Just The Point: Back in the air again post-COVID

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A Winters Express opinion column

By Richard Kleeberg
Special to the Express

Remember when flying was easy, uncrowded, and fun? That’s in the distant past.

My wife and I took a weekend trip to Boston last month for a memorial service. It was our first time in the air in over three years.

TSA security in Sacramento was a breeze. Only one person was in front of us, no shoes or belts had to be removed, and the agents were all friendly. We were quickly approved to go to the gate. I used a mobile boarding pass on my phone, for the first time, instead of a printed pass.

I thought that maybe flying would be fun again. I was wrong.

Years ago, each airline had a small three-sided box at the gate, and they’d test your carry-on bag to confirm it would fit. But those carry-on measurement boxes are gone.

Only one carry-on bag, plus one smaller bag is allowed now. But most folks had two large carry-on bags, and some had suitcases so large I could have put my wife inside one. (This would have been a great way to save half of our airfare.) Since airlines now charge $30 to check even one bag, most passengers see no reason at all to follow the carry-on rules.

The airlines still insist that all passengers line up single-file, boarding only at the plane’s front door. But since passengers with seats in the back of the plane are required to board last, they must wait, struggle, push, shove and wait some more, as everyone boarding in front of them stops at their seat row, stands in the aisle, crams their huge bags into the overhead compartments, and debates which seat is theirs.

I’ve never understood why the airlines refuse to also use the back door of the plane. If passengers boarded the plane from both ends, the process would be more than twice as fast, and far more efficient.

We landed in Phoenix, changed planes, and took off, heading for Boston. But after just one hour, the Captain announced that one engine had malfunctioned, and we returned to Phoenix.

After we sat for an hour, a new airplane was ready. Since it was an identical plane, everybody had the same seat assignments. Boarding should have been routine, as most of us thought we still had our mobile boarding passes. But we discovered that our boarding passes had automatically disappeared just a few minutes earlier, at midnight. That forced the agents to print a paper seating list, and check and match each person to the name on the printed list. It was so slow.

As we boarded that second plane to Boston, I noticed two airline mechanics entering the cockpit; I knew it was a bad sign. After sitting onboard for an hour, I was not surprised when the Captain announced that the radio navigation system had failed, and it would take at least another hour for a new “plug and play” system to be installed. Finally, four hours after we first left Phoenix, we took off again for Boston.

Returning to Sacramento was an even worse experience. Although we arrived three hours before our flight, we worried when we saw the lengthy line of at least 400 people in front of us. And nearly all of them had at least two massive bags.

We crept through the line, weaving back and forth within the rope barriers that kept us all in place, like cattle at a meat-packing plant. Several irritated male TSA agents yelled directions to the herd, “Remove your shoes! Keep your belts on! Use only one tray for your bags! Use two trays if you have large bags!” (Yes, they often shouted conflicting instructions.)

After we finally cleared the long line, we entered a smaller area that could reasonably hold 40 to 50 people. But there were a couple of hundred of us stuffed in there. And the agents continued to shout.

The TSA Photo/X-Ray machine beeped and buzzed as I went through, detecting a small two-ounce tube of vaseline lip treatment in a front pocket — an item I have carried in my pocket with no problem on dozens of flights over the years.

An officer took me aside, and conducted an “upper leg and genitals” search. With my belt undone, the top button of my pants open, he placed one gloved hand in my pants, and slipped it over, under and around. He then allowed me to move on.

I was in middle seat for our five-hour flight to Phoenix. In the window seat next to me was a very large man, sleeping, with his legs spread incredibly wide apart. One of his legs extended into the storage area in front of my seat. For hours his leg pressed against me, while his ample arm hung over the armrest, flopping against my side. Over and over again I pushed his leg and arm back to his assigned space, but each time, within minutes, he would stretch and slide back into my space. I was so happy to get off that plane.

Our final flight, back to Sacramento, was quick and uneventful. We were done with our first flights since COVID. Flying was crowded, exhausting, and mind-numbing. The days of “fun” flying are gone.

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