It’s 8:20AM PST on a rainy Thursday morning in March. I’m seated in 27C on a United Airlines 757 on my way from San Francisco, California to Boston, Massachusetts. I have been flying this route at least four times and sometimes as many as 24 times a year since 1994. This is one of the longest flights in the continental U.S. On a good day with the winds at your back, you can make the trip in just under five hours of flight time. Add two hours on the front end for check-in, security and boarding and another 45 to 60 minutes on the back end for de-planing and baggage and roughly speaking, you can cross the country west-to-east, from sea to shining sea, in about eight hours.
The doors to the aircraft have just closed. To say the least, our accommodations are tight. With the seat in front of me upright for take-off, my knees are grazing the back of it. I consider relinquishing my book and notebook from the seat pocket in front of me to the floor, but considering how difficult it would be to retrieve them, I decide not to.
There are three of us in a row. The blonde woman in the window seat is traveling with a bright pink carry-on shaped like a squat duffle bag. In it she carries her pocketbook, laptop, assorted notebooks, and a just-before-boarding-purchased chicken salad sandwich in a plastic box. As she wiggles energetically to get the bag down and under the seat in front of her, the top of the sandwich box flies open, landing half the sandwich on the floor. She looks up chagrined and asks, “Do you think I will be able to eat this?”
The man in the middle seat is rather round and a bit shy. I can tell he is good-natured and instantly mark him as a techie. He puts his paperback book in the seat pocket. Not being sure what to do with his voluminous black down jacket, he clutches it in his lap. It may be a cool 50 degrees in San Francisco this morning, but in Boston, it is a more chilly 31 degrees with a cold damp wind off the water that will make it seem much colder when we step out into it at the other end of our flight.
The woman-in-the-window tries to reassemble the sandwich and stuff it back in its plastic housing. Just then it occurs to me that even though we paid Economy, we are really in third class. There’s First Class, Economy Plus (second class), and Economy (third class). To sit in Economy Plus, you have to pay a hefty annual membership fee and even then you are not promised one of those seats with “More legroom than any other U.S. airline.” I know because I tried to purchase one for this trip. But, no luck.
You know I tell her, “This is really third class.” She laughs and says, “Yes, I know. My father calls this Rat Class.” I laugh too. Then she tells me she’s in sales and flies all over the country but can’t plan on taking the same airline all the time due to her company’s travel policies. She says, “You know I’ll probably fly about 75,000 miles this year and never be able to get any better seat on this airline because I don’t fly it often enough.”
We’re still at the gate. I ask the man-in-the-middle if he travels this route often. “No,” he says. But tells me he will be doing so more often. He works at NASA Ames Research Center and is heading for the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution on Cape Cod to install instruments on a research ship that’s leaving shortly for the Arctic to measure climate change and pollution levels.
The passenger cabin is hot and stuffy. Every once in a while a faint breeze stirs in the aisle, but then is gone. People are mostly quiet now. Some are reading. Others have closed their eyes. A few children chatter to themselves and their parents.
Across the aisle and one row ahead, the girl in the aisle seat is small enough to tuck her feet up on the seat. Scrunched up in a ball, she rests her head on one arm. Her black bangs have fallen in her face giving her some personal space.
To my right, the woman in the aisle seat sits upright, her arms stretched out. Her hands draped over the tips of the armrest. Her fingers are soft. Her face is calm. With eyes closed, she breathes deep and even. I imagine that she is meditating. It’s 8:35AM. We’re pushing away from the gate.
Suddenly I am aware of the smell of fuel. It is strong this morning. I wonder what chemicals we are breathing in. Then, thankfully, I hear fans and the smell dissipates.
There’s a click and all the lights go off — cabin lights, reading lights, all the lights. I hear a voice behind me saying, “That’s annoying.” After a minute or so the reading lights come on again.
It is now 8:39AM. We’re moving to take our place in line for take-off. I can see through a small patch of window the gray morning light, the fog lying low in the distance and the rain gently coming down.
