Thursday, September 22, 2005

California Dreamin'

I know, it's been a while. Sorry. I was away, and that's the point of this blog.

The past couple of weeks, I've had the pleasure of covering my favorite football team, the Oakland Raiders, for (Well, they lost both, so maybe "pleasure" is a bit strong of a word.)

Anyway, this past weekend was the big RFN tailgate - where I could meet other cool members of the site and they could meet me. Lots of fun. If you're really interested, go on over to RFN and check out the forum. My game coverage is there, and so are a lot of photos and good stuff like that.

But that's not what my post is about. My post is about flying, because I haven't been on a plane in a while, and it was a real adventure.

I flew from Newark to Chicago Midway on ATA, then got on Southwest to Oakland, and reversed the pattern coming back. Flew out on Saturday morning, back on Monday afternoon.

So you know how you're supposed to get to the airport an hour early for domestic flights? This is where the fun begins. I was thinking of taking the train, to save a little $$$ on parking and the like, and not have to drive home late Monday night. But I overslept, and I would've caught a train that put me at the airport at about 45 minutes before the flight, whereas if I drove it would've gotten me there about an hour and 15 minutes ahead. I've never used the NJ Transit stop at Newark Airport, so I figured this wasn't the time to experiment, and drove.

That was fine because long-term parking was cheaper than I remembered anyway, I caught the shuttle right away, and got to the ATA counter exactly an hour before my 10:25 a.m. flight.

And stood there. In line. With just about everyone else on that flight. Until 10:10 a.m. Me, no carry-on, online ticket purchase. But they wouldn't let me go through the outside counter because I changed planes and airlines in Chicago.

So there I stand, as the two ATA agents at the counter get confounded by...

1. A couple with a dog. (Yeah, you can bring a little rat-dog on an airplane. Who knew?)
2. Any and every group of more than three people. (Including the second group, which had stood in line laughing at the first group.)
3. International passengers, with foreign passports. (I think they were Chinese.)
4. Everyone else.

So while it's amateur hour at the check-in counter, the people in line are literally starting to sweat making the flight, especially because of the little sign that says they stop checking people in 30 minutes before flight time.

If they'd actually done that, the flight would've been 40% full instead of 90%.

I went cheap. My new philosophy is you get what you pay for. I was already nervous because ATA's pilots were talking about striking, and I had visions of being stranded somewhere.

So I finally get through and get on the plane, where I promptly slept through most of the flight to Midway, despite being stuck in a middle seat. (I like windows; I like to watch the scenery go by when you take off or circle for landing. More on that in a minute.)

So Midway's fine, got a nice sandwich at the Harry Carey's there, and it's time for Southwest.

Southwest, for those who have never flown it, has cattle-call seating. No assigned seats. How this saves money, I have no idea, but having gotten stuck in the last boarding group, I'm not too keen on this.

The last time I was on a flight that didn't reserve seats, I think it was Air Pakistan, back from France on a school trip. The chaperone told all the guys to commandeer rows at a time. I was in a row with a girl who was afraid to fly and a smelly foreign person who elbowed his way into our group. We got even with him by cheerfully discussing her fear of flying, the possibility of her throwing up, and how many ways we could die on the flight.

This was before either Flight 800 or "Final Destination," so that was then, this is now.

Anyway, cattle call sucked then, and it sucks now.

The good news was, I ended up in a row with just one other person, so we could stretch out. The bad news was, it was the next to last row, so I kept getting elbowed by people on the way to the bathroom (I was on the aisle), and the family behind us had a little toddler who just wailed through the whole flight. I slept anyway, after getting about three hours Friday night. So not all was lost. And I finished Douglas Preston's "Tyrannosaur Canyon," which was quite good.

But what's best about Southwest is, they give you a little snack box full of food, like cookies and crackers. For some reason, I just love getting something for nothing. I don't mean a gift or whatever, those are great, but I mean those things you're not expecting, just little things. They just make my day.

Like when you order 10 Buffalo wings and get 11. Or you find a quarter. That kind of thing. It just makes me happy.

I might point out, the Southwest pilot flew perfectly. But taking off and landing... not his strong suits.

Maybe it's the wind in Chicago, but we took off with a wobble that would make the proverbial drunken sailor say, "Hey, straighten up!"

(Speaking of drunken, at least I wasn't on another Southwest flight, where my buddy threw up in his snack box, on his Raiders jersey, on the girl next to him, and so forth.)

As for the landing, he stuck a dismount that would have made Kerri Strug hop for joy. I'd never been on a plane that stopped on a dime before. Thud. That's why you leave your seatbelts on, or I'd have ended up in the next-to-next-to-last row.

So that was fun, and my (mis)adventures in Oakland are a story that you probably had to be there for. So let's fast-forward to Monday.

I got on Southwest on Monday, again in the last group (grr...) but this time, I got a window seat next to what must have been a couple of newlyweds.

I figure that because a) she had a rock the size of a small dachshund; and b) they kept making out. I mean, we haven't taken off, and the guy accidentally elbows me, I instinctively turn to look, and they've locked lips. For almost a minute.

If I'd known this was going to happen, I'd have taken a middle seat farther back. Evidently, my voyeuristic streak isn't nearly as impressive as I'd hoped.

This continued throughout the flight, I might add, so perhaps she was afraid of flying and he was comforting her. It got worse when they switched seats late in the flight, because before that, he at least blocked out most of my forced side-of-the-eye view.

Fortunately, I had plenty of reason to look out the window, as this (smooth) takeoff out of the Bay Area was one of the best I've ever seen as far as sights. We circled right over the Bay, and it was a beautiful day so on the way up, I could see PNC Park, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Rock, and everything. It's great, once you spot a landmark, you can really enjoy picking things out.

This pilot wobbled his way INTO Chicago, so maybe it's the wind.

But even then, I got a great look at something cool: A storm. Way off in the distance, a giant thunderhead had lightning going off inside it. Very cool. And not close enough to be scary, although there was another plane right nearby it.

I did finish my book on gladiators, which made me think of "Airplane." ("Tommy, have you ever been in a Turkish prison?")

So we get to Chicago. By now, I'm on to Brian Keene's "City of the Dead." And I get an assigned seat.

But I wound up not finishing my book, because I fell asleep, mercifully, on this near-empty flight.

And coming back over New Jersey, when I woke up, I found it's much harder to figure out where you are when it's dark and all lit up - by the time I found anything I could recognize, we were over downtown Newark.

And miraculously, despite accidentally deleting the text message I sent myself, I remembered where I parked my car, even at midnight.

A lot of fun, on some very strange flights.

Newark Liberty International Airport
The Oakland Raiders

By the way, Southwest is running some kind of protest called "Set Love Free" (its ticker symbol is LUV). I don't know what this is about, but it's not very reassuring to board an airplane out of a gate covered in elementary-school style bubble-letter writing and construction-paper cutouts.