Air Travel and Elders
Thursday, 07 July 2011
If you insist on reducing the width of the aisle on the plane to 14 inches, it is not discriminatory to require your flight attendants' backsides to be narrower than 18 or 20 inches.
The attendant of the wide butt banged her hip into Crabby Old Lady's shoulder every time she walked by and once, approaching from behind where Crabby couldn't see her coming, knocked Crabby's Kindle out of her hand.
Fortunately, those are tough little gadgets and luckily too, no one stepped on it while Crabby was disengaging from the tight quarters of her seat to retrieve it from the floor. And that was the least of Crabby's air travel woes.
Here is a remarkable achievement in engineering: On one plane during the trip, Crabby's feet didn't reach the floor causing her legs to go numb while the reading light button and the fresh air valve were placed too high to be reachable. Someone must have spent a great deal of effort to make that possible.
And fresh air, indeed. For several years, on every plane, Crabby gets a banging headache within an hour of take-off which is not alleviated until she steps, gasping, into the relatively cleaner air of the terminal. This trip was no exception.
A year ago, after several cross-country trips in quick succession, Crabby Old Lady vowed never in her remaining years to fly again unless there is a tax-free, million-dollar check waiting for her at the far end of the trip.
Crabby broke her vow a couple of weeks ago when, due to an invitation to a conference that promised to be worthwhile, she traveled from Portland, Oregon (PDX) to Detroit, Michigan (DTW) and back via, in each direction, a plane change in Minneapolis (MSP).
The four flights were more of a horror than Crabby had recalled. That the air travel industry – specifically, commercial airlines and airports – has become expert at human torture is not news. Crabby's contention, however, is that it is particularly hard on elders.
Let's start with the Transportation Safety Administration, the TSA, and security check-in. It's not just the agents' intrusion into private parts we read about with increasing frequency.
Due to a temporary physical problem, Crabby has a limited range of motion in her right arm so that it is difficult, slow and painful to get out of her jacket. Lots of elders have other conditions – age itself is enough - that slow them down, but we are pressured in that security line to keep moving, moving, moving.
If you're wearing socks or stockings, removing shoes leaves the passenger in danger of slipping on the slick floor and if you're old, you are super aware that a fall could mean the end of your mobility for a year or more or even forever. So you step carefully which usually means slower than everyone else.
But the TSA officers and those business road warriors behind urge you forward at their young or midlife speed. You can hear their deliberately loud sighs and know without looking that they are also rolling their eyes.
The public seems generally tolerant of a parent herding two or three rambunctious children, but they have no patience for elders.
Airlines require that domestic passengers arrive 75 minutes before flight time. Add in an hour's travel from home to the airport and it becomes more than two hours before lift off – if the plane leaves on time - and a lot of that is spent walking and standing.
Apparently, there has been a change in boarding procedure since Crabby last flew a year ago. The useful and efficient system of boarding the back of the plane first has been ditched for the reverse leaving the majority of passengers backed up in the jetway for 15, 20, sometimes 30 minutes while those with seats in the front of the plane block the aisles.
With all that walking and waiting, Crabby Old Lady was exhausted before she left the ground.
Leaving her home for this trip in the early morning, Crabby had been pleasantly surprised to find that her wheelie was remarkably light compared to past trips. Staying over in Dearborn only two nights, there hadn't been much to pack, the tiny Kindle replaced the two or three pounds of books Crabby dragged with her in the past and her laptop in her over-large shoulder bag, while heavier than the carry-on, was manageable.
Or, would have been if airport management gave any thought to the needs of the legions of elders who fly.
With leaving, arriving and transfers, Crabby faced six long airport walks on this trip. Leaving from PDX and from DTW on her return were tedious but tolerable. It was early in the day.
One of the lessons about getting old that Crabby still must repeatedly re-learn is that what is easy when she is rested and fresh can become impossible late in the day.
Although her energy was waning during the plane change at MSP on her outbound trip and both her wheelie and shoulder bag seemed to have doubled in weight while on the plane, it was a walk in the park compared to the return.
Crabby's flight booking allowed only 40 minutes between planes at MSP. By the time she got into the terminal, she had a scant 25 minutes until take-off. She checked the screen for the next gate. Here was the insurmountable problem:
There was not a chance Crabby could make it that far in 25 minutes. She scanned the terminal for a solution. Just then, an electric cart whizzed past and Crabby's New York City street chops kicked in. She thrust out her arm and yelled, “TAXI,” stretching out the word to three our four syllables.
