Traveling at the holidays is as part of American culture as using the cliché of baseball and apple pie to describe American culture.
Millions of us do it every year between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day, occasionally multiple times in a year. We have movies about the arduous journeys, the joyful reunions, and the foibles of Americana we encounter along the way.
What we do not have, dear readers, is anything about traveling in the age of Pandemic Worship. How has travel drastically changed, how have we adapted, and how might the future of traveling at our times of celebration look in the future?
All these questions are unanswered, and certainly remain relatively undocumented.
Your dear columnist, however, had the opportunity to make a journey across the country (well, mostly across) via airplane—the most impacted mode of transportation. Reflecting on the undertaking with it over, it is not possible to notice how at odds our current flying experience is with our day-to-day living experiences. This columnist, like most of the nation, finds himself based in part of the country where the Cult of the Virus is effectively deader than the dodo.
To be sure, the medical workers of the nation seem overwhelmingly dedicated to its preservation, but that is an outlying subset. Most of us find any precautions more or less a thing of last year.
(Note the use of the term medical workers instead of medical professionals. The past year has exposed too many in the medical related field to be . . . less than professional, and as such do not need the salutation.)
How seriously then would the mandates for travel be taken, and how jarring would they be to see in person?
The Day Before
A number of years ago, I found myself in need of a mileage rewards card. When one’s family is well over 1000 miles away, one tries to find any way to reduce cost of traveling to see them at the holidays. Like most people my age, the Obama years were not good for my finances or credit, and so I was in the position of needing to take the first card to accept me.
This led to me using United Airlines ever since. It certainly beat using Spirit Airlines, which was its own delirious experience, and truth be told they seemed to offer pretty much the same amenities as everyone else—at least at the price point I was able to afford.
United, like so many companies, has made it virtually impossible to use their services or purchase their goods without using the company app.
The days of an understanding human on the other end of a phone line, or the other side of the desk, seem as distant as the days of 99 cent a gallon gas. There are apps for everything: from banking, to entertainment services, to fast food chains. Yes, Virginia, there is a McDonald’s app. One hopes the Grimace is tinkering away on improvements as we speak.
The point is that I have begrudgingly placed the United app on my phone. It allows me to do everything one used to do on a laptop, but on a very small and finicky screen. It also gives me the convenience of storing my credit card information on something very insecure. This kind of peace of mind is truly unparalleled. More positively, it allows me to check in to the flight wherever I may be.
For those who have never traveled by plane, the act of checking in is when you alert the airline you will be showing up. It used to take about five seconds, confirming that you were seated accordingly and what—if any—bags you intended to bring with you.
Today, however, I was greeted with a page COVID related agreements.
1. I agree that a mask is to be worn at all times, except for when briefly eating or drinking, and is to go back up immediately afterward.
2. I agree that I have not tested positive for COVID in the last 36 hours, that I have not been exposed to COVID, and that I am showing no symptoms of COVID.
3. I agree that if I violate these things, among a few other tenets which are lost to memory, that my future flying plans will not be via United.
This is an ominous beginning.
The rest of the day, however, is very pleasant. Even within the city out of which I am flying, life is exactly what it has always been—though this was not unexpected, as your dear columnist has traversed the nation several times during the last few years, and has never noticed much difference, pandemic or no pandemic.
I made my bed in a hotel for the evening, and dreamed of being on a holiday vacation tomorrow.
The Day Of: Parking
Parking at an airport is an uneasy affair. One leaves their car—one of your more valuable possessions—unattended in a usually poorly lit lot for days at a time. Moreover, one is charged upward of 10 dollars a day for this privilege, significantly more in more expensive cities and/or for covered parking and/or for parking closer to the terminals.
This columnist once flew out of Las Vegas, and spent more on his parking than for his flight. While it was a painful charge of several hundred dollars, it did answer the age old question of if a tree falls in the woods and no one is there, does it make a sound? No other person was around per se, but others assuredly heard my expletive laced question of how this could be the correct charge.
But I digress.
Thankfully, this year’s flight is out of a cheaper city with several cheap lots.
There are a few lots labeled “economy” though the cheapest are the ones which read “NO SHUTTLE SERVICE” in threatening red letters. As my car has yet to complain about where I park it, I choose to pick one of these and accepted having to walk, though I am worried that I might be overtaken by a band of marauding urban pirates.
The machine demands a credit card. It informs me that I should take a ticket, but a ticket never appears. My credit card is unceremoniously spat back at me. The arm lifts and I drive in, disconcerted with how I do not have a ticket. Once parked, I meander back to the gate—no other cars have entered since—and see if perhaps it was just stuck. No ticket is stuck, but as my hand is up the machine, a bright light begins to flash.
