The Process of Flying Is Never Simple

The Process of Flying Is Never Simple

By Gabriela Gil ’20. Art by the author.

I am sitting at the airport for the first time in a year, and I am entertained at the extent to which air travel remains a challenge for me. Having lived in four different countries with extended family in a fifth, I have spent a vast amount of time on planes and at airport gates. However, regardless of how many times I get on a flight to go home, the process of flying is one that I still haven’t quite mastered.

Let’s start outside the terminal. I am dropped off in front of the terminal by the latest in a series of friendly Uber drivers. As he wishes me safe travels, I try to gather my bags, make sure my phone didn’t fall out, quadruple check that I didn’t forget my passport in my dorm room, and inevitably trip over the curb in my distraction. “Thanks, you too!” I reply enthusiastically to his well-wishes. I immediately know better, but by the time I can get a “Wait, sorry, have a good day!” out, he has already driven away, and I am left staring out on the curb in a fluster.

I take a deep breath, and turn to the pile of bags waiting next to me. As always, I have packed way too much, and I have to use both hands to push my massive check-in bag through the automatic front doors of the airport. The hump at the entrance of those automatic doors requires a particularly vicious push, and I wonder: Why do they always put obstacles on the floor in the very place everyone walks through? The small duffel bag I’m using as a carry-on swings wildly as I push, reminding me of a treacherous pendulum that gets closer to yanking me off balance with every swing.

Trying to hold my balance, I look around and try to find my airline. Sometimes it is easier than others, but this time, I find the right desks at first glance. As I drag my bags closer, my sense of relief grows, seeing that the lines are essentially non-existent. Perhaps this sense of relief is misleading, I remind myself, having once tried to check in my bags at the wrong airline to the extreme confusion of the desk attendant, who had (correctly, as it turns out) insisted that I was not registered on any of their flights that day. Not wanting to repeat that experience, particularly the walk of shame (perhaps more accurately characterized as a baggage-lug of shame) that I had had to do to the right airline desks, I pull out my documents and double check the details of my tickets a few steps away from the desks. Okay, I am right.

Throughout this whole process, the airline attendant had been watching me amused, so when I finally get to the front of the desk, with my nearly-overweight check-in bag, duffel bag of death, and handful of documents, she is ready to grab my papers and passport. She asks me a couple of standard questions, and these, at least, I am well-equipped to answer thanks to my brief document review session a few steps back. If only cramming worked as well for my finals. I drop my duffel for the first time in what feels like an eternity, and somehow manage to push, lift, and drag my check-in bag onto the scale.

Now it is time for prayers. Even as someone who wouldn’t consider herself particularly religious, I am sometimes convinced a miracle happens on that scale. With a weight limit of 50lbs, my bag clocks out at a beautiful 49.9lbs. Considering how much I manage to stuff in there, I have to believe that the real weight of the bag is closer to 60lbs, but divine intervention works wonders, and I make it through without having to pay an extra cent. The airline attendant nods her head, confirming the numbers on the scale, and before long, my bag is on the conveyor belt behind her. At least my bag will get home now, even if I don’t, I think as I watch it slowly make its way down the room and disappear from sight. The attendant hands me my boarding pass and returns my documents, and while I haven’t quite made it to the flight itself yet, this already feels like a success.

“Have a good flight!” I hear as I start to gather my duffel bag again.

“Thanks, you too!” I respond instinctively. Oh no. It is the Uber driver situation all over again. It is too late. I can’t change my response, and the person behind me is already coming up to the desk, and I have to move, and… sigh. One day I’ll get that part right at least.

I have to move on from my embarrassment because I’m now faced with the next step of flying: TSA security lines. I am convinced that these lines are purposefully designed to be slightly different at every time I fly. Unlike the airline check-in desks, there is no hope of there not being a line at TSA, and as I settle at the back, I gaze wistfully at the TSA pre-checked travelers, whizzing by the stagnant rows of those of us who have not been pre-approved. Alas, I am not one of them. I’m not even sure how you become one of them. Maybe one day I’ll find out, but today is not that day, and shaking my head, I focus on the task ahead of me.

Okay, shoes? Un-tied so they are ready to slide off. Belt? Don’t have one. Metal in my pockets? Don’t think so, but let me double check. Thank goodness I did because I pull out the keys I had shoved in my back pocket in my haste to leave. Coat? Already draped over my duffle bag next to me.

That is it for my body, and the line is inching forward slowly, so I have time to strategically plan the things I need to take out of my bag. Liquids, gels, aerosols? None over the maximum amount. Laptop and other large electronic devices? I let out an audible groan when I realize that I had packed my laptop at the bottom of my duffel bag. That was going to be a pain to take out, but at least it was the only thing. I attempt to visualize the best way to pull out my computer with the minimal amount of organizational sacrifice, and before I realize it, I have reached the x-ray machines.

It is go time. I grab three trays, lay them down, slip off my shoes, throw my keys and phone onto one of the trays, toss on my shoes and jacket onto the second, and set my duffel bag down. Of course, as soon as I open my duffel, something falls out and disrupts my strategy. The man behind me makes an impatient noise as I lean down to chase the fallen object. I shove it on a tray, not even bothering to look at it, and dive back into my bag to look for my laptop. Despite my best efforts, my bag turns into chaos, but at long last, I manage to grab the computer and place it on the last tray. I push everything towards the conveyor, and after one last disapproving glare from the person behind me, I finally walk through the metal detector.

Nothing shows up on the scanner, and as my stuff starts to show up on the other side of the screening, I grab my open duffel and the three trays to get them out of the way. Of course, there is no place to put them because all the benches are taken by fellow travelers, so I claim a corner of the floor as my TSA recuperation space and begin to put my stuff back together. Here I can take my time, still having an hour before my flight’s departure. After this debacle, it is just a matter of finding my flight’s gate, and thanks to clearly marked signs every five steps, that is one step that goes a little smoother.

It always feels like a miracle when I make it onto my flight, find my seat, and realize that I am finally going home. After shoving my duffel as far as it could go under the seat in front of me, I settle down and breathe a sigh of relief. Now I’m definitely making it home. There are very few things that would be able to get me off of this plane before it gets to its destination now. I rummage around for my self-prescribed plane book as the seats next to me fill up, nodding to my neighbors in acknowledgement of the chaotic journey we all went through just to get on the flight and start the true part of our journey. This time, three years into my time at Brown and after countless flights back and forth, the anticipation and quiet relief of having made it through doesn’t feel any different. And I know I would jump at the opportunity to go through it again, drop-off, check-in, security checks, and all.