Everyone turned to stare at her outburst. But the cart stopped and the driver laughed, saying no one had ever hailed him that way before.
Even on the cart, it was 30 minutes to the gate and Crabby resigned herself to waiting hours for the next plane.
She did wait hours – five to be exact – but not because she missed the plane. Due to a mechanical problem, the flight was delayed. Five hours during which Crabby became increasingly depleted of energy hauling her bags to the rest room a couple of times, along the corridor and back looking for food that wasn't deep fried (there was none) and the constant din of announcements broadcast at decibels high enough to kill.
At one point, exhausted almost to tears, Crabby asked the woman sitting next to her if she would keep an eye on her wheelie while Crabby went to the rest room. “Oh, that's not allowed,” said the woman. “Terrorists, dontcha know.”
And you're a pig, “dontcha know,” thought tired, hungry and cranky Crabby. At least her airplane headache had stopped banging by then.
Crabby had intended to make this report funny but this stuff isn't funny and travel should not be this hard.
She was deeply grateful for that electric cart at MPS, but there were none at DTW and PDX. When Crabby finally deplaned at her home town airport, the walk from the gate, all uphill, felt like climbing Mt. Everest and it was four days until Crabby felt her old self again.
Since airlines and airports are unlikely to improve conditions for elders (or anyone else), Crabby has renewed her no-fly vow.
At The Elder Storytelling Place toay, Linda Carmi: I am a Widow Now
Well, I guess Melbourne’s off the itinerary.
Posted by: Peter Tibbles | Thursday, 07 July 2011 at 05:43 AM
My husband has never liked to fly. We have not had an airplane trip in years. I doubt we will ever take another.
If everything you suffered was improved or eliminated there would be thousands of airline passengers who would be very, very grateful. Most younger folks may handle it better but the comfort level and dare I say the enjoyment of air travel might return.
Posted by: Genie | Thursday, 07 July 2011 at 06:34 AM
I'm amazed that more of us don't opt for railway travel. My parents used Amtrak, extensively, and loved it. Of course, that was before 9/11 and I don't know what it's like now - although, I have been considering a trip to the west coast in the intermediate future.
Airframe manufacturers are required to demonstrate that evacuation can take place within a short period of time. When I was in my mid-60s, I took part in one such test as an "over-50 female". I am pretty sure that this demonstration must cover the most crowded interior configuration of an aircraft; but, I doubt that such tests take place/are required to take place with "over-70" participants - or with someone lugging oxygen equipment. (My expertise is in the structural integrity of an aircraft, not the interiors.)
I don't know where one draws the line of reasonable expectations. Trade-offs must be made between passenger comfort and cost (in aircraft weight and/or reduced passenger count).
Posted by: Cop Car | Thursday, 07 July 2011 at 07:28 AM
Ronni - truly I feel your pain. But if you do fly again - request a wheel chair. You will find that many things are addressed. Can't help the restructuring of planes to squeeze in more sardines, oops, passengers, but you will be taken past the long lines and given more time through security and you can also board early with passengers who need special assistance or more time to board. We have started doing this for my husband, who can't walk too far without intense pain in his knee and it's made a significant difference.
Posted by: Brenda V | Thursday, 07 July 2011 at 07:45 AM
To answer your question, CopCar, about Amtrak travel: I travel on the train frequently and I love it. Let me say, however, that I always get a sleeper when I travel overnight.
It makes me sad that America does not support the train system fully. We could be doing so much more.
Posted by: Darla | Thursday, 07 July 2011 at 07:45 AM
Dear Crabby....Way back in 1984 I began a Full-Time life-style in a Motor Home. I have flown one time since 1984 from AZ to Washington DC.
and return...probably in 1995?
I was only 64 then and I HATED that trip!!! Talk about headaches!!!! It was physical agony! The Stewardess brought chewing gum which I chewed 90 miles an hour....Then styrofoam cups to hold over my ears while I chewed as fast as possible.... Nothing worked!!
I have not, and never will fly again unless I have my own wings and can fly at a very low level above the ground!
I will drive my Motor Home and always sleep in my own bed and have my own stuff. My Clyde cat will always be with me too!
Posted by: Elizabeh Evelyn | Thursday, 07 July 2011 at 07:50 AM
I haven't flown since before 9/11, and have no desire to fly after reading so many horror stories about the state of air travel today.
