Since my air travel these days is down to a few trips a year, I felt like a novice going to RDU recently for a trip to Billings, Montana. I’d chosen Delta, or, more accurately, Delta had chosen me by offering the lowest outrageous fare (almost $500) RDU/BIL. The high price, combined with my Platinum status, would at least yield an upgrade, I thought. Wrong: still in coach when I checked in the night before, though at least my seats were just behind First in the Economy Comfort section.

I should have known. I was flying out Thursday afternoon, and it looked like every business flyer was headed home. Thursday, it seems, is the new Friday, just like Monday mornings have become the new Sunday afternoons for business travelers. Too bad it wasn’t that way for me when I was flying every week. During three decades of commuting by air, I normally left Raleigh on Sunday afternoons and didn’t get off my return flight to RDU until late Friday night.

I entered the Elite line at Security at RDU, much shorter, of course, than the Everyman lines. Again, I felt like a newbie to the airports when the TSA agents directed me to the “PRE” line instead. Turns out Delta had qualified me for the “Pre-Check” program without telling me. It was printed on my boarding pass, but I had not noticed. It allowed me to go through an even shorter security line and enjoy special security privileges: I got to keep my shoes on, and I didn’t have to remove the plastic bag containing my liquids and gels. The biggest advantage in the “PRE” line was simply saving time because it was so short and exclusive. I was the only one in it when I went through. Even the Elite line had a dozen or so people waiting in it.

After breezing through security, I headed for the Delta Crown Room–oh, sorry, I meant to say Delta SKY CLUB. There, I checked again for an upgrade possibility to no avail. There were two First Class seats open on the first flight (RDU/MSP), and I was number eight on the upgrade list, proving that a Delta Platinum paying a $500 fare these days no longer has any juice. Ditto for the second flight MSP/BIL: I was even lower on the upgrade standby list. No sweat, I had decent aisle seats, so I settled back to have a G&T and wait for boarding.

The RDU Sky Club was packed out that Thursday afternoon. I was told it is always crowded these days, which is good for Delta. But soon there wasn’t a seat to be had in the place. I drained my cocktail and headed for the gate. I asked the gate agent about an upgrade and discovered that I had slipped even farther down the list. The agent did, though, give me new boarding passes in exchange for my shabby home-printed boarding passes (I print on the back of discarded sheets of paper). I’ll explain below why throwing away my home-printed boarding passes proved to be another example of an amateur’s stupid mistake.

The inbound aircraft was late, but the gate agent did a great job of managing the boarding process so that the plane pushed back on time. It was refreshing to proceed directly to the runway for takeoff, passing two aircraft sitting on the tarmac waiting for slots in Atlanta and Chicago (so our pilot informed us). MSP Airport, our destination, was not backed up, and we were soon airborne.

I hadn’t noticed the families seated behind my row had babies with them: not one, or two, but three! Two babies directly behind my head, and one across the aisle. The infants had been quiet during boarding, but as soon as we gained a bit of altitude, they began wailing in unison. Having been through this myself with our kids, I assumed it was the sudden change in air pressure in the kids’ inner ears giving them discomfort. I felt badly for them, but it sounded like an air raid siren going off a foot from my head. Again I proved myself a rusty frequent flyer; I used to always carry disposable ear plugs in my pocket to guard against such events. As it was, I had to make do with tearing off shreds of Kleenex which I grabbed from the lav, rolling up the paper, and stuffing into my ear canals. It worked well to dull the worst of the shrieking, and I was able to read, and even to nap. With three babies in close proximity, one was always crying and screaming, and that often served to set off the other two to join in. Even with my makeshift ear plugs, it was a long flight.

But it was a smooth flight, and the flight attendants were able to complete their full service routines. I was looking forward to using the complimentary cocktail coupon on my home-printed boarding pass to buy another gin and tonic, but then realized that I had tossed it in the trash after getting the new boarding passes from the gate agent. Delta often rewards its Elite flyers who print their boarding passes at home with a drink coupon. Too bad I had ditched mine, another foolish mistake by a guy who should have known better after all my years of flying.

Without the free drink coupon, I decided to wait for a complimentary cocktail in the Sky Club at MSP. I had a 90 minute layover, more than enough time to relax between flights. After landing, I did just that. Imbibing the cold gin, lime juice, and tonic worked a miraculous soothing effect on my wailing-baby-jangled nerves. I reflected on how many small errors and oversights I’d made on just the one flight. I needed to up my game, I thought. I stopped at the Sky Club desk on my way out and asked if anyone had extra ear plugs. Sure enough, one agent did, and she was kind enough to give them to me.

My connecting flight to Billings was over an hour late due to a late inbound cabin crew from Newark. The gate area was packed out with nice midwesterners who were taking the delay in stride. That included the very nice and unflappable gate agent, a perfect Minnesotan stereotype of controlled calm and droll humor a la Prairie Home Companion and the Coen Brothers’ FARGO. His attitude and demeanor made the wait tolerable. I looked around the crowded gate area and saw a lot of babies, an observation that caused a Pavlovian response as I patted my pocket to make sure my ear plugs were still there.

I had plenty of time to take in the people I’d be flying with. They all seemed to be from Billings and were super-nice in a 1950s way that America has mostly lost. More about Billings and its people next week. I settled in to wait out the delay and steel myself for the fitful infants on the upcoming flight.

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