European Vacation: Part III (Getting There)

Rome Airport (Just Kidding)

So far, in recounting my recent European vacation, I have talked about the German and Italian people, the drivers, my impressions of cities, food, etc. And the news on that front was mostly good.

Now comes the bad news. Getting there.
Short of teleportation (a technology that sadly is not yet perfected) the only practical way to get to Europe from California is by plane. Yes, you can book a cruise and go by boat, but that takes more than a week from this part of the world. And then I would be worried I would have to row part of the way.

So it’s the airplane or nothing.
In my case, it was via American Airlines. Now, I am an AAdvantage member, which means I have accumulated thousands of miles–currently about 96,000 of them. When I booked my ticket almost six months before my intended departure it was with the idea that I would use my miles to upgrade from steerage to business class.
However, I received a rude awakening. Because the tickets I purchased were very inexpensive ones, I learned that I would be at the end of a long line when it came to upgrading. Those with full fare economy tickets and a myriad other people with more perks would be allowed to leapfrog over me in the race to upgrade. Buying a business class ticket outright was not an option–not when a round trip from L.A. to Munich cost about $8,000.
On the American Airlines AAdvantage website there is a button that reads: “Buy Upgrades.” That should really read: “Buy Upgrades–Ha!” Because even with more than 111,000 miles I was not allowed to do so.
I am 6’4″ tall. So the idea of setting in the back of a plane for 10 hours like Gulliver in seats that are built for people 5’8″ is tantamount to undergoing some medieval form of torture. Not only could I not find room for my knees and feet, by the time I reached London’s Heathrow Airport, my knees looked like they had been beaten with rubber mallets. For most of the trip my feet were stuck in the aisle where they were continually stepped on and kicked by a parade of passengers on the way to the broom closet American Airlines calls a toilet.
For those of you who have tuned into the new TV drama called Pan Am set in the 1960s, let me assure you that THAT was the golden age of air travel. 
Stewardesses (that’s what they called them back then) were attractive and polite; passengers actually wore shoes and normal clothing, not flip flops and dirty shorts. And there was leg room–even in the economy class cabin.
In those halcyon days when I was a foreign correspondent, I knew people at the airlines with clout and was often upgraded automatically–no mileage expended, no begging reservation clerks or airline counter personnel. Alas, these days I am just another wandering peasant consigned to the torture chamber called economy class.
Today, traveling by air is something akin to putting a grubby bus into a cannon and blasting it toward some far away target. Inside people are crammed together in intolerable intimacy. Flight attendants are short-tempered, passengers are petulant, the food is awful, the air is foul and sleeping (at least in steerage) requires training as a contortionist.
Germany and Italy were wonderful once I got there. But getting there challenged my body and mind in ways I hadn’t anticipated.
First, there were the never-ending security checks. Now, I don’t really mind that so much. I would rather spend a few more minutes on the ground getting patted down, x-rayed, zapped, and electronically undressed than watch helplessly as some religious or political fanatic attempts to blow up the plane at 35,000 feet.
Having said that, it seemed there was no end to the security checks. After taking off and putting on my shoes so many times, I began to understand why there were so many passengers wearing flip flops, dirty feet and all.
The smartest thing I did was travel with carry-on luggage only. That meant no waiting at the luggage carousel for a suitcase that may or may not arrive. I had everything I needed with me on the plane–along with a small backpack for my laptop, Kindle, I-Pod and noise-cancellation earphones (a must on long flights if you intend to get any sleep at all).
The problem is that a lot of other people are doing the same thing. That means the ridiculously tiny overhead storage bins cannot accommodate all of that carry-on luggage and if you are one of the last people to board, you can forget finding a place for your carry-on bag.
The most irritating thing I noticed is that people sitting in one area of the plane often put their carry-on bags in the overhead bins in other areas. Which means it is highly likely that someone who boarded before you has already taken the storage space above your seat. On one flight I watched a man angrily toss someone else’s bag out of the overhead bin above his seat. That almost set off a fist fight, until a flight attendant (not a Pan Am stewardess) interceded and moved the encroaching passenger’s bag to the front of the plane.
“You can pick it up on the your way out,” she said. Problem solved. Not really. Airlines are creating more problems than they are solving by jamming too many people and their bags into planes that have too many seats and not enough storage.
Air travel today is not meant to be pleasant…it is meant to be efficient. Air travel 30 and 40 years ago was a relatively pleasant experience. And it was still efficient. I actually enjoyed it–unless I was flying into a war zone.
The difference between then and now is that planes were not configured like buses  and those who traveled in them were a classier group of folks–or at least they took some pride in their appearance. Today, air travel has been reduced to the lowest common denominator–hence the great unwashed, dressed in tank tops, grimy shorts, flip flops and reeking of body odor. Not a pleasant prospect when you are confined inside a metal box for 10 or 12 hours.
The one bright spot in my travels with American Airlines was that I was able to use miles to upgrade to business class on the final 5 hour leg of the trip home–from New York to Los Angeles.
What a difference. I could actually stretch out my legs and I had more than enough room for my carry-on bag and small back pack. When I arrived in Los Angeles I was tired, but  my legs, feet and body didn’t ache as though I had been subjected to some ancient Chinese torture device.
I do believe there is a remedy for some of the problems I have cited here. It is quite simple. Require airline CEOs, members of the board of directors and the sadists who design airplane interiors to sit for 12-15 hours in those God-awful economy class seats next to the malodorous bathrooms and noisy galleys. Perhaps then they will learn how appallingly awful they have made air travel.
Of course, you shouldn’t hold your breath. Those are the people who always fly first class. And they don’t have to use their miles to do so, either.
So how will I get to Europe next year? I am looking into that. I plan to consult a physicist to see how far along teleportation technology is.
If that doesn’t work maybe I will have myself deeply sedated and shipped in a coffin. At least I will arrive rested, without aching knees and legs.
Someday, I hope, I will be able to say: “Beam me to Munich, Scotty” and find myself seconds later at the Oktoberfest in a beer tent along the Wirtsbudenstrasse drinking a liter of Augustiner.  
Now THAT’S the way to travel!

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