An old man is shuffling through security at an airport. The line behind him is long, peopled mostly with business road warriors who know the routine and give no truck to laggards. The old man is gruffly told by a TSA agent to remove his shoes. It is clear he cannot bend over to untie them and a road warrior grumbles, “Christ, can’t people learn to wear shoes without laces to airports.”
No TSA agent will help. There is no chair for the old man to sit in to remove his shoes. He is helpless, as the grumbling behind him spreads, until an old woman, a stranger to the man, bends over to untie his shoes for him and place them in the tray for x-ray. She bends over again on the other side of the security frame and almost lovingly puts on his shoes and reties them, but not without warnings from the TSA agent to hurry it along.
Crabby Old Lady could fill several posts with such airport security stories. Sometimes it is a young mother wrangling a couple of kids and an infant who slows up the line. More often it is an elder, occasionally walking with a cane, who can’t move fast enough to suit the TSA and other travelers.
But the air travel difficulties for elders don’t stop at security.
Much to her surprise, Crabby has traveled in the past year at least as frequently as she did when she was working for the television networks. She has, in that year, been through about 20 airports and none are equipped for or accommodate elders.
If you can’t sprint a mile or more between flights dragging a 40-to-50 pound bag plus a personal bag with heavy laptop, reading material and the other usual accoutrements, you are not welcome at airports.
Unless one lives in a large city and is traveling to another large city, it is no longer possible to get to a destination on one airplane. Because the probability of checked bags arriving with the passenger at the same time and place was never high even before airline cutbacks, and is much lower now, Crabby never packs more than she can stuff into a carry-on.
But the ramps from the plane, which appear to get longer with each trip, are steep for hauling 40 - 50 pounds and Crabby must stop to rest several times. No one ever offers to help.
Some of the small airplanes have no enclosed ramp and so an old traveler is obliged, on arrival, to haul her bag up two flights of stairs. No easy task for Crabby these days. It happened three times on her latest trip and she was grateful for the young man at one airport who carried her bag up for her.
Once in the airport, exhausted from the ramp or stairs, there is a mile or more to walk to the next plane or the front of the airport for a taxi and in all her travels this year, Crabby has encountered only one airport with electric carts.
Remember those? They carry six or eight people with their bags and toot along at a pace equal to about twice walking speed. They were terrific, even when Crabby was young and had too much to carry. But no more. Only wheelchairs are available which require a 10-to-20 minute wait (usually when you have 30 minutes until the next take-off) and require a minimum five dollar tip to the pusher which is, essentially, an extra fee for not being young and spry.
The requirement to be with one’s bags at all times irks Crabby too. It is close to impossible to get into a restroom stall with carry-on and laptop bags and still sit on the toilet. In pre-9/11 days, other passengers were willing to watch bags while you went to the restroom or to the newsstand to buy a paper. No more; now they are afraid you are a terrorist.
There is another baggage twist Crabby is obliged to suffer on the small planes that depart from and arrive in Portland, Maine: carry-ons do not fit in overhead compartments, so there is a trolley on the tarmac next to the plane from which porters load the bags into the hold. Invariably, all the space is taken on the lower racks by the time Crabby arrives with no one in sight to help hoist her bag onto the top rack.
Although this complaint is not exclusive to elders, what about legroom. As Crabby was obtaining her boarding passes at a kiosk last week, a screen informed her that for an additional $90 or so she could have a seat with more legroom. Crabby is guessing that is about $18 per inch – outrageous – and not in Crabby’s budget.
Crabby is 5’ 2” tall and her knees always touch the seat in front of her. What do taller people (almost everyone else) do? If you err and do not pull out all the reading matter, water bottle and other items you might need during the flight, you do without; it is not possible to get your pocketbook from under the seat when knees touch the back of the seat in front of you.
These days, Crabby always arrives at her destination exhausted and weak, needing a day to recover. But that’s not possible in our go-go, 21st century world of sardine-can airplanes that are no better than buses in the sky. Who can afford an extra day’s hotel bill that would be required for a rest in arriving a day early?
And to add to her misery, on this trip Crabby again picked up some bug – undoubtedly from an airplane’s recycled air – that has left her still feeling flu-ish, tired and coughing. If Crabby Old Lady were king of the world, she would dispense with terrorist screenings and require a health certificate from every passenger.
Crabby doubts she will adhere to her every end-of-trip vow to never go anywhere again that requires getting on an airplane. But the single thing that would improve air travel for elders is reinstating electric carts at all airports. A young person’s sprint is an old person’s heart attack waiting to happen.
[At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Ronni Prior recalls a school class that no longer exists in Adventures in Home-Ec.]