Get Thee To An Airport: Summer’s Here!

Short final in St Maarten

Short final in St Maarten

This post was originally published in the Glendale – Cherry Creek Chronicle in July of 2009.  I have just arrived home from a four-day trip replete with mechanical delays, duty-time legality issues, and Orlando, that seems to have officially rung in this year’s summer travel season.  After a couple glasses of wine and a good night’s sleep, I am moved to repost.

I have about twenty different renditions of the song on my iPod, sung by everyone from Sarah Vaughan to Angelique Kidjo: “Summertime, and the living is easy.”  Yeah, well, this is my sixteenth summer as a flight attendant for a major airline, and I am pretty sure those lyrics didn’t come to George Gershwin on an airplane. For nine months a year, airplanes are filled with seasoned travelers and million-mile frequent fliers who more or less “know the drill,” and flight attendants pretty much know what to expect.  The off-season traveler means business: he’ll get on the airplane balancing an open laptop and talking on his cell phone, clog up the aisle while he fills up an entire overhead bin with his oversized carry-on bags, and then sit and make comments to the flight attendants about how people need to hang up their cell phones and travel with smaller bags and the boarding process will go more smoothly for everyone.  These passengers breeze through security with slip-on shoes and TSA-approved toiletries, know exactly what they want to drink and how much it will cost, and can be counted on to have the laptop fired up from way before we tell them it’s OK until way after we tell them to turn it off, some of them hard at work, most of them watching Family Guy on DVD.  They don’t bother us, we don’t bother them (certainly not with “service,” not these days), and everybody’s happy.  I’ve got an Us magazine to read, after all.

Summer flying is a whole different ball game: airplanes are hours late because of “thunderstorms,” even as you look out the windows at clear blue sky; tour groups of teenagers are out in full force, spilling their drinks and ringing the call light with abandon; and security lines snake around airport lobbies and out the door past curbside check-in while a family of eleven who has never flown before clogs up the metal detector, Mom trying to get everybody out of their shoes, Dad trying to figure out how to collapse the SUV stroller, inadvertently sending the Littlest Applebee through the x-ray machine in his car seat.  (Laugh all you want, I’ve seen it happen.)  Gershwin might not have written “Summertime” about air travel, but I’m pretty sure the first flight attendant to observe that “this would be a great job if it weren’t for all the passengers” must have done so in June, July, or August.

All of my wacky passenger stories involve summertime travelers, from the relatively mundane (the man on the upper deck of a 747 who wrapped himself in a blanket during boarding, then wriggled out of his pants and gave them to me to hang in the closet so they would maintain their crease on the flight from London to San Francisco) to the absurd (the woman who sucked down three bottles of first aid oxygen on a flight from San Francisco to Chicago and told me with a straight face that she only requires supplemental oxygen when she flies in coach) to the nightmarish (the woman with more than thirty kinds of prescription medication in her purse who, on a flight from Sydney, wanted off the airplane when we still had about twelve hours of flight time to go and tried to use her head to put a hole in the fuselage to make good her escape.  The doctor we paged told the Chief Purser that if he gave the passenger more Valium it would kill her.  After pausing to allow him to elaborate, the Chief Purser finally asked him “What are you waiting for?”).  It was during a summertime diversion to Albuquerque that a daytime soap opera star got drunk and confided to me that she had finally found the man she was going to marry.  It was the dude she was traveling with and wasn’t he wonderful?  I tactfully refrained from telling her that every time he came to the galley to get her another cocktail he made unsolicited promises, while caressing my hand, to dump her for me the minute we arrived in L.A.

It was during my first summer of flying that a passenger jumped up from her seat and called out to me, “Mister Stewardess!  Mister Stewardess!  I just spilled my drink on my friend!”  It was during my second summer of flying that we, the entire crew of a 777, crashed a wedding reception at our New Jersey layover hotel for free hors d’oeuvres and cocktails and then had the bride and groom on our flight the next morning.  During my third summer of flying I got to go to the Sydney Olympics, for Pete’s sake, and also got to take the U.S. and Canadian teams to Sydney for the Paralympic Games.  (One of the athletes was struggling during boarding to stow a carry-on, so I stepped in to help.  I always ask before I start shoving on someone’s bag, “Is there anything fragile in here?”   “Go for it,” he told me, “It’s just my leg.”)

While it’s true that I have had my most colorful in-flight emergencies (the first heart attack of my career, the psychotic break, the lost engine and subsequent emergency landing) on summer flights, I’ve also gotten to watch the Space Shuttle take off from 41,000 feet above Cape Canaveral and see Chris Isaak in concert in Central Park on a New York layover; I’ve had a little old lady on a flight from Osaka make a gift to me of two delicate origami cranes because she wanted to share her hobby and a young dad on a flight from Detroit jump up in the aisle and kiss me smack on the mouth to celebrate the fact that I have the same birthday as his son, which, as it happens, is June 21st, the First Day — ready for this? — of Summer.

Come to think of it, I usually take all of my vacation time in April (for my husband’s birthday) and in November (for National Novel Writing Month), which pretty much guarantees that I won’t miss a moment of summer flying.  Most summer fliers travel infrequently; for many it’s usually a long-saved-for special occasion, and a bit of an adventure.  Compared to your twice-a-week business traveler, yeah, these passengers require a lot more tending.  They have many more questions, some struggle with time zones and geography, and they ring the call light to make quaint, outdated requests for playing cards, post cards, and plastic wings, classic souvenir items with which most airlines, hoarding every spare penny for executive bonuses, have long-since done away.  But as a writer and an observer by nature, I am never bored on these flights, and am even occasionally tickled, as by the little girl on a recent flight to Orlando with her pint-sized Hannah Montana roll-aboard suitcase who bounced into her middle seat, fastened her seat belt unprompted with a loud click, and then announced to the cabin in general, “I’m ready, Captain.”

Flying has certainly changed, even in my relatively short career, and not for the better. The glamour is long gone and even the good domestic airlines offer little more than bus service in the sky.  But seen through the eyes of a little kid going to Disney World or of the young newlyweds on their first flight being served champagne by a bunch of wedding crashers, rather than through those of an airplane full of people who consider the entire exercise of Travel a monumental hassle, my job does regain some of its original sheen, and there might even be the rare and isolated summer day when I wonder if the cynics don’t have it wrong: maybe the reason I still love my job is precisely because of all these knucklehead passengers.  There will be plenty of opportunities to catch up with Us magazine come Fall.

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