Altar Call Ė Opelika-Auburn News
Walter Albritton
November 4, 2001

Reflections on what may have been my last airline flight

The next trip I make I will either drive or walk. It was not the fear of terrorists that prompted my decision. I just donít like the way air travel is being handled now. If this wrinkles your brain, then I am sorry, but thatís the way it is.

I do care about the economy. I will regret it if the airlines go belly up. But I will try to find other ways to help our sagging economy.

What is wrong? That is a long story, but let me begin with the matter of time. I had a reservation before September 11, but the terrorists unraveled it. The airline advised me that instead of coming back from Phoenix on Saturday, I would have to stay over until Sunday. So I amended my plans. No big deal. Until you consider when Sunday would begin, but more on that later.

Letís start at the beginning. I had originally planned to fly out of Montgomery. That was changed to Atlanta. To catch a 7 a.m. flight out of Atlanta, you must be in line at the ticket counter two hours before departure. Since Atlanta is on eastern time, that means you must walk into the terminal at 4 a.m. Alabama time. If you live in Opelika, you get up at 2 a.m. to make that schedule work.

Fine. You get in line and joke with the other early birds until the ticket counter opens, later than expected. Ticket in hand, you go to the next line a half mile long, the line for the security check. The added inconvenience you can tolerate, of course, because they are doing this for your own safety.

Through security you are ready to go, boarding pass in hand, but discover that you have an hour and ten minutes wait until departure. The screen tells you that your flight is "on time." But you learn that those two words do not really mean "on time." Every "on time" flight is at least 45 minutes late.

Why? Various reasons. At one gate they tell you they are still cleaning the plane from the last flight. At another they tell you the security screener has not arrived so you cannot board until the security people arrive. At another they donít tell you anything. Itís like "weíre running this airline the best way we can and we are not in the mood for a lot of dumb questions about when we may be leaving."

To add to our protection, the airlines no longer serve food. Yes, you can buy alcohol at 7 a.m. but no food. Nothing but coffee, water, soft drinks, or alcohol. So realizing that you will not have breakfast or lunch before reaching your destination, you look for food. And you can find it too. You can buy a three-dollar donut and a three-dollar cup of coffee. That gave me indigestion just to think about it!

Who sells the coffee? Starbucks. Why so expensive? Beats me. It didnít taste any better than the cheap stuff we drink at home. Unable to imagine that I could survive eating a donut or sweet roll so early in the morning, I opted for a bagel. And I canít stand bagels. My stomach screamed in protest. Mash up a bagel in a cup of black coffee and you can understand the protest.

Gazing at the other passengers I concluded that "strange" is very popular. One guy had on a leopard suit. I figured he had to be a terrorist in disguise. What does the face of a terrorist look like anyway? I saw several faces that would stop a clock, but none that fit the image of a terrorist.

When I went through the security line, I got so confused that I forgot to reclaim my car keys. I was halfway down the escalator when I realized I had left my keys. I saw no other solution but to walk back up the escalator. I started walking back up, and ignored the people who figured I had lost my mind. But with a heavy bag in hand, I could not make it back to the top! It was like a stress test and I was failing.

Finally, two steps away from the top, I gave up and started back down, exhausted. Hardly able to walk, I staggered to a wall and waited for the end to come. My life was over. It would end in the midst of all these strangers. No one to care. No one to hold my hand when cardiac arrest hit me.

Just then a security guard walked up and asked if I was alright. "No," I said, "I am dying." I was not kidding. "Do you want me to call a paramedic?" she asked. "No," I gasped, "itís too late." She persisted, "Whatís wrong?" By now I was able to talk a little better so I told her I had left my keys upstairs and almost killed myself going back up the escalator. She offered to go get my keys for me.

As soon as she left another security guard walked up with a policeman. Same questions. Same answers. I think they were wondering if I had lost my mind. About that time the other guard returned with my keys. I thanked them all, and boarded the train for "Concourse C." I could hardly believe that I was still breathing.

On the plane at last I push my 44-inch posterior into the 28-inch seat and fasten my seat belt. It was amusing to think how much a seat belt would help me if the plane crashed. But rules are rules.

Once in the air the seat back in front of me drops back within six inches of my face. In self defense I drop my seat back also. Now the fun begins, trying to sleep in such an awkward position. The only comfortable seats on an airplane are in the first class section, and who can afford them?

As soon as you get a little comfortable, the passenger next to me needs to go to the bathroom. To let her out I have to stand up. When I try to stand I almost fall, and grabbing the seat back in front of me, I also grab a fistful of blonde hair. The lady is not amused but restrains herself and does not hit me.

To get to Phoenix you fly from Atlanta to Memphis, then on to Phoenix. I was there to perform the wedding for my grandson, Matt, and his lovely bride, Jodi. They were married in a pretty little chapel in Mesa. Our wedding was the first of the day, at 10 a.m. They were getting prepared for the next one when we left. The chapel hosts weddings every day I learned.

Guess how much fun it is to return from Phoenix to Atlanta. My wake up call was at 3:30 a.m. I left the hotel in a shuttle at 4, arrived at the terminal at 4:25, and began standing in line at the counter. They opened the counter 35 minutes later. Then the same routine: stand in line to go through security. This time they asked everyone to take off their shoes for inspection. So we all complied, and early in the morning, the smell was not all that bad.

After that stand in line for 20 minutes to get a three-dollar cup of coffee. No bagel this time. One a month is enough for me. Again "on time" means we have a plane, and we will travel, sometime this morning, so be patient.

Our return trip was through Detroit. That makes sense, doesnít it? Go from Phoenix to Detroit so you can get to Atlanta. After getting up at 3:30 a.m., I drive back into beautiful Opelika at 6:15 Sunday night. Too weary to do anything but crash. So glad to be back home I was about ready to cry.

My next trip will definitely not be on one of the big birds. I am driving, walking, or staying at home. Somebody else will have to save the airline industry. For now I am grounded. I feel like the old man who said, "If God had wanted us to fly, he would have given us wings."