Flying back to England

It had been some four years since I had last visited England. Given how little time off Americans get, visiting my family means not actually having a proper vacation that year, so I don’t get to go back as often as everyone would like. This time the visit was for a particular event: my brother Edward was getting married.

I know I have some friends who don’t really understand the whole “marriage” thing. As the saying goes, “Why buy the cow if you can get the milk for free?” Here’s an analogy that might help:

Consider sports. It’s possible to watch a random sports game and get something out of it. However, most fans choose to support a specific team. They make a long term commitment to that team. They go to its matches even when the weather’s bad. They buy logo shirts and hats and scarves and memorabilia. They support the same team for years, even if it loses, even if they move to a different part of the country or a different part of the world.

Why do they do this? Clearly, committing to supporting one team in some way makes watching the games better. It enhances the experience. The committed supporter gets something out of the game that an uncommitted spectator simply doesn’t get, even if the actual game is the same.

So anyway, my brother was getting married, and we were to attend. And since it’s a long way to travel just for a couple of days, we planned to go a week early and spend some time with the family.

Shortly before booking the plane tickets, I learned that British Airways and Virgin Atlantic each have a “deluxe economy” class. BA call theirs World Traveler Plus, Virgin’s is Premium Economy. In either case, it costs about 15% more than the regular cattle class ticket. For that you get a wider seat that reclines further and has proper lumbar support and headrest, there’s more legroom, and you get proper food and free drinks, priority baggage handling, and so on. We decided to give it a shot; anything to make the 6-8 hour transatlantic hop more bearable.

Unfortunately, no US airline offers anything like it. They have cattle class, and they have the outrageously expensive first class, and that’s it. So we were stuck on an American Airlines flight to Chicago, where we had to change to British Airways for the rest of the journey. It was a bit like taking a Greyhound bus to your limo; I don’t know why BA picked American as their “OneWorld Alliance” partner airline.

In Chicago, we had to change terminals. Which meant leaving the secured area, walking across to the trains, getting the train to Terminal 4, and then going back into the airport and clearing security again.

Unfortunately, Chicago O’Hare’s Terminal 4 doesn’t have proper security facilities yet, as it seems to be last on their list for upgrades. (It seems they want to build a new Terminal 4 that works, then demolish the current one.) It’s also the terminal every single international flight leaves from, which means lots of people who look suspicious (i.e. not white and midwestern), which in turn means security is slower than normal.

At the far end of the shopping concourse, they had set up 5 makeshift security gates. Three lines of frustrated would-be travelers stretched the entire length of the concourse, past all the shops and restaurants, all the way to the building’s entrance doors.

After spending around 40 minutes in line, we reached the TSA person whose job it is to look at your boarding pass and passport. She said something unclear about needing a boarding pass. I looked at the boarding pass I had obtained from the online check-in. It said “Boarding pass” in large letters, and “You are now ready to fly”, and had a bar code. I explained that we had checked in for the flight online.

No, explained the TSA person, you have to get your boarding pass stamped. By the ticket desk. Hence defeating the entire purpose of online checkin. I looked at my watch nervously, and explained that we would never be able to make it through the queues again in time for our flight. The TSA staffer said we could jump the queue when we came back.

So, we left the queue and found the BA ticket desk. The woman there sighed and explained that it was a new rule the TSA had imposed, and nothing to do with BA. She stamped our boarding passes with a generic rubber stamp, and wrote something illegible over it with a ball point pen. We walked all the way back up to the front of the security line, and this time made it through. Good job, TSA; security theater at its finest.

Beyond the security barriers there was a small stand selling snacks at an outrageous markup. By this time we were tired and angry and hungry, so I gave in and got some Chex Trail Mix.

Once we were on the BA plane, things looked up. The seats were comfortable, with good back support, and headrests at head level. (I don’t know where US airlines get the midgets they use to design their seating.) Before long there was food and drink, and they remembered my vegetarian meal preference. I took a melatonin tablet, reclined the seat, and tried to nap.