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NaNo Day 2: The Joyless Miracle of Air Travel

I live in Alaska off the road system. This means that every time I leave town I either have to fly or take the ferry. For vacations within Southeast Alaska, I have been known to take the ferry. It is a mostly comfortable and civilized way to travel. It is soothing to see the waves and the scenery go by. Sometimes there are whales, sea lions, birds or other wildlife.

For business travel, the ferry is impractical. It takes three days to go from Juneau to Bellingham, Washington. Anchorage is a two day drive from Skagway, where I could take my car to get onto the road system. Today’s pace of life makes such extended travel unreasonable when attending conferences or giving workshops, so I fly.

Air travel is a genuine miracle. A few weeks ago, I traveled from Juneau, Alaska to Washington DC in just 12 hours. This included several hours worth of layovers. Trying to get to DC on a combination of ferry and highway driving would take over a week. One way. Aside from the speed, there are the sights from the plane window – if you have a window seat. You are literally vaulting through the heavens and getting to places on timescales undreamt of by most even 60 years ago. It is a legitimate miracle of the modern age.

And yet, the more I fly, the less I like it. All of the post 9/11 security theater and airports as constitution-free zones is part of it. It adds hours to air travel without visible benefit. It’s made me more careful of what I say or even what I read in airports and on plans. Most of the time, TSA agents are professional and even friendly, but getting the wrong person is a bear. For years, my CPAP machine was flagged on just about every flight for extra screen. This has let up, but now no matter who well I empty my pockets, remember to take off my watch and belt, it seems like the screening machine flags me for a pat down. Usually on my right ankle. I’m trying to be more careful with my socks, but I shouldn’t have to be.

It’s not just the security though. Seats have gotten narrower over the years. I’m probably a bit more sensitive about my personal space than most and I tend to contract rather that fight for my space. So fairly often I’ll spend a flight with my arms scrunched together, trying not to bump arms with the next person. The airlines could space us further apart, but profits. Also, it could just be me, but it seems like there are more cancellations for mechanical issues. I don’t begrudge needed repairs, but air travel feels less consistently reliable than a decade or two ago. Or perhaps this is just a consequence of flying more.

Flying isn’t always miserable. My flight today put me in a window seat with an empty space between me and the other person in the row. That was a treat. But a rare one.

Overall, flying is more of a necessary evil than a joy. Considering the miracle that air travel is, that’s a shame. Or maybe it’s just me.

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