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December 27, 2013

STAWAR: The airport actually

— Christmas is finally behind us and the looming New Year marks the end of this year’s holiday season. Besides cashing in on those after Christmas bargains, this in-between time is an opportunity to reflect on the past few weeks.

For my wife Diane and I, one unique aspect of this holiday season was the fact that we made five separate trips to the airport. In fact on one trip, we had one son arriving and another departing at exactly the same time.

As a child, I loved the St. Louis airport; it was an exotic and exciting place that we rarely visited. It was unknown territory, since neither of my parents ever flew on an airplane.

I didn’t fly until I was working at my first professional job, after getting my master’s degree. When I was in college, however, I would occasionally drive out to the airport with friends just to hang around, or to buy a copy of the New York Times. On one such excursion I even saw the comedian Redd Foxx, who starred in the television show “Sanford and Son,” and was born in St. Louis.

Airports are places where intense emotion is often displayed. On our trips this year, we saw several heartfelt reunions, including a grandmother seeing a grandchild for the first time, as well as some proud parents picking up their son who was returning from military service. We saw a lot of camouflage, as well as a cowboy.

On one visit, I saw a man and woman sitting in the waiting area chairs surrounded by luggage. The woman looked uncomfortable and the man was openly crying. I wondered if he was going to a funeral or had just received some other bad news.

Diane says that airports are like hospitals and other places where life and death scenarios play themselves out. After it was vacated in 2006, we once visited the old Silvercrest Children’s Development Center, which had previously served as a TB sanatorium for 32 years. We skipped the morgue. We both had a sense that it was almost as if the walls were still imbued with the human emotions they had witnessed over the years.

The opening and closing scenes of the 2003 holiday movie “Love Actually” are set at London’s Heathrow Airport, showing candid shots of emotional travelers and their loved ones. Hugh Grant, who plays the role of the UK Prime Minister, narrates the opening scene saying, “Whenever I get gloomy with the state of the world, I think about the arrivals gate at Heathrow Airport. General opinions make out that we live in a world of hatred and greed, but I don’t see that. It seems to me that love is everywhere.”  

 Not everyone agrees with this warm and fuzzy assessment. Just last week, Lindy West, a blogger for the Jezabel website, ignited a controversy when she took aim at this movie openly confessing, “I rewatched Love Actually and am here to ruin it for all of you.”

She called the movie “the apex of cynically vacant faux-motional cash-grab garbage cinema” and was especially critical of its use of an airport as it major metaphor. In her provocative prose, she refers to the airport as a “bleak, empathy-stripped cathedral of turgid bureaucracy.”

Airports are symbolic of travel, adventure, romance and affluence and for years were the high temples of modern technology. They are also typically associated with power, wealth and celebrity. West claims that declaring the airport to be your favorite place is the “epitome of unexamined privilege.”

I think that is rather harsh and she must have never visited our charming and convenient Louisville airport.

Writer David Sedaris has also written about his airport experiences and observations. He laments the past when people dressed up to travel by air. He says that a lot of Americans at the airport look like they had just been washing shoe polish off a pig and spontaneously threw down their sponges and decided to hop on a plane.

I didn’t see anything like that at the Louisville airport, but there were people there who looked like they had just been hunting or were preparing for a commando raid.

Sedaris also noted the increase in bad behavior in airports and during flights. Sociologist call such behavior by passengers or flight crews “air rage.”

We all remember the angry and stressed-out steward who used the emergency slide to exit the plane a few years back. There also was the German couple who arrested after creating a major disturbance when they ran out of champagne in first class, the American family that was thrown off the plane when their 2-year-old refused to be bucked in her seat and the flight crew that had a fist fight among themselves in the midst of an alleged sexual harassment incident.

A lot of air rage is caused by people’s low tolerance for delays. Last year, the Louisville airport had well more than 1.6 million arrivals and departures and according to the FAA they had an on-time score of about 80 percent. The average delay was about an hour and less than 1 percent of flights were canceled. Most of us acknowledge that such delays are inevitable, but as Sedaris says, When it happens to you, it’s a national tragedy.

People also complain at lot about the enhanced security measures at airports. The last Gallup poll in 2007, however, revealed that about 72 percent of Americans were still satisfied with airline travel and nearly 80 percent thought that security measures were effective.

Sedaris says that we often blame the airline industry for our bad behaviors, but he wonders if the airport isn’t just “a forum that allows us to be our real selves.”

 The Automobile Association of America estimates that more than 5.53 million people will be crammed into airplanes this holiday season. If you haven’t learned how to navigate the holiday airport by this time, the following survival tips are taken from travel advice provided by CNN, Travelocity and Foxnews.com:

1. Check in online before you head for the airport when possible. Some airlines allow you to check in from your smartphone and use the digital bar code to pass through the airport.

2. Arrive early to cope with potential long lines also error on the side of caution and arrive about two hours early for domestic flights and longer for the larger airport and international flights. Curbside checking may also save you time.

3. To speed up the security check, always have your boarding pass and ID available. Avoid items that might set off the metal detector and bring unwrapped gifts. In regard to food items, check the TSA’s list of things that should be checked or shipped ahead.

4. Call the airline, go online or get to the gate early to politely ask for help with seat assignments if you are traveling in a group and need to sit with your companions. Being accompanied by an adorable child can greatly help with this.

5. Be ready for inevitable delays. Electronic devices can entertain you and the kids but be sure to pack chargers and extra batteries. Bring twice as much media than you plan to use, so you don’t run out. Noise-canceling headphones can provide some relief from the hustle and bustle of the airport.

6. Pack light. To avoid lost baggage disasters, don’t pack essentials such as medicines and gifts in the checked baggage, save them for the carry-ons. Also be aware of baggage fees. It may be cheaper to ship things UPS than to take them with you on the plane.

7. Also be prepared for seasonal cold and flu bugs. Airports are breeding grounds where germs from all over the country congregate. Pack your tissues, hand sanitizer, and medications, such as zinc lozenges, cough drops, Sudafed and Tylenol.

8. Finally, consider taking along emergency rations, especially if you are traveling with children. With the unpredictable winter weather, you never know how long you might be stranded. Things can rapidly turn ugly when people are hungry.

 — Terry L. Stawar, Ed.D., lives in Georgetown and is the CEO of LifeSpring the local community mental health center in Jeffersonville. He can be reached at tstawar@lifespr.com. Checkout his Welcome to Planet-Terry blog and podcast at www.planetterry.wordpress.com

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