No human can be seen for miles.
I hurriedly leave, hoping I am not questioned by security and that my car remains parked.
As I walk through the lots toward the terminals, I notice here and there, masks are scattered about. This seems unconducive to my health—assuming the COVID is worse than Ebola—and to the environment. It’s no San Francisco, but the image is jarring nonetheless.
People are wearing masks as they walk toward me from their flights, but there are no signs demanding it anywhere. If they were not to have a mask, one supposes they could borrow one of the free ones I’ve seen. After a solid mile hike, I reach my assigned terminal.
Free Mask Count: 3
The Day Of: The TSA
Before one gets to the actual gates, one must traverse TSA security.
The TSA equipment never seems to change, but the use of it seems to change each time one flies. Bags go on the conveyer belt. No, bags go in the bins, which go on the conveyer belt.
Take out your laptops and tablets.
No, leave them in the bag.
Have a separate bin for your shoes.
No, go ahead and put them in the same bin as your bag.
The whole process doesn’t take long, but it’s a confusing affair.
I approach the first TSA agent, who beckons me over. I am to show him my ID and boarding pass (which is on my phone now because of the app), and he will then have me confirm that I am who my ID says by having my mask pulled down.
My mask pops off by accident and I have difficulty getting it back on. I make a joke about how I should be arrested.
The TSA agent looks me dead in the eye and bluntly says “I don’t care if your mask is on or not, to be honest.”
I see another orphaned mask. Perhaps someone took this agent up on his offer.
The next TSA agent is the one who informs me to go into the machine which scans my body for bombs. It is the full body scan, which caused controversy for the fact that it was getting nude images of the people who went through it. The implication was that the TSA agents might be keeping these for personal use, though having seen the body types going through this machine, having to look at them at all seems a grim affair.
I walk into the body scan machine and put my hands up, like the way BLM protesters sometimes do. This is not my choice, there are instructions on the machine. The machine makes a panicked beeping noise. I am told to step back, and the TSA agent screams “Calibrating!”
This is apparently the signal to go through the older style metal detector. For the first time in years, I am not selected for the pat down. As I sit on the bench putting my shoes back on, I see another orphaned mask.
Free Mask Count: 5
The Day Of: The Gates
It is my firm belief that airport terminals are designed by airlines in a bid to make them so tortuous as to browbeat one into spending money on an airline’s airport lounge. The seats are oddly shaped and there is no way to lean one’s head back and relax. You begin to empathize with the homeless in an airport terminal: they have no place to rest their weary feet, and for a few hours, neither do you. It’s not bad enough to describe as hellish—one is after all not actually homeless—but it’s a series of minor inconveniences, all compounded at once.
There appear to not be any airport lounges in this wing, which is comforting in the sense that at least I know I won’t be uncomfortable alone.
I make my way to a restroom and camp in a handicap stall. I remove my mask, which immediately brings relief, and pop two Excedrin. I decide I will stay here until a rush of people comes through, when my hiding spot will be exposed. As I wait, I play on my phone and have time to think about the silliness of this entire affair. Most of the nation is completely ignoring this at this point. We are likely more exposed to germs in our day-to-day lives. And while airports are places where people from all over congregate, you are not getting up-close and personal with the other travelers.
There are, assuming one does not run around licking doorknobs, probably fewer places you are *less* likely to contract a virus.
As a rush of humanity comes in, I am forced to reapply my mask and venture back out to the terminal. There is a discarded mask on the bathroom floor. Perhaps it was orphaned in some fit of pro-oxygen hubris.
Once outside, I am presented with a problem: I must continue wearing this mask, but am decidedly in favor of oxygen. A restaurant will give me a place to take it off, and so I find the only sit-down restaurant in the terminal. Alone at the bar, I order an iced tea, but guilt order a glass of wine. (It is 9:45am but normalcy does not reign supreme here, besides, if I get lucky, it might mix with the Excedrin.)
After a tip, these drinks—which I effectively only order so I have access to life giving oxygen—will cost me nearly 30 dollars. The amount itself is not unaffordable to your dear columnist, but the principle of the thing bothers me. I have just paid 30 dollars for air. This thought prevents me from watching Western Kentucky battle Appalachian State in some Z level bowl game. Western Kentucky is scoring a lot. At least someone is happy.
After nursing the drinks for as long as I could, it was time to leave. It is 11am, and I still have one hour and 45 minutes until my flight.
