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A modest proposal for serious change in air travel


So I just got back from Maryland, a state that's all about water and boats and blue crabs, which is great, and very cooling. But it gets hot there, in a steamy, suffocating way that's nothing like our heat but just as oppressive. On the Eastern Shore, it doesn't feel like the air might burn you; on the other hand, you can't move.

Anyway, eastern Maryland is a midsummer treat for the desert dweller's eye. Every time we go back, when we get to Annapolis and go to a restaurant on the water and sit down to eat and watch the sailboats, something inside of this desert dweller relaxes: Just look at all that water.

Of course, in between here and that table on the pier lies packing, a drive to the airport, a flight to Dallas-Fort Worth, either a wait or a rush amid its limited charms, a flight to Baltimore/Washington International Airport, picking up a rental car and the ever-fraught Escape From BWI, which used to involve enough tension for a cinematic car chase, if little of the action.

Since they seem finally to have finished roughly a half-century of construction around the airport, that wasn't so bad this year. Nary a blinking yellow light or obscure directional sign. Where's the challenge in that?

It is probably evident by this time that, while I like being other places--sometimes, for a while--I do not enjoy the actual experience of travel. And that is because travel--how do I put this?--sucks. In particular, air travel, in the memorable words of my colleague Tom Danehy, sucks big monster weenies.

It is a cramped (more about that in a minute), crowded, tedious, vaguely demeaning experience that gives us all a taste of what living in a manmade world would be like. On all four flights, we were firmly and repeatedly instructed to "only use the lavatory associated with the class in which you are seated," which added insult to the injury of not being rich enough to fly first class. (The weird, inhuman dialect of the airlines deserves study. "Please check around you to make sure you have not forgotten any personal items." Personal items?)

Yes, you can read trashy novels, eavesdrop on your neighbors, eat the excellent sandwiches you brought from home and feel smug, drink beer in airports and engage in other enjoyable distractions, but nothing can disguise or make up for the sheer physical discomfort of sitting in a very confined space for several hours at a time. Of course, this gets worse as the space becomes more confined, and in our last American Airlines plane--from Dallas-Fort Worth--the rows on our side of the aisle were less than 11 inches apart. I know, because I measured from the front of my seat to the back of the one in front of me with the American Way in-flight magazine. (Hey guys! How about you lose the magazine and use the savings from eliminating its large payroll to allow each passenger some legroom?) Less than 11 inches means that my knees always touched the handy-dandy pocket of the seat in front of me, and were jammed into it when the guy leaned his seat back. And I am a person of average height. What the flight was like for the tall people on board, I cannot imagine.

Naturally, I have a solution. The problem with air travel is that, as a passenger, you are a hybrid of person and cargo. To the airlines, you're basically a potentially troublesome, 160-pound personal item requiring periodic hydration. So why not fully recognize this fact and create a more comfortable and realistic travel (shipping) experience?

Reconfigure the inside of passenger planes to resemble a bank of mail slots--jumbo shelving units with many vertical dividers. Then take a hint from sci-fi and knock out the passengers before "boarding," and slide them, prone and unconscious, into their personal slots, where they would sleep peacefully and without risk of deep-vein thrombosis for the duration of the trip. At the end, the cargo would be extracted and awakened, and would then go about its business refreshed.

I'm only partly kidding. I recently had a screening colonoscopy--middle age is a bitch--and it's true what they say about the drugs. Gastroenterologists have refined anesthesia into an art. You float lightly out of consciousness and back into it in the gentlest, sweetest way, awakening exactly on time with no ill effects. So tell me, if I can be absent for an uncomfortable medical procedure, why do I have to be on hand for three stale hours as my mucous membranes dry out, my ears pop and venous blood pools ominously in my ankles?

People, let's do it: All we have to lose is our pretzels.

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