Recently I embarked on a five-city hop from coast to coast on a United Airlines 757 — a journey that is typically a seamless six-hour nonstop flight. And to keep it real, I did it all in economy class and without the aid of my iPod (painful to say the least). I took off at 9 a.m. EDT in Boston and touched down in California at 7 p.m. PDT that evening, just in time to turn around and take a red-eye back east. I like to fly, but not even I would do something so silly merely to spend quality time cramped in a tin can barreling westward at 500 knots. My real motivation was research for a forthcoming travel article on the state of air travel and the concept of the journey as the destination.
United Flt. 881: Dep. Boston 9:00 a.m. Arr. Chicago 10:42 a.m.
I’m ready to throw up because I didn’t sleep at all last night. Flight boards on-time, and I find myself squashed between two women who make no distinction between my personal space and their personal space. The woman to my left is old and chatty. “I’m going to visit my son,” she tells me as if I care twopence. “He’s a businessman. You know, those businessmen travel so much these days. They bring their computers everywhere!” she tells me as I furiously pound on my BlackBerry, trying to get out one last message to the grounded masses before the door closes.
Meanwhile, the vixen to my right immediately plugs into her iPod, seemingly oblivious to the space surrounding her own seat, and proceeds to kick me and even step on my feet for 867 air miles. (This flight, by the way, is only the second one in my entire lifein which I found myself in a center seat.)
United Flt. 749: Dep. Chicago 12:05 p.m. Arr. Omaha 1:32 p.m.
The pilot welcoming passengers on board at O’Hare is ominously serenading us with his harmonica. The woman in front of me jokes that he sounds a bit too much like the pied piper for her tastes. (This pilot is apparently a well-known figure because I later learn from my brother that he himself has had this Denver-based pilot on two recent flights.) My flight is uneventful, though the emaciated woman next to me — headed to see sorority friends at the University of South Dakota — asks me accusingly if I’m from Omaha before we deplane. (No, thank you very much.)
I knew I was stepping into dangerous territory when said woman and the other passenger seated next to me began a “Nebraska vs. South Dakota, Which is Better?” argument as soon as our 757 hit the tarmac in Omaha. Fists were practically raised. Thank god I wasn’t in the middle seat to get in the way of this verbal brawl. This is my first visit ever to Omaha. I’ve been dying to get here. Eventually, I zoom past the multiple Omaha Steaks airport kiosks and head outdoors to plant my feet on Nebraska soil for a couple hours before flying on to Denver. It is an oppressive 75 degrees here, and I’m amazed at how lush the surroundings are, unlike the muted brown badlands I saw on a 2001 trip to neighboring South Dakota.
United Flt. 209: Dep. Omaha 3:45 p.m. Arr. Denver 4:17 p.m.
I’m sorry, I partially slept through most of this short (and empty) hop from the Central to Mountain time zones and have nothing major to report. It’s a good thing I was able to pass out for a bit because we zoomed around thunderstorms the entire way, making this a pretty jarring flight. I awoke when the pilot came on to report that we were making our bumpy, thundery descent into Denver and, “The flight attendants cannot get up to ensure your seat belts are fastened, so just make sure they are.” The lightning bolts were amazing!
United Flt. 435: Dep. Denver 5:30 p.m. Arr. Oakland 7:00 p.m.
I just tried getting on a flight to SFO instead of OAK, but everything is oversold right now. Crap. This flight, too, is packed to the gills. I chat with the man sitting next to me about California politics (“It’s crazy they just stopped work on that damn bridge isn’t, it? Meanwhile, we’re still paying.”) and begin to wonder why only people on flights to the Midwest, San Francisco, and British Columbia are so chatty. I’ve obviously lived in Boston too long.
We make the usual descent, shooting over San Jose and tracking parallel to San Francisco Bay. After nearly 40 hours without a significant amount of sleep, I am ready to keel over and die. God, I wish they had a real Peet’s in the airport. I’ve flown in and out of Oakland more than dozen times in the last year or two, and I never cease to be amazed by how shoddy and third-world the terminal is.
United Flt. 178: Dep. San Francisco 11:35 p.m. Arr. Boston 7:47 a.m. (next day)
A typical foggy and rainy day at delay-prone SFO. For some reason, my flight was the only United red-eye tonight that was not cancelled. I was hoping it would be nixed, however, so I’d be forced to stay overnight and rest in a real bed instead of a slim coach class seat. I arrive at SFO a mere 45 minutes before my flight and find that the United EasyCheck-in kiosks are not spitting out my boarding pass, telling me instead that this flight has been closed. I begin to freak and head over to a huddle at the counter, whereupon I learn that someone had mistakenly closed the flight too early.
I run clear across the terminal and get to the gate just as a bleary-eyed gang of Bostonians is beginning to board. Thankfully the flight turns out to be completely empty, which allows me to stretch out across the entire row. The flight attendants are all men, all blond, and all very attractive.
Four hours and 47 minutes later, after tossing, turning, and praying for the sleep gods to knock me out, we slam down on the runway and it’s back to life Boston.
The graphic evidence:
Top: To the airport, descending Into the tunnel off the Zakim Bridge in Boston; the crazy neon lights between concourses B and C atChicago O’Hare International Airport.
Middle: At Chicago O’Hare, getting some fresh air after bumpy 757 ride no. 1 of the day; queasy in Omaha, Neb., on the roof of the parking garage at the Eppley Airfield, after bumpy 757 flight leg no. 2 of the day.
Bottom: Pulling up to the gate at Denver International Airport, cramped into seat 22A of a United 757, after ride no. 3 of the day (this one thunderstorm-filled); after landing at Oakland International Airport, a quick BART ride across San Francisco Bay brought me to this view of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, before later hopping on a red-eye back to Boston fromSan Francisco International Airport.