A Week in Manhattan: Part Two
Independence Day 2014

Traveling By Air While Old

On my first Manhattan post this week, TGB reader Annie left this important query:

”I noticed you didn't mention travel difficulties or sheer exhaustion. I hope there were no glitches, and your joy and new fitness level gave you much energy to make it an easy trip.”

Tiredness due to the hardships of modern-day airline travel is an important consideration when you're old. Senior Planet recognized this and gave me an up-front extra night at the hotel so that I could recover from the day-long flight and be fresh for a full day on my feet at CEWeek.

The respite was critical not just for my physical energy but mental too. When I'm worn out, my brain goes dead too so I am grateful for their consideration.

I was lucky to get a direct flight to New York with only one stop. That's not easy from Portland, Oregon, and it required that I leave home at 4AM to arrive at the airport in time for all that security stuff before a 5:20AM departure.

But wait! What an amazing, pleasant surprise was in store for me: as I presented my boarding pass and ID to the first TSA agent, he directed me to the fast-track lane. No line, no shoe and jacket removal, no separate laptop or Ziplock bag of liquids examination. Just shove my carry-on and handbag through the x-ray belt and move on through.

(Pathetic, isn't it, how little it takes to thrill us about airline travel these days?)

“How did I get so lucky?” I asked. “I want to know what to do to make this happen next time.”

“It's random,” he said and I didn't stick around to argue.

Of course, my gate was as far from security as is possible and still be in the terminal but Annie was right – my 40-pound weight loss made a big difference in the long walk compared to my last airplane trip in November, and a partial substitute for the morning exercise routine I was obliged to skip due to getting to the airport so early.

It was disappointing to see, however, that nowhere were there any of the scooters there once were in airports - the ones you could hail like a taxi that hold about six people with their carry-ons that toot-tooted along the concourses.

The walk to ground transportation at JFK airport was at least as long and although I was dragging after nine hours in a noisy tin can with bad air, my weight loss and workout regimen made this the least tiring flight I've had in a decade.

Even so, I was wiped out enough by the time I got to the hotel that all I wanted was sleep. Since it was only about 7PM, I strolled around the neighborhood until I found a place for dinner before taking those photos of the Empire State Building from my hotel window and falling into bed.

The return trip was even easier. Without a plane change or stop, it was the standard six hours from east coast to west and lo – I was allowed to glide through security again in the fast lane.

I can't be certain but here's what I think happened: when I was selecting seats online, the only choices for each flight were the last two rows – somewhere up in the hundreds, rows 247 and 248.

Okay, I exaggerate, but that's what those seats feel like and it made me want to cry.

It took me only a second or two to decide to personally pay an extra $99 each way to purchase seats in the first row or two of economy class even though that's no frivolous amount of money to me.

(By the way, I'm cynical enough to believe that airlines probably block out all seats but the worst so more people will spend the extra money for better ones but if that's the way the game must be played these days, it was worth it to me to skimp on a couple of restaurant meals and other treats at home this month to pay for it.)

Back to breezing through security – I suspect that it is an extra you get for paying that outrageous price for a good seat. I can't see any other explanation.

Now, having had many bad flights and one good experience, here are some thoughts that might help us all for future airline travel while old. Remember, even if we don't need extra help from others, we tire so much more easily than when we were younger that conserving energy is important.

If you cannot make the walk to the airport gate, order a wheelchair. You can do this online or by phone. Be sure to do so for both departure and arrival airports, and do it even if you are capable of walking but are slow or it wears you out. It's fair to do that.

If you can afford it, pay for seats closer to the entry area of the plane, especially if walking is difficult.

In fact, if you can afford it, consider business class or first class. For me, it's out of the question but if you can...

If you don't drive, there are the usual car services for hire to and from airports, but also check your town for medical transport in your area. Often it is free.

If you need wheelchair or other help, plan to arrive early at the airport.

Although it is expensive, some airlines have concierge services to help people with disability needs from curb arrival through security and to the gate. Others usually allow one caregiver to be with you to the gate.

Don't be shy, when boarding begins, to move to the line when they ask for those who need help to board first.

Bring your own food – what's for sale is awful and mostly unhealthy. I took some cheese, whole wheat crackers, Rainier cherries and grapes to nibble throughout the flight.

Wear layers or bring a blanket. Airlines no longer supply blankets in economy class and for some reason the planes are always chilly

When using wheelchair services, be sure to have some cash for tips.

These thoughts are from my own experience, from watching others at airports and some common sense. I'm sure you have even more good ideas on how to make flying easier for elders.

At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Mary Mack: Countless Words


Al-Qaeda take note: Ronnie says all you have to do to get past security is pay extra for your tickets. Just kidding. I think it was more of a matter of your seniority that got you special privileges.

