westcolumbiascblog

Planes, Trains, Automobiles, and the Modern Traveler

In Uncategorized on February 16, 2011 at 9:13 pm

January 29, 2011, felt to me like a date somewhere in the distant future. In reality, at the time of this story, it was less than a month away. January 29 is my mother’s birthday; this year she would be turning 90. My sister from Minneapolis had just phoned to inform me that there was a celebration being planned. My initial thought was that I would send my mom money. I reasoned that she could probably use it, and besides I hated to fly. Unfortunately my thoughts were actual words that had tumbled out of my mouth in the presence of my wife. I could see by the expression on her face that I was about to be questioned about my sanity.  After a brief discussion I decided to go.

For me, going someplace and completing arrangements to go someplace are two separate activities. And despite frequent “Did you make your reservations yet?” reminders, I somehow had let three weeks slip by unnoticed. I learned two important lessons when I forced myself to confront my travel plans. Airlines do not like procrastinators, and they also think you should be financially penalized for not living in a major city. The original fare my wife had graciously looked up the day of the phone call from my sister had now more than doubled.

Panic stricken and fearful of the deadly “I told you so,” I began to search frantically on Google. I felt like a gambler looking for a longshot. I keyed multiple start dates, multiple return dates, and multiple airports; roll the dice…no luck. Orbitz, Priceline, Travelocity, roll the dice…no luck. Any time, any day, I will help load the luggage, roll the dice…no luck. With perspiration beading up on my forehead, I decided to go “all-in”-one last roll. And like magic, after several flashes from my computer screen, there it was, almost hidden at the bottom of a column of $600 plus fares. Air Tran Economy Fare $298 was shining like salvation. I had hit the Jackpot.

It did not matter that I had never heard of Air Tran or that the flight originated out of Atlanta, which is approximately 200 miles from my home I had to have that fare. I quickly scanned the small print. “Flight times would be assigned after purchase.”  I tried to calculate how early I would need to leave my home if it assigned a 5:00 a.m. flight. It was impossible; I could not think straight, I was out of options. I mashed the enter key to purchase and held my breath. Lady Luck smiled down on me that day as 3:45 p.m., non-stop from Atlanta to Minneapolis flashed up on the screen.

Four short days later I started the first leg of my journey by driving from Columbia, SC, to Atlanta on Interstate 20. I suspect that the scenery along the route was pretty unremarkable, since I found myself admiring the geometric symmetry of cell towers and imagining the various water towers that dot the horizon as alien spaceships with their support legs acting as tentacles destroying everything in their path. I also noticed a large percentage of billboards that were advertising for advertisers. It occurred to me that an economist might be able to predict a recovery by monitoring billboard activity.

I finally arrived at the airport and managed to navigate into the general vicinity of the Air Tran terminal. Of course keeping with the theme of my trip I chose economy parking. Within minutes I figured out why it was called economy parking. The airport could not afford any signs directing people toward the terminal. I grabbed my carry-on bag, locked the car and began to meander in the general direction of where I had entered the lot. After several minutes I changed strategies and decided to follow the fence line hoping for a break where I might be able to escape.

High above the parking lot a light-rail train rattled across its track. If only I could get to that train, I thought. I looked around for any means of ascending to that great height.  Not seeing anything that resembled stairs or an elevator, I began to wonder if economy parking people were somehow expected to scale the support piers manually. This productive thought process was interrupted by a break in the fence, where I was able to slip through and cross a road that led into a covered parking lot. This lot I assumed was non-economy parking. Still not seeing any signs about where a terminal might be, I peered across the dimly lit space and could just make out what looked like a set of double sliding doors at the far side of the lot. I took that as a positive sign and walked in that direction.

My hunch paid off and after passing through the doors and up an escalator I found myself in a grand ticketing hall, which to my surprise had very few travelers for such a large space. After finding the Air Tran section, I was directed to an e-ticket kiosk. After several attempts of swiping my credit card with the mag stripe facing multiple directions, the kiosk told me I was not recognized. I nodded my head in agreement knowing that it would have been too expensive to have had someone input an economy fare. I moved over several feet to interact with a real human, which turned out to be a pleasant experience. The human had no trouble finding me, and she was able to print my boarding pass and direct me toward the gates in less than a minute.

Holding my head high I walked past the bank of Kiosks on the way to the gate. I knew I had arrived at security when I saw multiple lines of people alternately facing each other. I wondered why theme parks and airports employ the same methods used for cattle to herd people through a narrow channel. I took my place in line and took note of all the people that were facing me in the adjacent line. Each time I rounded a corner into the next aisle I was fortunate enough to be able to see all of the same people again going the other direction.

It looked like all of the security procedures were the same as I had remembered, except for a large capsule-looking device that resembled a high tech, state fair ride. This must be the controversial full body scanner that peeks beneath a person’s clothes, I thought. I noticed people were being selected randomly to enter the chamber. I tried not to stare, knowing that someone was currently looking at them naked. I felt guilty by association. When my turn came, I was blandly waved through the normal metal detector. Apparently nobody wanted to see me naked, but it did leave me thinking about what the selection criteria might be.

I had my shoes back on and laced up, my ID back in my wallet, boarding pass back in my carry-on bag, phone, keys, voice recorder in my pockets, and I was ready for the next step.

 In the Atlanta airport subway trains whisk you between concourses. I descended a large flight of stairs to reach the trains. A female computer generated voice tells you valuable information like “Hold on, the train is about to depart,” and “Hold on, the train is about to stop.” Good information since it seemed like when it arrived at each new concourse 50 mph to a dead stop happened in about 100 feet.

I had now arrived at the concourse for my flight and the sign indicate gates 1 through 22 to the left. I checked my boarding pass and saw that I was assigned to Gate 3. Fantastic, I should be very close. As I began to walk down the corridor I realized the gates were in descending order. The economy fare strikes again.

 The long walk gave me an opportunity to experience an additional problem for air travelers. The men’s rooms are tricky places, because travelers are no longer supposed to be separated from their luggage. At some point in a restroom, setting down your luggage becomes imperative. I am suspicious about what might be on the floor in the general proximity of urinals. I would suggest that a shelf above the urinals would be a great solution. This would solve a sanitary issue for our luggage, except for the most errant aimer.

I arrived at my gate with one hour to spare before departure. Three hours of automobile travel, one and a half hours of parking, walking, ticketing, security, riding the train, going to the bathroom and I was ready for the main event- 908 miles in the air. I felt a real sense of accomplishment knowing all of the obstacles that I had overcome to get this far. I could now proudly call myself a modern traveler and enjoy all the benefits associated with that designation.

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