To Air Is Human

Prior to the advent of modern air travel, if someone wanted to experience the sensation of flight he had to hurl himself from a great height and enjoy the feeling until he hit the ground and died. And yet this was still more enjoyable than flying on Southwest.

But I kid Southwest! Kid them and hate them. They’re actually one of the few airlines to avoid filing for bankruptcy in recent years, for financial-planning reasons that I won’t go into because I do not understand them. The only obvious difference between Southwest and other airlines is that while other airlines assign each passenger a specific seat, Southwest prefers to let customers fight amongst themselves for prime seating, thus making Southwest more like a city bus than an airline. Why this appeals to people, I have no idea.

Anyway, so much of what makes air travel unappealing these days has little to do with the airlines specifically. It’s the general climate of fear and loathing that permeates the industry. For example, you usually have to take your shoes off at the airport security checkpoint nowadays. Do you recall why this is? It’s because that one guy actually tried to blow up a plane with explosives hidden in his shoe a couple years ago. It’s so demeaning and ridiculous to have to un-shoe yourself, but at the same time, it makes sense. If that idiot can get explosives onboard that way, anyone can. He ruined it for everyone.

Next a guy will try to blow up a plane with explosives hidden in his pants. After that, when you go through security, you’ll have to drop your pants and prove there’s nothing there that shouldn’t be, and we won’t really complain because we’ll be used to it. People will take it in stride: You put your cell phone and keys in the plastic tray; you take off your shoes and put them on the conveyor belt; you drop your trousers and bend over so the security personnel can examine you.

After the pants bomb, someone will probably sneak explosives onboard by hiding them in his chest cavity. Subsequently, at the security checkpoint, they’ll apply a bone saw to every passenger’s sternum, crack the halves apart like a lobster shell and inspect the chest cavity. If there are no explosives, then they’ll suture you up and you’re good to go. (You will be required to provide your own anesthetic.)

Here is a transcript of the conversation I had with the woman at the metal detector at the commencement of my holiday travels two weeks ago:

HER: [before I walk through the metal detector] Are you wearing a large belt?
ME: No.
[I pass through; the buzzer goes off]
HER: [wearily and condescendingly] Are you wearing a large belt?
ME: [not appreciating her tone] I said no.
HER: But the alarm sounded, sir.
ME: Well, I’m still not wearing a large belt. I’m wearing a normal-sized belt.
HER: Try taking it off.
ME: [as I take it off, grumbling] You didn’t ask if I was wearing a normal-sized belt. You asked if I was wearing a large belt.
[I pass through, belt-less; the alarm sounds again; it turns out it’s because I forgot I had change in my pocket; I am stupid. But it still wasn’t the belt’s fault. Quit blaming the belt.]

One aspect of flying in which I have been lucky is that I have rarely had to sit next to anyone horrible. Amusing, yes. Horrible, no. Probably the most annoying was an elderly couple I sat next to on a recent trip. I was on the aisle, the wife was in the middle, and her husband was next to the window. The wife was reading a James Patterson novel and being quiet about it, but her husband was fiddling with a portable DVD player on which he was trying to watch “Phantom of the Opera.”

Now, I know what you’re thinking: Old people dealing with modern technology? You might as well try to teach a bucket of paint to play the pipe organ. Old Man was very frustrated with the device, and Old Woman kept trying to help him. She remained calm, but Old Man, owing to the fact that he was wearing headphones, and the fact that he was aggravated, and the fact that he was very, very old, shouted everything he said. As best as I can reproduce it, their conversation went as follows, interspersed with a lot of fumbling and bumbling:

OLD WOMAN: Did you press OSD?
OLD WOMAN: Here, let me try it.
OLD WOMAN: I think you have to press this one.
OLD WOMAN: Press this one, then —
OLD WOMAN: What if we —
OLD WOMAN: That one doesn’t —

They went in this fashion for 10 minutes before they finally got it to work. (Of course, the tragic part of the story is that they went to all that effort just to watch “Phantom of the Opera.”) Could I have leaned over and helped them figure out how to operate the DVD player? Probably. But what fun would that have been? Besides, it’s possible my giant belt would have prevented me from leaning over at all.

There used to be a minor tradition with "Snide Remarks" where the first column of every new year had something unpleasant to say about air travel. I stuck faithfully to it in 2001, 2002 and 2003 -- three years, which makes it a tradition as far as I'm concerned. Somehow I lost track of it after that, but I'm happy to return to it as we roll into 2006.

The bit about people hiding explosives in their pants and chest cavities may sound familiar to people who have seen one of my live performances, though this is the first time I've used it in a column. I've been saving it for just the right moment, don't you know.