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Up up and away

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I hate to fly. Which is a problem given that part of my income comes from travel writing. It's not a fear of flying. I actually do love to fly. It's the way that traveling via commercial airline has become torture.

I used to love air travel. I loved airplanes and airports and anything related to aviation. I even wrote a high school term paper on the history of aviation. When we flew to England in 1972 — October 4, to be exact — on a BOAC 747 from Montreal, I was so excited that I couldn't sleep the night before. I was nine, and this was the biggest adventure I had ever had, after a car camping trip to Minnesota the previous year. I didn't care where we were going. We could have flown in circles and landed back in Montreal (something I did last year, in fact, but was far less giddy about). I was just so excited to be flying in an airplane. Finally. And a jet no less! The biggest jet they had ever made.

I remember how it felt as the 747 rumbled down the runway, my back pushed into the seat from the acceleration of those four big engines. I remember the cabin gently pitching up and the feeling of weightlessness as the plane's wheels lifted off the tarmac. I remember the disappointment that we were stuck in the four middle seats too far from a window to really see the world grow small beneath us. But it was night, so it didn't really matter anyway.

It was glamorous to fly. Exotic. Adventurous. There was enough security to know that we were special — that with whom and on what we were traveling was important enough to protect, not that we were the potential threat.

I didn't fly again until spring break 1983 — sophomore year in college. I flew People Express to Norfolk, Va., to a friend's house in a more southerly clime. But I became stranded in Newark, the airline's hub. A helpful gate agent found me and several of my fellow travelers a flight from LaGuardia instead — a cab ride away. Adding to the drama, the cab rear-ended another vehicle on the ride over, but somehow we made it. This was, apparently, what low-cost deregulated travel was all about.

And so it has become, even on legacy airlines. Flying back from Canada last winter, my flight was canceled due to weather. After much tapping on her keyboard, the gate agent presented me with my new itinerary: the same flight but two days later. Had I not rushed back to the house that I had rented with some friends (who still happened to be there), logged onto the Internet, Skyped Air Canada's 800 number, waited on hold for one hour and 58 minutes, and listened to the same on-hold soundtrack set on a continuous cycle for the entire duration, I might still be there. Instead, I found flights routed through two different airports and actual free seats on those flights, making it home an entire day before I would have even taken off had I followed the gate agent's plan.

Then there's the issue of seating. It used to be a random surprise where we would end up (and on Southwest Airlines, still is). Front or back of the plane, aisle or hopefully window, as I still haven't gotten over that windowless flight in 1972. But now, for the pleasure of sitting near the front — thereby giving us a shred of hope of making our connection in the likely event that the flight is delayed — it costs extra.

When I booked a $215 roundtrip ticket on Northwest to Dallas last May, I was only given the option of reserving a middle seat. "Must already be a full flight," I thought. But when I checked in at the airport, I optimistically hit "change seat" on the self-service kiosk's monitor. Hark! There were aisle and window seats available, and near the front! But not unless I forked over another $15 per flight. I upgraded on the first leg so that I had a better chance of making the 40-minute connection in Detroit, which turned out to be a sprint.

And what's with these short layovers? When flying to/from more remote airports, say Boise or Burlington, it's either four hours or 40 minutes. And the connecting flight is almost guaranteed two concourses away. How do non-athletic people travel by air? How would my 84-year-old mother make it from United's gate C31 at O'Hare to gate F4 in the allotted 40 minutes, which becomes more like 20 after unloading from the back of the plane?

I had to make this exact gate change last week, but with only 10 minutes to spare. I work-out regularly. But by the time I reached F4 and my flight to Calgary — heart pounding, lungs gasping for air, ski boot bag and computer-laden briefcase swinging wildly from my shoulders, sweat soaking my shirt (the same shirt I would have to wear for the next 48 hours in the likely event that my luggage hadn't made the flight) — I looked so bedraggled that the flight attendant parted with a bottle of water. For free.

When I did arrive in Calgary and found my luggage sitting innocently on the baggage carousel, I exclaimed, "Hey! My suitcase! What a surprise!"

This has become an all-too-common expression, even when connections aren't tight. On at least a quarter of the flights I take, I am relieved of the convenience of my luggage.

This time, it was my friend Hilary's turn, and she was not amused. Her luggage had not arrived despite the fact that her connecting flight had come into O'Hare's gate F3 (immediately adjacent to the Calgary flight at F4). "Your bag is in Denver," is what the customer service person told her when she filed a claim, as if this statement would reassure her.

It's as if we're flying Aeroflot, without the option of bribing baggage handlers. I have skied in other people's jackets, used their toothpaste and contact lens solution, worn the same outfit to meetings and dinners, dried my socks with the hotel hair dryer, and tried to style my hair using my fingers and hotel conditioner.

At what point will we shout, "Enough!" If a restaurant treated us this badly, we would never patronize it again. "Ah, madam, we have a lovely table for you here," the host would say, showing us to a table squashed in the corner near the dishwasher with nothing but a stale roll offered and canned pasta salad (yes, canned, like tuna). Then the bill would come: $300. Bon appetite!

But in this case, we can always try another restaurant. Or make our own pasta salad. We can't fly — or even move quickly — to another part of the world without colluding with the airlines that insist on torturing us. Deregulation has fueled our wanderlust, and it's tough to be grounded, even if it's self-imposed.

Not that any of this is new. In 1984, again on People Express, my backpack went missing. I was en route back to college after a wonderful summer working in Glacier National Park. Inside my pack were waterlogged hiking boots, sodden during one last hike the day before I left, and a bag of dirty laundry, including my entire collection of underwear, save the pair I was wearing. I filed a claim, then hitched a ride to school with a roommate. I had a few clothes in storage that I could wear.

A month later, someone at the local bus stop called. My backpack had arrived (and mysteriously been delivered there). Inside were moldy boots and musty clothes, and on the outside hung a baggage tag written in what looked like Dutch. My backpack had apparently had more of an adventure than I had.

If this is where airlines are headed — to bankruptcy along with People Express — perhaps next time I'll fly cargo.

Peggy Shinn is freelance travel writer and a contributor to . This was posted on her after Peggy made the trip from rural Vermont across the continent to Calgary, Canada, and the Banff National Park for editorial meetings.