Monday, August 26, 2013

Flying's not what it used to be

Waiting in line for take-off at Charles-de-Gaulle Airport
Taking a flight somewhere used to be fun.  It used to be exciting.  Now it’s just a stressful drudge.
     The first flight I took was when I was 3 months old.  And I’ve been doing it ever since.  So have my children.  My daughter’s first flight was at age 6 months and my son’s at an elderly year and a half.  But it’s not child’s play anymore; it’s deadly serious.  And airlines aren’t giving out little pilot’s wing pins to wee passengers any more either... sometimes not even a few crummy crayons (usually three - the primary colors - so I guess technically that means six).
     It’s also exhausting.  And I’m not even in the air yet.
     So here’s a word to the wise for those traveling on a long-distance flight out of Paris Roissy Airport (otherwise known as Charles de Gaulle, or just CDG):  wear comfortable shoes and dress in layers.
     And when they tell you to show up 2½ hours ahead of your flight?  Do it!

I ordered a taxi in advance.  10:30 for a 1:30 flight.  I live in the north of Paris - Montmartre - otherwise I would have added another half hour to that.
     The taxi ride was the easy part.  The driver was talkative and smiley, which is not always a combination you get in Parisian taxi drivers.  I told him the history of the ancient cedars at the airport and he told me that the fairly-new Paris soccer stadium (the one that looks like a flying saucer) may be razed because it’s losing money.  You learn something new every day.
     We got to the airport in good time.  It was about 11:00 when I came through the doors of Terminal 2E, which handles most long-haul planes.  And then the drill began.  I’ll try to summarize it for you, so you’ll know what to expect.

Hurdle 1 - Get a boarding pass
     Although you now have to check in on-line ahead of time in France (as of last year), I had opted to just confirm and have the boarding pass waiting for me at the airport.  Next time I’ll print it out in advance.  That way I think I could avoid this step (but I’m not sure).  There are many machines on which to check yourself in and only one or two people to help, if you need or want help (because all this used to be done for you at the check-in counter - which you still have to go to just the same - and I resent doing someone else’s job and not getting paid for it... but that’s another subject for another day).  So as I was saying, jammed in a finite space are many airplanes-worth of passengers and only one or two agents.  It’s pandemonium.  But as crazy as this is, it’s the easy part.  Then you move on to...

Rat Maze 1 - Registering your luggage
     Although I travel light, having a closet of clothes already at either end of the trip, purses now count as one of your two authorized pieces of cabin “luggage”, and I also have a computer so I’m up to my limit with just that... although I know there are people who unload their camel at the door to the plane and arrive with far more than the authorized two items.  So it means that I have to check my small "carry-on" bag.  I’m working on a solution to this which would involve not bringing anything for anyone else, not even gifts, and even as a favor.  Seems a bit Grinch-y, but...
     This phase involves winding back and forth between those drawn ribbons, which is why I call it a rat maze.  And bigger planes mean more passengers, ergo longer lines.  Once you reach the counter, it’s a piece of cake.  Your bag disappears and you’re left with a heavy computer bag to schlepp on your shoulder instead of hitching it to the wheel-able bag which is fast disappearing down the conveyor belt, hopefully destined for your flight and not the flight to Hong Kong.

Now you get some exercise because you hit the slalom course through the airport hall, congested with people with cartloads of suitcases and screaming children chased by shouting parents.  There used to be a quiet short-cut, but it’s been sealed off since my winter trip, probably in a continuing attempt to prevent extraneous, and sometimes ill-intentioned people, from getting past the departure hall.
     Then you hit the major snag:

