816 North Opinion

Susan Vollenweider: Infrequent flier filled with angst, but finally, a familiar face

There was a window of time between air travel being a dress-up activity and now. I miss that window.

The first time I boarded a plane I was 16. My mom made me wear my nicest clothes. Because the experience was unfamiliar, I didn’t know what I didn’t know so I wore the nice, but not necessarily comfortable, clothes.

Later, her words rang in my ears as I dressed to board a plane that would take me to college. I silenced them. By that point air travel was familiar to me. I knew that no one would scoff at shorts and tennis shoes. I knew I didn’t need to watch the pre-flight instructions (which never made sense because at that point in the trip every seatbelt had been fastened — why tell us how?). I knew to ask the flight attendant for the soda can; I knew they were flight attendants and not stewardesses. I knew that I could fit as much stuff as I could carry under my seat or over my head.

After college I was paid to dress nicely for the weekly travel of my job, so I did. With a purposeful stride I zipped through airports that were as familiar to me as my office. It was the days of favorite travel agents who booked everything, of unrestricted and free luggage and some fairly decent in-flight meals. This time is the window that I miss.

The drinks and meals have lessened to drinks and a snack, and now just a drink … maybe. We are our own cyber travel agents; airline security rules and airports change frequently. Other than the instructions to fasten a seatbelt that is already fastened, there is no familiar to me anymore. Every trip feels as new and different as the first one I took at 16.

I boarded a plane recently. I had dressed thoughtfully: shoes that easily slid off, good socks and no belt. I pulled behind me one small suitcase containing a mix, match and re-wear wardrobe. A tote on my shoulder held items that would need to be pulled out for inspection.

I undressed to go through security wondering how often I would have to do this for it to feel familiar.

The bins confuse me: how many should I use? Do the cords for my electronics need to be taken out of the tote? Jewelry: on or off? Should I apologize for running out of quart-sized bags?

The angst continued: Am I standing in the body scanner correctly? Was anything stolen when my bags were out of my sight? How much awkward is normal whilst redressing and repacking the tote?

The flight filled my head with questions, too. Whose bag is in my seat’s overhead bin space? How do I tell the man next to me he’s sitting on my seatbelt? How do I tell him I don’t like that our thighs are touching? How little water do I have to drink to remain hydrated, yet keep me from the horror that is an airplane bathroom?

After landing, I entered an airport that used to be as familiar to me as my office but looked very different. I needed to read signs to find my way.

Finally, at the base of an escalator I saw a woman with hair a little whiter than the last time I saw her, her frame a little smaller but with a smile just as large as the day she sent me on my first flight at 16.

At the end of a day full of formerly familiar, her hug was just as I expected and always as I remembered.