Those are great tips, Ronni. The only thing I would ad has to do with luggage. I try to stuff everything I'll need into a roller case to carry on. This not only saves the luggage charge but also saves the time and hassle of retrieving it at arrival.

I've always been able to get help hefting it into the overhead. Folks are happy to help a sweet old lady. If the plane is of the smallish type, they will check the bag at the door and place it near the exit area at arrival for free.

Oh, regarding seat selection... For flights longer than a couple of hours, I try to get an aisle seat so I can easily get up to stretch, etc. And don't forget to stretch, wriggle and otherwise stimulate circulation in your legs to avoid blood clots on long flights.

I got the fast lane treatment on my last flight as well. Nice surprise. I don't think it's a random call, though. The agents probably have protocols that include little old ladies, at least I hope that's the case because I'm heading for "the place that speaks to my soul", No. California, in the Fall.

I'm looking forward to your reports on new electronics useful to elders. My failing eyesight will require a lot of help soon. I'm already availing myself of tools imbedded in computers, tablets and smart phones that help make screens readable.

A rolling carryon bag with 4 wheels that roll without resistance over all surfaces. (Some of them are difficult to maneuver over carpet) Try them out before purchasing one. (I tried several at Macy's). Pushing this roller at my side helped me walk easily and quickly through a very big airport. Also a small lightweight crossover style handbag to hold tickets, ID, etc for easy access.

In the last few years I have seen signs posted in the security lines stating that people 75 and older do not have to remove shoes, etc. I have a friend who enjoyed that privilege, and I will be able to do so on my next trip!

I live in fear of my next flight. I haven't flown in eleven years and don't expect to again until a death in the family requires it (4 siblings and their spouses live 800 miles away). That will make any flight extra stressful. I'm heavier than I was (and seats are smaller), totally unfamiliar with today's security requirements, badly out of shape for dashing around airport concourses, have never rented a car, etc. I hope but don't expect people to help an older woman get through all that. Dread, dread, dread ...

I too was pulled out of line and directed to the fast track lane when I flew a couple of months ago. I had not purchased more expensive seating. I think it had to do with having gray hair and being female.

I travel very often. I recommend :travel with only a light cabin luggage, take the strict necessary only, VERY IMPORTANT wear special stockings bas de contention, have an interesting pocketbook which you can left behind, it makes shorter the waiting time, take an empty bottle and fill it with water after the controls because it is better to avoid deshydratation

I have been making use of a wheelchair since I broke my hip and standing became painful. I do not have to pay extra for front seats. Wheelchair users are boarded first and they are given a seat in the first two rows. More people are signing up for wheelchairs and if there are too many being boarded before me it forces me to sit in the second row and that's hard for me because I need to stretch my leg if it becomes painful.

I never take a flight if I have to change planes now because being trapped in a wheelchair is not pleasant if you have several hours between planes. Not only are the chairs uncomfortable, but if you need to use the restroom you are stuck.

I always carry at least six $5 bills before traveling to tip the person that pushes me around the concourse.

One trip I had a $20 and a $5 bill folded up in my wallet. I took the wrong one out and gave the helper a $20 tip. I bet I made their day. After that I checked the denomination first. ;-)

I wear a jacket or sweater when I fly to avoid being cold.

If you have the time, take the train, and get a sleeper. I look forward to my train trips.

I've been given the TSA Pre-screening check-in the last several times I've flown (in the past 3 months). What a nice surprise! I'd assumed it was because of my age (over 60), but maybe not. Here's a link to the FAQ page of the TSA-Pre Program web site:

I travel frequently from Tucson and usually get the "special random treatment" due, I am sure, to my white hair. All of the above hints are really great and I have used all at some time. I check a larger roller bag with everything I might need in it. My empty purse goes in that bag and I use a small roller bag while in flight. It contains my computer, Kindle, Medications, contents of my purse and small gifts for the grandsons who will meet me at the airport. This bag fits under the seat and I don't have to carry it or be concerned about my laptop, or meds getting lost. Protein bars are easy to handle and pack as are dried fruits. If you can, stick in a tooth brush and travel tube of tooth paste. I will sit anywhere, but usually prefer a window seat as I slways need to change planes on cross country flights and use the restrooms in the airport. Changing planes also allows me to stretch my legs and move around.

Go to TSA website posted by Marsha above. Enter security and age in search box. You will see guidelines for those 75 and older.

Do NOT assume because you're older and female that you 'll be treated any better. I and about a dozen other ladies filling that description were pulled out of the queue at Spokane Airport some years ago and frisked thoroughly. After some minutes I reached towards my handbag for a tissue and a voice bellowed "Move away from the bag ma'am!"
We must have filled the description of a suspect at the time. My husband looked on from a distance with some amusement!

