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The Column: Air travel looks good considering the alternative

For a traveler with a trip only days away it was dismaying to learn that a Delta Air Lines flight from Atlanta to Fort Lauderdale plunged nearly 30,000 feet in fewer than eight minutes when oxygen masks dropped from compartments above passenger seats.

Thirty-thousand feet? Eight minutes?

Because of some reason not immediately known, cabin pressure dropped at upper altitudes and the Delta pilot began a controlled descent so everyone could breathe a little easier.

An attendant called out “do not panic, do not panic” — significantly more challenging a command than the familiar order to place small carry-on items below seats in front or make certain safety belts are snug and properly fastened.

At this age, I am ambivalent about air travel, at best, and frequently recall the words of a wise old pal who said he considered himself dead — literally — upon takeoff and not again among the living until wheels touched down and Kenny G tunes began playing on the airliner’s intercom.

You get the idea: Judge yourself a goner in advance and then, if the worst happens, you’ve already made peace with the world and, accordingly, are better prepared to accept the inevitable. Should you land safely, terrific. Have a good meal, maybe a glass of Champagne, and try not to think about the flight home.

Let’s pause here, if we can, to ponder an essential question: Do you wonder whatever happened to high-speed rail?

Aren’t we the richest and most innovative nation on the globe? How come we’re stuck only with Amtrak, which has its virtues but is not exactly — let’s admit — cutting edge?

The line is trying hard to update, so let’s give credit. Still, cars are, on average, 20 years old. Service can be spotty and tickets steep. High-speed isn’t Amtrak’s trademark.

By comparison, there’s the rest of the world.

Just the other night I watched one more foreign movie with a scene aboard a swift, modern train. Sleek, clean, reliable, these brilliant machines whiz across Europe, China and Japan. Passengers look comfortable and carefree only a few feet from solid ground. Oxygen is not an issue.

Several years ago, my wife, Wink, and I, spent a long weekend in London. One day, we bought tickets on the Eurostar fast train for a sprint — two hours, 16 minutes — to Paris.

This was great stuff. Soon we were racing through the English countryside. Then we were in the Chunnel — the tunnel below the English Channel — and before long enjoying mussels and fries in some little side-street Parisian bistro.

After the quickest of visits to the Louvre, Eiffel Tower and Arc de Triomphe — hooray for hop-on, hop-off buses — we were back on the evening Eurostar and in London with enough time for a draft in the hotel pub. That’s travel, I decided.

But if you have a son in Georgia and friends in Texas and relatives in California, and if we Americans have somehow neglected to build a bullet train, you are, from time to time, going to be squeezing into an airline seat, eating tiny bags of pretzels and hoping for the best.

Let’s be fair.

Starting with my first flight as a 14-year-old — New York to Washington on Eastern Air Lines — and as a newspaper reporter sometimes sent far and wide, I have had only a few alarming moments in the air.

There was a rough journey to California through a lightning storm and another from North Carolina to New York that required an impromptu landing at an airfield crowded with emergency vehicles. Once, in Florida, the cabin of a small commercial plane filled with what turned out to be foggy condensation that first looked like smoke.

Small stuff that did nothing to diminish what for years I considered the joy of flying. It was swell, I thought, to be sky high.

Thanks to modern air travel, the thrill is gone.

Cramped quarters, not so much as a Tinkertoy meal to break up the trip, and whatever happened to chatter from the cockpit? Seldom anymore do you hear: “This is your pilot, folks. There’s Chicago off to the left. Look at those lights! Settle back and relax. We’ll be over Cedar Rapids soon.”

No more glamour. No more excitement.

As for thrills, not interested. Just get me where I’m going without sudden drops or smoky cabins. And, please, nobody mention it’s a round trip.

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