Thursday, January 30, 2014

Flying Naked, De-Icing, and In-Flight Etiquette

Passengers by mdt1960
Passengers, a photo by mdt1960 on Flickr.
I don’t fly often, but I’ve flown enough in my lifetime where getting on an airplane is no longer the novelty or thrill it once was—akin to an amusement park ride. Further, my sorties over the years are punctuated by long spans of time on the ground and away from anything to do with air travel. As a result, the changes in the airline industry which have developed slowly and gradual over the years for the common traveler are rather pronounced to me. Where most air travelers take little note of the ever-evolving modifications in airline travel, I often find myself rather flabbergasted.

One thing I still haven’t figured out yet are the details of proper flying etiquette. Given everyone has a smart phone or some kind of electronic tablet to keep them occupied (even if they aren’t permitted to use the phone itself), is it polite or rude to engage someone sitting next to you? I remember air travel back in the day as a setting where you were certain to have a conversation (delightful or painful) with a fellow passenger. Given the ever-growing presence of personal electronic devices and noise-drowning earphones, I’ve received more than my share of cold shoulders in any one of my friendly attempts to engage a fellow traveler. And given these distractors, who has time to chat with a stranger anymore?

Perhaps the regular traveler hasn’t noticed, but airports are bigger than ever. They are small cities with a population in flux, some even have their own zip code. Today’s major airports are more like shopping malls and pedestrian freeways under one big roof. You can buy anything, but you had better use a turn signal when walking through the terminal unless you want to be trampled. I remember years ago I was lucky to get a cup of coffee in the St. Louis airport late at night. That place was a cemetery.
Chicago O'Hare by mdt1960

Chicago O'Hare, a photo by mdt1960 on Flickr.

Which brings me to… why would you want to buy “anything” at an airport? Jewelry? Fine Clothing? A Harley? Something for your pet? Really, I’m going to buy something for my pet at the airport? Perhaps the rationale here is today’s airports are catering to the poor planner who happens to possess plenty of spending cash—albeit someone who forgets to pack their clothes or forgets to get that diamond ring in his I’m-going-to-ask-her-to-marry-me junket. That said, it’s not a stretch in justifying the coffee services of Starbucks, a magazine/book store, or places where one can grab a sandwich or drink, and even a store that offers accessories for your iPad as you wait for your next plane.

In my recent journeys by air, I’ve had a thorough introduction to the de-icing procedure. It reminds me of cell phones: how did we ever get by without it? Further, when did ice start gravitating to the wings of a plane… what is it about wings that attracts ice? During the late 70s-early 80s, I clearly remember flying home several times in the winter as a college student and never did I see a de-icing truck or operator. How did planes fly without de-icing back then? One would think it involves a simple squirt on the leading edge of the wings, but the truth is, de-icing is like a car wash for airplanes.
Spoiled View by mdt1960
Spoiled View, a photo by mdt1960 on Flickr.

Admittedly, although the de-icing process adds 20 more minutes to sitting inside a grounded airplane, it is rather intriguing to watch this activity. First, the orange spray and then the green liquid goo—obscuring the view from the window seat that I worked so hard to get. It seems like overkill to me since I couldn’t see a sign of ice anywhere on the wings. Given its new psychedelic de-iced finish upon completion, the plane appears to be more prepared for a Grateful Dead concert than flying. The blurred window view reinforces this notion.

I think my preference for winter travel is shifting back to driving.

As a side note, I did a little research on de-icing while the plane sat there during the process. I turned off my iPhone’s “airplane mode” long enough to find out—hoping I wouldn’t endanger our flight as it was getting hosed down… hosed down with ethylene glycol that is! That’s right, ethylene glycol—a.k.a. antifreeze! And all this time I had thought that the reason one never sees animals around an airport is due to the loud planes. I never would have guessed that the varmints that once lived nearby drank up the sweet-tasting de-icing fluid during the winter season and then crawled over in the nearby weeds to die.

In addition, while in Minneapolis, I observed a de-icing operator lugging a de-icing hose around the perimeter of a plane in zero-degree temperatures and …he wasn’t wearing any gloves! I had to wonder: does de-icing fluid warm one’s skin and taste sweet?

Other random flying observations…
Wilford by mdt1960
Wilford, a photo by mdt1960 on Flickr.

• Whatever became of the hot-looking stewardesses that gave the airline industry its great in-flight views? My jaunt between Minneapolis and Cleveland was hosted by Wilfrod Brimley’s clone asking me if I wanted coffee, juice, soda, or water? That was downright sobering.

• While about to depart from Minneapolis airport and its sub-zero temperatures, the pilot announces that they were having a small problem that was being looked into by the mechanics. I’m sitting there thinking about the conversation that’s going on between a couple of mechanics looking for a “small problem” on a plane in bitter cold conditions. Wouldn’t the conversation gravitate quicker to a solution like, “Ah, it’s probably nothing too important… it’ll be OK. Let’s go get some coffee.”

• What is it about the anxiety of going through the TSA security? I don’t think it has anything to do with being pulled aside and accused of terrorism. In my case, it seems more about the fast scramble to unravel everything about your attire and baggage and then reassemble it without holding anyone up. There is something incongruent about having to take off your shoes when you are late in catching a plane.

•I tried the new in-flight Internet service. At first it was a bust, then I read the fine print—you have to pay for it while the plane has to be over 10,000 feet. Nothing is free on a plane anymore; just a small bag of nuts and four ounces of a nonalcoholic drink. Not very impressive.

•Recharging Stations for your electronic devices… OK, I get it, but still it seems a bit weird to dedicate actual space in an airport for electrical plugs. I wonder what would happen if a person used their portable hair dryer in a recharging station.

Airplane Signage by mdt1960
Airplane Signage, a photo by mdt1960 on Flickr.

•Beginning in 1988, regulation was introduced that banned smoking on 80% of flights (two hours or less). In 2000, the no-smoking ban was expanded to include all flights. Today in 2013, one would be hard pressed to find an airline that allows smoking on any flight. With that in mind, I find it a bit odd that the “no smoking” signs are still present in the jetliners of today. It seems that enough time has passed that everyone knows by now that smoking is forbidden on an airplane—especially since that’s the case in the airports too. Besides, isn’t it silly to make a lighted sign on an airplane that is never turned off? They should simply build a non-illuminated message into the back of the every seat—directly in front of every passenger.

•There are somethings that haven’t materialized in air travel that I predicted would have been the status quo by now. Why isn’t there a camera mounted in the cockpit or nose of the plane for passengers to view on the video screens in front of them (embedded in the back of every seat)? For years we’ve listened to the conversations between the crew and air traffic control, why can’t we watch them fly the plane too? Also, a camera mounted on the belly of the plane would be a nice addition for a view straight down. And why can’t the industry provide passengers with a map on these same screens so we can know exactly where we are as we look out the window for recognizable landmarks? These features should be standard fair if a passenger doesn’t want to pay for a movie on these same video screens.

• “…airplanes are a kind of time machine. The flying aluminum cans that transport us across distances that once required weeks, if not lifetimes, are not like the time machines of fiction. We can’t just transport ourselves to any place or time.” —friend and colleague Rob Breeding

•Finally: The new TSA body scanning machine (Advanced Imaging Technology)… it’s the closest thing to my father’s idea about how to prevent terrorist from boarding a plane—make everyone fly naked. Perhaps TSA could make their money back on these big-ticket machines in selling the scanned images to their owners for a nominal charge.

Postscript: I dare any in-flight magazine to publish this story. On a related note, here’s a little more information on TSA and their “advanced imaging technology” operations.