Great hints Ronni, I have given up on flying and have opted for the train or driving instead as I do have the time for it. I have COPD and sometimes the O2 levels are not sufficient for me on a plane, and I get what amounts to altitude sickness aboard. If I had to fly I could rent a portable oxygen kit and can take it aboard. I believe you have to make arrangements ahead of time though.

One more discovery via my husband. Before our last trip, when my husband was planning the plane tickets, he discovered that if one flies on Monday first class was the same as coach and no baggage fees. Delta. And too, we went through the no check lines. I too had been truly dreading this flight as our previous flights had been so bad. First class goes through the easy lines. First class get's fed too. All the way across country - free. We will fly Delta on Monday's from now on.

I load my backpack with laptop, snacks, small toiletries, anything valuable. Backpack is tucked under my seat and used as a footstool.

Neat for petites!

As someone who flies back and forth PDX to NYC, and often Newark...I live on the West Side, 43rd & 9th. I like the red-eye with no stops. Nothing like getting to the Portland airport late at night (yes it will be way past your bedtime) Last time I had a salad a drink and watched the Academy Awards before getting on Jet Blue and sleeping or watching something. And talk about that view of NYC at 6am in the morning. After a quick nap, if even, I'm ready for the city. Coming from NYC, I like to go to Seattle, (more non-stops), visit friends and take the train down to Portland. It's beautiful.

I also had the easy check-in from TSA. I think they have so much to worry about that gray haired ladies with records of safe travel and retiring lives get the go ahead. I would recommend that you bring slipper socks if you need to take off your shoes to get more comfortable.

This post has some good information both from Ronni and from many of the commenters. I long ago flipped off the airlines because of the draconian Homeland Security rules which, to my knowledge, have not caught more than a half-dozen possible--possible--terrorists while imposing intrusive and invasive procedures on millions of helpless and hapless passengers. Like Jane and Celia, I take the train because since retirement I DO have the time and fortunately can afford a private cabin.

But the advice in the post was valuable in case I ever have to get somewhere fast, although in truth, once you factor in the trip to an out-of-town airport, lengthy waiting and check-in times, plus more time to connect with ground transportation and finish your trip, you haven't saved nearly as much time as you thought you would. Further, even my numerous job related cross-country trips back in the pre-TSA days were uncomfortable and exhausting after the airlines stopped treating passengers like guests and began herding us on and off with only a bag of peanuts to allay our hunger---and a glass of something if you paid for it. So, although I was heartened by the news that my white hair and cane would finally have some benefit, air travel sounds almost as bad as I thought it would be.

The alternative, Amtrak, may not be perfect, but booking a cabin puts you in first class and gives you a number of perks, including very good meals in a pleasant white tablecloth, china and glass (maybe not crystal) setting. Random seating almost always places you with interesting meal companions, and train culture requires that you converse as if you've been friends for life. The scenery is awesome and you can move around at will. Sleeping on a train is heavenly. Even on a short trip, the coach seats are very comfortable and you can still take advantage of the dining car and the club car at reasonable costs. And with all that, you still get where you're going relaxed and unrumpled.

My personal experience with trains---and I have had a lot, although not for a few years---is that Amtrak staff are personable, efficient, and frequently train buffs like their passengers. It's like a club and regardless of diversity in other areas, we all seem to have our love of trains in common. The only drawback to train travel is that it's not as universally available as it once was before freeways took over this country. But I have hope that even politicians are beginning to see the light and that someday train travel in the U.S. will be as ubiquitous as it is in Europe and Asia. Our (California) Governor is pushing high speed rail funding for the inland corridor. And Ronni, if you have business or friends on the West Coast the Starlight or Daylight will get you from downtown Portland to points north or points south in total comfort.

As well as layered clothing for the chilly planes, taking a sarong is good as a blanket or a makeshift pillow.

Glad your travels were hassle free.

Sven and I traveled to Sweden last month. There were no aisle seats left and Sven had considerable leg pain upon arrival. But what I want to report on is our return to the USA, via Logan. No special line for seniors, or even young women with exhausted babies at Security. It took us a half hour of waiting to get to the front. I was totally disgusted. There should be a priority lane, don't you think? Only three counters were open, with five airplanes arriving at once. No thought for the American passengers. I guess for foreigners, it was even more of an ordeal. But I think seniors need to speak up. Sven refuses to let me push him in a wheelchair. But then he suffers for days after the flight. Hope you had fun in NYC.

Ronni, forgot to comment on yesterday's "Week in Manhattan, Part Two" about the photo of you sitting on the park bench with your friend: you look GREAT!

This is great. My name is "Annie". Granny Annie and I posted today about the fact that in August I am flying for the first time since 1999. I have not flown at all since 9/11 and all the security changes. Now you have really got me to thinking!! Thanks Ronnie.

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