horrors. Instead it was the usual encounter with the odd pantomime of domestic American air travel.

Flying back I had the similar inconvenience of two layovers in a trip spread over 11 hours: Sacramento to Los Angeles, Los Angeles to Phoenix, Phoenix to Boston.

Layovers are a huge drag. They stretch the trip out painfully. They do, however, make you very engaged with the act of flying.

There are three lessons that flying across America and back several times has taught me.

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Pre-flight security is never not a drag

I first have to go to the first security guard, who makes sure I'm in the right line. The second guy runs a fluorescent light over my passport and scribbles some code on my boarding pass. I never know what this code means. Is it ominous? To prepare for security, I have to take off my shoes, belt, coat and hoodie. I take my laptop out of its case and empty my pockets. I put these all in the little plastic trays and get in line. When I'm through the other side of the scanner the trays are now coming out faster than I can process putting clothes back on and getting things away. As usual, there's some officious man in uniform hurrying the line along. This always ends the same way, with me in a fluster carrying my bags, coats, shoes, laptop and belt trying to keep my pants up as I try to find a place to keep it together.

Going through security in Washington DC I was stopped for having an oversized tube of toothpaste in my bag. The security man asked me if I wanted to send it back to myself, and looked at me suspiciously (like it was obviously a small, toothpaste sized bomb) when I told him I was in a hurry to make my connection and he could throw it out.

I did not have to go through the full body scanner while travelling this past week. I've been through it before, and I don't have a problem with it. I know that on the other side of the wall someone is scouring my naked frame for any sign of explosives, but I can't see that person and view them wince and laugh at me and can pretend that they're not there.

I also like to keep in mind that their job requires them having to involuntarily stare at me naked.

Lesson 2: American baggage fees have had ridiculous side effects

On almost every airline now, bar Southwest, you pay $25 or so for every bag you would like to check.

This was done so that airlines could squeeze a little more revenue in a difficult economic climate out of customers prepared to foot this cost, but it has created a monster. People take their full suitcases on the planes now. The one personal item and one piece carry-on baggage rule has been bent so far as to be completely broken. As we all entered the planes yesterday, we walked right past the carry on baggage guidelines and I'm not sure if one in 10 of the people would've been compliant with the rules. I had a full backpack and a duffel bag.

Hat tip: offer to have your bag checked in free when you're at the gate. Inevitably when you are waiting at the gate panicked air-hostesses will be making overhead announcements about how full the flight is and encouraging passengers to be thoughtful and conscientious with your bags.

So, you walk on the plane and people are now stuffing small-to-medium sized suitcases in the overhead bin. This creates a huge backlog as people board. And often when about two-thirds of the plane has boarded there's no space left in the bins anyway, and everyone who has been trying unsuccessfully to fit their bag into a space that never would have worked has to go to the front of the plane and have their bags checked in free anyway. This sluggish, redundant process continues when the plane lands. De-boarding slows to a crawl as everyone painstakingly tries to remove their coffins from the overhead bin and not decapitate their co-passengers.

All American airports are more or less replicas of each other

On my trip, I was in Denver, Washington DC, Los Angeles and Phoenix. On previous layovers I've been through Chicago, Minneapolis and Dallas.

Airports, though, are divorced from the geography of the town they represent. Geography will show through in only two areas in the airport: the hoodies they sell in the gift shop will be emblazoned with the name of the city, and there will be a large range of city-specific knick-knacks. A stand selling "Don't Mess with Texas" lighters and T-shirts is about the only thing that really sets Dallas airport apart from Denver, which opts for small soft toys representing the mascots of each of its famous sports teams. Denver, however, was the first airport in America I've ever seen that did not have a Starbucks.

Airport decor and layouts in America are identical. They'll have the flat escalators that you can use instead of walking, with pockets of gates cut up by clusters of shops and fast food. There will be a recurring pattern of three or four fast-food chains (Pizza Hut Express is huge in airports), a magazine stand and an overpriced café selling bad food while trying too hard to set itself apart as "classier" than the rest.   

Did any of you American readers travel for the holidays? How did it go? 

And who's experienced the beast of American air travel? How do you find it?

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