On the other hand, my sister, age 67, flew round-trip last month from Nevada to Michigan and didn't have any problems. She's tougher than I am, though, so I can't go by her experience.
Making air travel easier for seniors would entice a lot more of us to travel by air, thus enhancing the bottom line of the airlines. You'd think they'd have caught on to that by now.
Posted by: SuzyR | Thursday, 07 July 2011 at 07:56 AM
Argggggggg! We fly to FL in early Sept. to see the grandkids & I'm dreading it. However, we do get a w/chair for my DH who has difficulty walking & it does ease things for us, but I still dread it. My DH worked for 2 airlines for 40 years & I remember the days we flew (all over the world) without a problem & 3 toddlers, then teens in tow. Of course that was before 9/11. Nevertheless, I was/am still grateful that we had that opportunity. But like everything else, change is here & we occasionally endure. I'll venture a guess & say this will probably our last trip so we'll enjoy the little ones on SKYP. Dee
Posted by: Dee | Thursday, 07 July 2011 at 08:00 AM
My two tips when traveling this nightmare: BYO food. Nourishing, affordable, and available on demand. And, travel light (a cousin of live light). Glad you're back home!
Posted by: tamar | Thursday, 07 July 2011 at 08:01 AM
Thanks so much for posting about your trip. All too true about how tiring it is. Had many moments of grinning especially about the carry-on being heavier later in the day.
It took me two weeks to heal and recover from a trip to Paris and all connections were fine and no delays. I also travel alone and usually over estimate my stamina.
Wish air travel was easier because I'm not going to stop for a while.
Posted by: Jan Heigh | Thursday, 07 July 2011 at 08:10 AM
Brenda V and Dee...
Crabby Old Lady has considered the wheelchair option but does not feel good or right about it believing it should be reserved for people like your husbands who really need it.
Crabby is capable of the walking; it's just hugely tiring.
Further, a wheelchair does not solve the distance/time problem. All airports should have those electric carts - fast, convenient and civilized.
Posted by: Crabby Old Lady | Thursday, 07 July 2011 at 08:18 AM
I used to love to fly when the airlines actually cared about their customers. When I flew to Florida last summer it was an an exercise in frustration and we flew business class.
Posted by: Kay Dennison | Thursday, 07 July 2011 at 08:46 AM
Most flying I have done in recent years has been from small to medium airports, (Bristol UK or Dublin in Ireland for example) which generally have been fine. I haven't flown since 9/11 - nothing to do with the event, it has just worked out that way.
My one and only trip from London Gatwick, even pre 9/11, was a nightmare though and at that time I was reasonably fit. I prefer the train, but these are now approaching airline standards of comfort on some routes, generally because of overcrowding.
Posted by: Ian Bertram | Thursday, 07 July 2011 at 08:50 AM
I always use a wheelchair and it does make travel easier. I didn't have to go through the metal detector until they started using the full body scan. I had to stand and walk through that this last trip. At least that eliminated the necessity of being patted down.
I discovered that some of the TSA personnel are on a power trip and one woman in LA was almost sadistic as she patted me down. I decided she didn't like old people. I almost wish I had filed a complaint. Others, however, can be very gentle and careful. I find the Hispanics are the nicest. I think it's because they revere elders.
The biggest reason I dread flying alone is my poor hearing. I can't understand the announcements and it can be a big problem. One time, after an announcement, everyone got up and left the gate. I had no idea what was going on so I just followed them. It turned out our plane had been stopped for mechanical problems and we were diverted to other flights. I ended up arriving an hour later than scheduled.
I took Amtrack from LA to Tucson once and had to sit next to a young mad with BO and he talked all night long. That wasn't a fun trip either. The only train going the opposite direction goes though Tucson and one am so train travel is out for me.
I guess I will just stay home.
Posted by: Darlene | Thursday, 07 July 2011 at 08:51 AM
That airline sounds horrible. I try to fly Virgin America or JetBlue. They're great, and friendly, and skinny!
Posted by: Steve Grfield | Thursday, 07 July 2011 at 09:34 AM
Ronni, I AM a lot older and I am disabled, but even years ago I had to ask for wheelchairs. I seldom travel, but I was so impressed on my last trip 8n 2008 with the care I got from the people who pushed me around--above and beyond the call of duty--evidently that's where all the concern for elders and disabled gets funneled. And, by the way, I think more people who need help should ask for wheelchairs, so the airlines begin to realize how huge the demand will be and get ready for the boomers! Look at it as your civic duty--I do!