Rat Maze 2 - Passport control
     If you’re not crew and you’re not Special, you file into a bottleneck comprised of all the other people traveling steerage.  And that means more back-and-forth trudging between those same damn crowd-control ribbons.  The maze is 13-layers deep here, and the passenger population so dense that the speed at which you advance is brought almost to a standstill.  This is the perfect time to bring out those headphones and plug into your iTunes, or make any number of last minute calls.  By the time you make it through the maze, you’ll recognize so many of the faces of the strangers in the line that you’ll think you’ve just gone through Freshman Rush.  There was one dyed-blonde Japanese lady whom I’d be able to pick out of any crowd anywhere, and probably for the rest of my life.
     While you stew in your juices (figuratively and, by now, literally), you’re subjected to advertising for all the brands you’ll find further on in the duty-free area, if and when you ever make it that far, as well as informative programs on large screens overhead.  The one I enjoyed the most was  a drawing of a cart with a ham hock, a chicken ready to roast and a hunk of cheese, each with a big red X across it, and a heading informing you in French and English that “Diseases don’t recognize borders”.
     When you reach the last two zigzag rows, you feel as elated as if you’d won the lottery.  Then you start counting down.  Only 7 more people and then me, only 6, only 5...  Reaching the stern face of the border police behind their plate of glass is almost a bit of a let-down.  All that crescendo for just a fleeting glance and a rubber stamp on your passport.
Terminal 2E - Building B
     Once through there, a look at your watch tells you it’s already noon.  It’s taken one hour to get this far.  Now if you’re really lucky you’ll be headed for one of the K gates, because they’re right there, behind the border police.  If not, it’s off down a side hallway to the monorail shuttle.  First stop, L gates - this is the extension they had to build when part of Terminal 2E collapsed shortly after opening.  While they repaired it, people were sent to a Lego-like building erected almost overnight, and that's L Building.  If you’re leaving from one of the M gates, like I am, stay on the shuttle until the next stop, the latest addition... for the time being.  Then go up the escalator and into...

Rat Maze 3 - Security
     Here you’re greeted by huge signs that inform you that “Influenza H1N1 is rampant in China”, in case that’s where you’re headed, as many seem to be, judging by the fact that they’re Orientals speaking Mandarin.  (Unless it’s Cantonese; I’m sketchy on Chinese.)  Then you’re literally herded to different sections of the maze, whose crowd-control ribbons are reconfigured by a human Cerberus as new passengers appear.  You’re met with a large screen overhead that warns you of things that could happen to you, or things not to do.  For instance, you’re not allowed to have knives or guns.  Who the hell doesn’t know that already?
     The back-and-forth lines here are long, but only four-deep, so you feel like a winner.  You see some of the same faces from Rat Maze 2 and feel you should probably say hello, shake hands and exchange addresses, but you’re pretty tired of all this by now so you don’t.  You take off earrings, empty pockets and still set off the alarm because your bra has an underwire, so you win a pat-down.  When the French TSA lady had me turn around and started on my back, I asked her to scratch a little lower because I had an itch... and she actually laughed!  Personally, I was amazed I could still muster up a sense of humor by this point.  In spite of my special computer case with the viewing window, I had to take out my computer, and even my external hard drive.  At the end of the line, people just left their empty trays on the conveyor belt so it all backed up into the x-ray machine.  I decided to do my Good Deed of the Day and piled them up off the belt.  Well, it also allowed me to recover my computer so...  But the x-ray lady thanked me anyway.
Duty-free, with Vietnamese air crew
     Now you're free to go spend all your money in the duty-free shops and buy things for all the people back home who haven’t had all this fun.  But wait!  It’s not over!  You still have...

Rat Maze 4 - Boarding
     This you can skip, if you decide to wait until everyone else has boarded.  Of course you run the risk of not having any space in overhead for your computer and all those gifts you just bought in duty-free, but hey.  I tried to fake an injured foot - which actually it was because of that skateboard a kid slammed into my foot last night at the railroad station - but they weren’t equipped to deal with that at the gate; I should have thought of it earlier and rode to glory in a wheelchair.  I remember my father doing that, but he looked - and was - older than I am.  Still, I just may try that next flight.
     Which will come all too soon, given my present state of mind.

So please heed my warnings.  Flying isn’t fun any more.  Even if you don’t have a fear of flying and your flight is terrorist-free and doesn’t get hijacked (a once true and present danger that seems to be passé now).  Of course, Air France does offer free champagne and after-dinner drinks once you’re actually up in the air - a detail to be remembered when choosing an airline.  It’s just the getting airborne that isn’t fun any more.
     Bon voyage.

P.S.  CDG Airport has A/C, but it’s not up to cooling off this many people, in spite of the high ceilings, low outdoor temps and cloud cover.  Thus the admonition to wear layers.  You have been warned.

1 comment:

  1. I'm dreading my next domestic flight. My last was September 2005. I have yet to fly across an ocean.