When I landed at DIA on March 9, 2020, I surrendered my role as a frequent flier. After a year as an entirely terrestrial creature, I realize how poorly suited I was to the conduct required of denizens of the cultural and social habitats of the airport and the airplane.
Plodding, slogging, and lumbering have never been my preferred practices when it comes to moving through space. But airports require exactly that form of locomotion. I fear I will never entirely lose the memory of several grim times when the DIA security lines wrapped around to the baggage area. Enrollment in TSA Precheck eased some of this misery, but there were occasions when even that privilege offered no relief from long, slow trudging.
I am very fond of human beings, but that fondness is suspended when they are wrestling heavy bags into what are called overhead compartments, and when the head at risk is my own. And yet empathy is a powerful force in life, and my misery sometimes escalated when the heads located beneath those unwieldy belonged to people who were often oblivious to the peril taking shape above them.
And then, with boarding complete, it was time for me to get reacquainted with this fact: sitting for hours in a confined space has never been my strong suit in life.
Why did I keep returning to airports and airplanes?
Like an effectively trained and conditioned animal, I knew that there was an intensely appealing reward that would be mine if I stayed docile and compliant. If I kept myself properly subdued, in several hours, I would get off the plane, and “subdued” would disappear from the picture.
I would be greeted at baggage claim by delightful people who would welcome me, ferry me to and from hotels and nice restaurants, and then take me to lecture halls and classrooms where I would have joyous experiences giving guest lectures and public speeches, with those performances always followed by a return to the nice restaurants.
At some point, my hosts would be stern and merciless and deliver me back to the airport. But now I would carry with me a new supply of memories of recent good times that I could contemplate as I moseyed along in the line and submitted to hours of sitting still.
Alert readers will have noticed that I am dodging a historical question: Did air travel become more trying, unpleasant, and uncomfortable in the last couple of decades?
Even as I have heard many repetitions of this lament, I can’t break the habit of placing the inconveniences of air travel in the broad framework of human suffering. Tedium in security lines and restlessness with enforced immobility, and even coping with delayed flights announced with very sketchy explanations and even sketchier predictions of anticipated take-off times, have never qualified for my “oh, poor me!” category of human experience.
Plus, I have my own odd twist in historical timing. Airplane seats have unquestionably gotten smaller and more tightly packed. But this historically documented shrinkage coincided with another historically documented shrinkage, as my mid-life conversion into an exercise nut created a noticeably smaller version of me, requiring a much more modest allocation of space.
Thus, I do not think that, by any serious measure of human misery, air travel became significantly more difficult to endure in the last decade or two.
And yet airline executives are surely aware that, in the last year, a sizable percentage of one-time frequent fliers have awakened to the mismatch between their intrinsic character traits and the concessions air travel requires. I can only assume that those executives are pursuing conversations with psychologists, neurologists, and other professionals in mental health, commissioning them to design and offer workshops that would restore people like me to the state of passivity and submissiveness that we had once cultivated and maintained.
Should those workshops become available, we will still have a choice.
We can sign up for the workshops and return to the airport.
Or we can refuse the retraining and reconditioning and stay grounded at home.
I think I know which way I will go.
Putting up with airplanes and airports has given me enormous holdings in treasured memories. Over and over, when I landed, I was rewarded with great company, treated to hours and hours of stimulating conversation and storytelling.
So where do I sign up for that workshop?
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