Friendlier skies: The bad old days of air travel may be over

Confession time: I used to have a surly, defiant attitude from the time I arrived at an airport until I headed for a taxi at my destination -- not as boldly obstreperous as Alec Baldwin, but occasionally annoying.

I blame Osama bin Laden for this. Once upon a time, flying was fun, occasionally luxurious, even romantic. Then came Sept. 11, 2001. After the attack on the Twin Towers, as we all know too well, flying changed. Airports become high-security zones and airplanes became like schoolrooms with stern teachers -- flight attendants -- enforcing niggling little rules.

As I stood in interminable security lines after arriving two hours before a flight, I'd fume and think about the Bill of Rights -- a document that apparently held no power inside an airport. Inspections that bordered on strip searches had to be met with submission and silence if one did not want to be taken into custody and barred from a flight.

Once aboard, seats felt ever more cramped, meals became nonexistent, simple electronic devices had to be shut off to satisfy what seemed like absurd fears that a jetliner could be brought down by a live iPod. I got so grumpy about it all that I would resist buckling my seat belt, turning off my phone or returning to my seat when things got bumpy. 

Now, these silly little rebellions are in the past. I have joined the sheep.

I gave up the idea that flying is fun. It is simply a quick way to get from one place to another. I don't expect to be fed for free. After all, nobody passes out beef stroganoff on city buses. I strategize for the security line -- what I wear, what I pack, which line I choose -- in order to run the gantlet as smartly as I can. I no longer fuss about my civil rights; I think of passing through security as sneaking across a border. Low expectations and a Zen acceptance of things as they are have taken much of the aggravation and spiking blood pressure out of the flying experience for me. 

The truth is, though we are never likely to return to the pre-9/11  way of air travel, a lot of things have gotten much better during the last decade. The check-in process is swifter; doing it online saves a ton of time. The security lines at most airports are shorter and the routine is, well, more routine. Once screened by the boys and girls in royal blue, the traveler enters a fairly pleasant place; at the best airports, the waiting area is like an upscale shopping mall. People browse the stores, buy coffee, sit in the pubs, have a meal, plug in their computers at new hubs with plenty of electrical sockets. At the other end of the trip, baggage seems to show up more quickly and predictably.

In a world of anger, frustration and complaint, it is worth acknowledging that something has gotten better than it was. The friendly skies may not have returned, but the dismal decade of air travel seems to be behind us. In this season of summer vacations, that is pretty good news.

Sure, there are still flight delays. There are still occasional outrages when an overzealous TSA screener paws a granny or a toddler. There is still the purgatory of sitting in a middle seat between a fat guy and an incessant talker. But, when the annoying stuff happens, I keep it in perspective. I now think of my great-grandparents who took months to travel from Ohio to Oregon in a covered wagon. Even on a delayed flight in a cramped seat with nothing but snack mix to chew on, I can cross from Los Angeles to New York in less time than it takes to watch two movies. That is travel at a speed my ancestors would have considered nothing less than a miracle.

And I still get free ginger ale.

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