Flying the Friendly Skies

For me, the thought of having to make another business trip is like having to see a dentist. I’ll go, but I won’t like it. Vacation is a whole other matter. I can endure the drudgery of selecting a week’s wardrobe if it’s for a good cause. Collecting seven pairs of underwear and socks can be a pleasure if you’re daydreaming about tapas in Barcelona or catching a train to Paris. But revisiting somewhere that you know beyond a doubt that you’d never live is a punch in the gut.

I was reading a short travel essay by Paul Theroux the other evening. He pointed out that very little gets written about the tedium of travel. My guess is that’s because people generally don’t want to experience the tedium twice. I know for sure that I intentionally avoid thinking about travel time spent strapped to a seat in a plane. Unfortunately, that’s my primary means of business travel these days. So in between trips, I waste time lying to myself that I’ll never have to do it again. I realize it’s a lie, but it’s consoling.

The anxiety begins to build the week before actual departure. It’s like preparing for prison. I’m never truly convinced that I’ll return home. The thought of encapsulation weighs heavy. Rubbing elbows with a stranger stuck in the center seat is certainly easier than San Quentin, but I still cringe. I’m hardly a germophobe. I’m absolutely comfortable with most any food drop rule. It’s just about being compressed.

After diving into my seat to avoid the exasperated faces following me into what could become our community casket, I sink into anonymity. Once the aisle clears, it’s nothing but profiles, bald spots, and clumps of hair bobbing into view from this perspective. Then the countdown to arrival begins.

Eventually I crawl over my seat-mates’ possessions for a brief escape. I’m always somewhat surprised to see the gaping mouths and varied expressions occupying the seats behind me. My legs are often numb at this point. It takes the momentum of the tilting aisle to get me moving towards a restroom the size of a phone booth. Swaying from headrest to headrest, I make my way forward trying not to let either hand land on a head or a stranger’s face. Once I reach the end of the line, I feel relief only to immediately begin dreading the return trip. Worse yet, I dread the possibility of the seatbelt sign going on and everyone being instructed to return to their respective pods without the benefit of urination.

This is the tedium travel writers try to avoid. They rather start the adventure with scenes of the descent onto a fresh terrain to be explored; or the discovery of what lies beneath endless rows of palm trees; or what they view from the terrace once they’ve retired into a comfortable cotton robe. While in the unwritten Travel & Leisure assignment, the business traveler wrestles their computer case from under their neighbor’s seat and bumps their unsuspecting head on the storage bin above. It feels so good to get out. But the ordeal has just begun.