I make a second run at encamping in the bathroom, and am grateful I can return to my previous spot. A second mask has joined the previously orphaned mask in this location. Perhaps it is me who is dysfunctional. Perhaps it is me who should rip off my sign of oppression and declare myself to be a free son of Columbia. Then again, I have already dropped a noticeable amount of money on this trip via plane tickets, rental cars, hotels, and other expenses. I don’t exactly want to write off that money as sunk when it is clearly not.
I soldier on, and leave when the next rush of passengers comes in. The time is 11:45. I move to the gate I am to use, stand in line for boarding group one, and wait. While I am waiting, I learn I can move my mask out with my tongue to let extra CO2 out and extra O in. It fogs up my glasses rather badly, but this loss of vision is a small price to pay.
Free Mask Count: 7
The Day Of: The Plane
Last year, when these kind of theatrics were more commonplace in our society, airlines were doing a thing where you boarded the plane back to front instead of front to back. If you had a first class ticket, you could get on whenever you wanted, which thwarted the entire concept, but it was a small price to pay in Clown World for the feeling of safety, I guess. I don’t know.
This year marked a change back to normalcy, and in that sense, I got my first win of the trip. I am allowed to board first, and take my seat in the plane. I am handed a sanitizing towelette—which I promptly put into the magazine bin in front of me and forget about—and reminded by all three flight attendants that my mask is to stay on at all times.
As my dead-eyed, fellow passengers file onto the plane, we are inundated with announcements about masking, and the agreements from our check-in earlier. Nobody seems happy, and so rather than continue to watch the misery, I busy myself with the plane’s Wi-Fi and the app.
Last year, I had the misfortune of not being prepared to entertain myself on this long-haul flight. I paid for Wi-Fi on my kindle, then learned I could not stream video. I had to have the United app for that. I had the app on my phone, but had not paid for the Wi-Fi service on my phone. The United app was not available for the Kindle. With no book, I had to stare at the back of a seat for four hours.
This year, I came prepared, specifically because I remembered that the United app had offered “Home Alone” as one of my movie choices.
This year, no such option was available. I watch Batman Returns instead.
Ah, a holiday classic.
I am not able to begin watching the movie until about 20 minutes in, because of an inordinate number of announcements. We are reminded to keep our masks on several times. We can only purchase drinks if we have set up contactless payment on the United app (I have not, and so I will be flying sober).
A meal will not be provided, but a snack will be provided for first class, and snacks will be available for purchase in coach. The snack is some oddly healthy bars and crisps of varying edibility.
Keep your mask on at all times. No smoking. Keep your mask on at all times. Oxygen bags will descend from above if needed. Keep your mask on at all times. Don’t block the aisles. Keep your mask on at all times. Insert the tracking suppository immediately. Keep your mask on at all times. I’m not sure if the second to last one was real. I was very lightheaded.
Unable to freely breathe, I am left with only one option: Constantly go to the bathroom. I go so often that the cabin is surely convinced I have a pronounced kidney malfunction. As I cannot breathe, I cannot truly enjoy Danny DeVito’s performance as Penguin, but I do still manage to get a kick out of Christopher Walken’s performance as Gavin Newsome. On one trip, I see an orphaned mask. Perhaps masks are like socks, and are supposed to be changed regularly.
My plane lands. Huzzah.
Free Mask Count: 8
The Day Of: The Car Rental
I must take a train to the car rental facility. Nobody is wearing a mask on the tram, and I see no evidence of sanitation steps. COVID must not like public transit.
Employees at the rental car facility wear masks like chin straps. I am in rapture over being able to breathe.
When I am done signing, I must go outside to collect my keys.
The kiosk says I must wear a mask to enter this business.
The business is outdoors.
I pay more for the car rental than I do for my flight. Thanks, Brandon.
Free Mask Count: 11
As I drive down the expressway toward my parents’, I am left to ponder the state of American air travel. I am left to conclude that flying in our modern age is excruciating. It is an unforgivable affair for which there is neither remedy, nor recourse. Time constraints and inclement weather still make it the best mode of transportation, but it is ghastly beyond the pale.
More importantly, it is so jarring when juxtaposed with the daily lives of people across most of the nation.
The rest of the world has moved on from fearing germs.
They are here, and are part of life. It is only in our cobalt blue enclaves where this paranoid cult still runs rampant. It is my sincere hope to never do this supposedly fun thing again, but deep down, I know that next year I will be having my body scanned, my nude form on display for a TSA agent.