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Maxed Out

Flying the friendly skies

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I do not consider myself a violent person, indeed not even a particularly angry person. But I have a deep pool of empathy whenever I hear a story about air rage. I don't have that same empathetic feeling for tales of road rage, sports rage, boarder rage or people-talking-at-the-movies-during-the-quiet-parts rage, but the less egregious bouts of air rage I understand. There but for a chubby person in the seat between me and the aisle go I.

All things considered, I'd rather drive three days straight in a closed car with a chain smoker than fly most commercial airlines.

But fly I did last week. When my mother found out the bones in her right leg had actually been made out of recycled Hershey bar wrappers all these years instead of hardened calcium, I decided to fly down to Phoenix and do whatever I could to aid in her recovery. She made this shocking discovery by tumbling down a hill and, according to the orthopaedic surgeon who used more hardware to put her back together than it takes to build a good sized Ikea bookshelf, "Snapped it like a dry twig."

I would have driven down in Mello Yello, the erstwhile Westfailya, but her recovery is only expected to take six months to a year. Besides, I've made the mistake of driving an un-airconditioned VW bus to Phoenix during the hot part of the year - all months not ending in "ebruary" - one too many times for even me to not fully grasp the unpleasantness of that idea.

I was thinking about air rage while I was booking my ticket on Travelocity's Web site. I'd never bought airline tickets directly through the Internet. I'm not even sure "Internet" was a word the last time I bought airline tickets. Everything was going ticketyboo until just after I crossed the screen of no return. That's the one that has a big button on it saying "Purchase."

If you click on that button the next screen you see says "Sucker." No it doesn't. It does say, however, there are no circumstances known to man under which you can now change any single detail of the flight you just booked without incurring a penalty larger than the national debt of Chad, wherever that is. That warning is just above the teeny, tiny notice that Travelocity will be sending your "paper" tickets by stagecoach to a post office near you.

Calculating the odds of a Web site, reputed to be headquartered in a suburb of San Antonio, Texas - whose address contains those trust-building words "unit number" - having a hope in hell of getting a paper ticket up to Whistler within 10 business days when there's an intervening three day weekend of which no American is even remotely aware, make hitting this week's Lotto seem like a pretty shrewd bet.

The ticket didn't arrive by the time I had to leave for the airport. The sun rises in the east.

I apologized in advance to Terry, the ticket guy at United's desk at Vancouver, and told him I was about to make his day, which didn't seem too hard given his day couldn't have started more than 30 minutes ago since it was only 6:30 in the morning. "No problem," Terry said with more cheeriness than anyone should have at that hour.

"No problem" to Terry apparently includes the concept of paying again for a ticket I'd already paid for once. But he did manage to get me on the same flights I'd previously booked once I assured him there was a ticket out there that definitely wasn't going to be cashed in.

Everything was back on track and going well. At that hour, the drug dog was nowhere in sight to mistake the lingering aroma of last night's barbeque for something illicit and I breezed through US Customs with no more than a wink and a smile and a few semi-legible scratches on the declaration card.

I found my seat at the back of the plane - the part that sometimes survives the disaster of which we do not speak - settled in next to the mandatory chubby person assigned to the centre seat and prepared to wait. Much to the surprise of all the passengers, we actually managed to get airborne on time. The crew was apparently surprised at this strange twist of events too because it took them longer than normal to break out the celebratory "we took off on time" champagne.

They were going to serve me breakfast on this flight. I couldn't remember the last time I'd been served any food on an airplane. On a flight from Florida to New Mexico I once made the mistake of asking just how far a guy had to fly on, I think it was Continental, before he got fed. "About halfway around the world," the steward replied without a hint of sarcasm and just enough conviction in his voice to lead me to believe he was telling the truth.

But United was actually going to feed me. The stewardesses pushed a fully loaded cart to the front of the plane. I was sitting in the last row. Honest. Watching them make their way to the back was like watching one of those long lens movie shots where some guy is running forever and never gets any closer. They were just about all the way to my row - the chubby guy had eaten both magazines and half an armrest by that time - when the captain announced we were preparing to land in Denver.

It didn't matter though. Tiffany, the stew, asked me if I wanted breakfast anyway. I said sure and she handed me a cardboard box about the size a kid's pair of sneakers would come in. Inside, and I'm not making this up, was a very small container of plain yogurt. Yogurt falls into a category I refer disparagingly to as "white food." White food and I do not have a deep and abiding relationship. Very few things that are good to eat are white. Even fewer of them contain spoiled bacteria as their principal ingredient.

Rummaging around in the box, I found a spoon, a moist towelette and a thimble-size container full of granola, assuming the definition of granola can be stretched far enough to encompass three oat flakes, two broken and unidentifiable nuts and a stale crust of brown sugar.

I closed the box and handed it in the general direction of Tiffany who was busy pouring juice on the woman in the aisle seat. I nearly drew back a stump when the chubby guy called dibs on it and looked at me as if I were crazy for not eating it myself.

I can't wait for the flight back.