I, too, close my eyes as we move. I feel a bump, bump, bump as the wheels hit the uneven pavement of the tarmac. It is 8:45AM. A voice from the cockpit says, “Flight attendants prepare for take-off.” I open my eyes.
As we come around at the top of the runway, I can see the steely waters of the bay and the green grass along its edges. The runway lights stretch out at a diagonal. A plane lands and crosses our path in the distance. We wait our turn. Slowly we move up. The engines whir. We gain speed as we traverse the length of the runway, then we’re up and climbing fast. I feel my head press into the back of the seat. To keep me safe, I say my mantra to myself.
Rapidly we ascend through the fog and low hanging clouds. For a second, the sun reflects off the metal siding of the jet and stings our eyes. On the other side of the plane, the passenger in 27F quickly closes the window shade against the overbearingly bright light.
Now, looking out the window by 27A where the woman-in-the-window sits, I see a patch of blue. A break in the clouds gives us a snapshot of the eastern shore of the Bay, the container yard, and Oakland. Then the land below is gone, obscured by blankets of clouds. Again it appears. Another sudden glint of sunlight glistens as it hits the jet.
The activity level increases as a flight attendant makes announcements. “You can buy wine, snacks, or a fresh breakfast offering. Don’t ask us what the snacks are. Read about them in Hemispheres Magazine. The movie is Becoming Jane, the TV programs are Ugly Betty and The Office. Headsets are free or you can use your own, if you choose. Do not get up until the fasten-seat-belt light has been turned off.” It stays illuminated.
The rolled-up-in-a-ball girl changes position. She reclines her seat as she arches her back and stretches her legs out in the aisle. The girl behind her has finished her meditation and is leaning forward with her head in a text book of some kind. The reclining seat hits her in the face. Stunned, she instantly contracts, closes her book, and retreats as far away as she can which isn’t very far at all.
It is 9:01AM. My ears are popping. Hunched over, his broad shoulders too big for the cramped space, the man-in-the-middle is trying to read his book, Indiana Jones and the Genesis Deluge. Poor thing, he looks down-right miserable. He gives up, shuts the book, and closes his eyes. His parka has slid to the floor. We are still climbing to 32,000 feet.
At 9:15AM, the captain finishes his greeting and gives us the weather report for Boston. “It is 31 degrees Fahrenheit.” I shiver instinctively. He switches off the seat belt sign.
My neighbor, the woman-in-the-window, perks up and immediately excuses herself to go to the bathroom. I and the man-in-the-middle get up so she can get out. I’m glad to have an excuse to stand up in the aisle, stretch my legs, and scan the seats. Here in the back half of the plane, most of the middle seats are empty, except for ours and maybe half a dozen more. I look for any empty windows or aisles, hoping there is one for the poor man-in-the-middle.
At the back of the plane I spot an empty aisle seat. I’m not sure whether it is occupied or not. Maybe the owner is in line for the bathroom. The woman-in-the-window is standing in the aisle, waiting her turn for the bathroom. She approaches the open seat. We must have some kind of telepathic communication going on between us. She looks back at me. I point to the open aisle seat and mouth without speaking, “Is it open?” She leans over to the man in the window seat of that row. I can’t hear her but I know she is asking, “Is it free?” They exchange a few words. Her head comes up. She’s smiling and motions “Yes” with a bob up and down of her head.
I turn and bend over the man-in-the-middle so I can talk to him, “There is an empty aisle seat further back in the plane. You’ll be more comfortable. Would you like it?” Awkwardly he tries to twist himself around to see. “Yes”, he says quietly. “I would.” Now my head is motioning up and down to tell the women-in-the-window that he will take it. We smile at each other. As he gets up, clutching the parka and book, he smiles broadly and says, “Gee, you girls are great. Thank you so much.”
It is 9:28AM PST. The man-in-the-middle is now happily the man-on-the-aisle in the not-more-legroom Economy class.
All original content copyright 2008 Mary E. Slocum