Hellishly “normal” flying again

July 20, 2021

At some point during World War Two the U.S. military was credited with originating the acronym “SNAFU” which stands for “situation normal: all f*cked up.”  SNAFU sprang to mind last week when I flew with my wife and daughter on Delta from Billings (BIL) home to Raleigh (RDU).  Whatever was “normal” pre-pandemic flying is baaaaack!  And it ain’t pretty.

I’d originally booked an easy connection from Billings to RDU via MSP—just two flights.  But Delta has constantly changed its schedules this year, in the process eliminating my Twin Cities connection.  Instead, I was rerouted to Salt Lake City (SLC), then to Atlanta (ATL), and finally to RDU.  Three flights. 

Still, I wasn’t too worried because I had snagged a reasonable first class fare when I made the rez months ago before the current summer travel boom.  Sitting up front usually takes the sting out of inconveniences like multiple connections. 

Trouble was, my wife and daughter had decided later to join me, and though on the same three flights going home, they were in economy.  First class seats were gone by the time they shopped for fares. 

My wife and daughter are veteran air travel troopers and don’t mind sitting way in the back of coach—a nightmare to me.  Being a good dad and hubby despite my loathing of sardine class, I offered my wife and daughter my front cabin seat on one flight each.  That way the three of us would get a turn up front on one of the three legs. Arriving at the airport, I chose the first (and short) flight from BIL to SLC to enjoy pointy end comfort and to stretch out in seat 1A of a Delta E175.

The Billings airport is very modest.  It’s a homey, small-town facility in a fast-growing city (now reported to be 138,000 population).  The gate area was packed out, as was every seat on the plane to Salt Lake.  It was mid-summer, so I wasn’t too surprised.

However, the reality that “normal” air travel volumes had returned hit me hard when deplaning in SLC.  It was literally wall-to-wall travelers, a sea of people that hearkened to 2019.   We were swept along the concourses in the tide of flesh to our connecting gate, arriving after boarding had commenced.  I entered the jetway and found my seat 2J on a Delta international A330, a sleeper seat, from SLC to Atlanta.  Pretty soon even the capacious front cabin was a din of noise and activity as every seat became occupied.  I had put my bag up just in time.

My plan was to give my super-premium seat 2J to our daughter so she could get something to eat en route to Atlanta.  She is a vegetarian, and the tight connection had prevented us from stopping in the over-crowded Salt Lake City airport for food.  I knew there would be at least a snack box in first class on the three hour-plus flight.

Trading seats with my daughter, I made my way back amongst the hordes to sit with my wife in 14H.  Thinking as I went how much I dread claustrophobic coach.  Repeated announcements spoke the obvious that every seat was full and please to “take your seat” as soon as possible to aid in an on-time departure.  Soon we cattle were buckled into our cramped stalls in the back of the big plane.

I was reminded that the A330 is configured with just two seats on the outside aisles, making the experience less painful than I feared.  Once airborne, my wife and I soon dozed off.  I woke up in time to be offered a beverage.  “Great,” I said.  “I’ll have a Coke Zero—the entire can, please.”

Whereupon the flight attendant laid down a 7.5 oz. can.  She was surprised that I was surprised that Delta has replaced 12 oz. cans with the cheaper tiny cans in coach.

And I had my choice of a 0.5 oz. bag of almonds or cookies. But not both.

My wife asked for orange juice and received an even smaller container than mine: a bit over 4 ounces.  7.5 ounces was looking pretty good, after all.

14H is low economy, not even Comfort+.  I kept hoping our daughter was enjoying the first class service in 2J.

Napping after the beverage service made the distance to Atlanta seem shorter, and soon we were pulling up to a distant F concourse gate.  Our connecting flight to Raleigh was leaving from the A concourse, nearly as far as one could go on the underground train (only T is farther).  Again the airport was awash with travelers after we finally got off the full flight.  We joined the human torrent to the escalators down to the train.

We were lucky that the F concourse is the first place to board the ATL plane train.  An insistent loud message played over and over between terminals: “KEEP SIX FEET DISTANCE!”  Yet every car on every train was packed as tight as Tokyo commuter trains.  There was not even six inches distance between riders, let alone six feet.

By the time the train stopped at the C concourse, there was no more room for people to get on.  Again, “SNAFU” popped into my brain.  The Atlanta Airport was a nightmare, just like it always was. Everything was back to normal and all effed up.  Just a non-holiday Monday normal.

The ATL/RDU flight was the icing on the cake, a 757 scheduled to leave at 929p that suffered one delay after another.  First, late inbound cabin crew, then slow boarders—obviously leisure travelers with little sense of urgency, and finally the aircraft had to be refueled at the gate. Once again every seat was filled, but on this one I had paid for both my wife and daughter to upgrade to Comfort+ seats, the two stand-alone seats at the second-left door.  At least they would be somewhat isolated.

My wife insisted I take the first class seat, which was 1C.  I get thinking, yeah, wow, first class, where the cans are 12 ounces and the nuts come in one ounce bags. A regular paradise. 

I was real glad to touch down finally at RDU, even if late and weary.  All flights full to the last seat with people pushed and shoved up against one another in the boarding and deplaning scrum.  “Keep six feet apart!” came the announcements.  SLC and ATL airports as crowded as Grand Central Terminal on any day at rush hour. Welcome back to “normal” flying.

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