Posted by: Lyn Burnstine | Thursday, 07 July 2011 at 09:41 AM
I flew for work for many years and even (occasionally) looked forward to the trips, but no more, for every reason Crabby described.
I am making a firm vow to move within reasonable driving and/or train/bus distance to everyone dear to me as much as possible.
Unbelievably, I am leaving tomorrow for a plane trip to Chicago! I tried every way possible to avoid it but often you can't.
I am dreading it slightly less because it's on Southwest, which, like Jet Blue and Alaska, is far more pleasant than many of the big, traditional airlines. But still--would I go if I had a choice? No!
Posted by: Paula | Thursday, 07 July 2011 at 10:27 AM
I haven't flown for years and after reading your account, Ronni, I have recommitted to not doing so. Fortunately I don't have to. As one of your readers observed, it used to be fun when airlines actually cared about their passengers/customers. It's painfully obvious (in more ways than one) that these days, they don't. I guess they just don't need the business.
Posted by: Elizabeth Rogers | Thursday, 07 July 2011 at 10:35 AM
Last year I flew from Phoenix to Manchester UK and back. Changed planes in Philadelphia. The seats were dreadful and the ones on the overseas flight were even worse. I learned on the plane returning home about a site called SeatGuru that gives the dimensions of accommodations on the planes airlines use. I decided paying a little more for comfort might be worth a lot more than money.
I think Portland, OR has the longest walks and the people movers don't make that much difference. I also recommend using a wheel chair as it does expedite getting through security and getting on the plane.
I vowed not to fly again because of the new pat down rules. I always set off the scanner and had them wand me and pat met down because I have a knee implant which I tell them about. So I know every time I flew I would have to go through the new procedure and I won't.
My last two trips to Portland, OR I drove from Arizona and back.
Posted by: Julie J | Thursday, 07 July 2011 at 10:40 AM
They sure don't make it easy, Ronni.
We're stuck with flying. Thankfully, we can usually fly on Hawaiian Airlines, which tries to make the flying experience pleasant, even for coach passengers. Believe it or not, we rather enjoy these five hour hops over the Pacific from Honolulu to Seattle and back.
But most airlines cater to first class and business passengers and don't care about coach passengers. United is just awful, and we flew United for years until we got totally fed up with them.
Even so, we prepare for these flights as if we are going on a mountain expedition. We each take a wheelie and a carry on and usually check the wheelie.
It would really really help, I think, if everyone would consider air travel as a low-grade emergency situation that calls for good preparation.
Posted by: Hattie | Thursday, 07 July 2011 at 10:55 AM
Travel isn't easy for anyone anymore. I always try to help older individuals when I can, but airlines don't give very much information to any of us resulting in a lot of confusion.
Posted by: Gwinavere | Thursday, 07 July 2011 at 11:32 AM
My husband and I certainly spend a lot of our time in airports, going back to China as often as we do, and each time I say this is the last. But then here we are again going back in Sept for 4 months. After all his family is there, but hopefully I can not go after this trip as what you describe is absolutely true. Airplane travel is terrible now.
Posted by: Johna Ferguson | Thursday, 07 July 2011 at 12:35 PM
Has anyone taken the Queen Mary from the US to England? I've always wanted to try that.
Posted by: Darla | Thursday, 07 July 2011 at 12:58 PM
I realize that taking the train takes time, but there is the solution to the problem. Are we retired? We have the time to ride the rails if we so wish and I wish.
Posted by: Mage Bailey | Thursday, 07 July 2011 at 01:52 PM
"And you're a pig, dontcha know", did make me laugh.
What a great help your telling us, this is.
Thank you and I wish "they" were taking note.
Being sensory sensitve my whole life, your take on the trip rings true in quite a few ways. Add age and it becomes worse. My only consolation is that I have more company now! No one knew what it was like for people like me and they don't know what it's like for elders. Just wait till they get there. Could the boomers force a change? That would be sweet.
Posted by: notdotdot | Thursday, 07 July 2011 at 02:42 PM
What galls me most is that we Americans have become such compliant little mice in the face of the TSA and the airline industry. We meekly let the TSA treat us as if we are all terrorists until proven otherwise, via having our civil and personal rights take away from us and then we allow the airlines to treat us like a load of chickens on the way to the slaughterhouse, cramping us in claustrophobic seat, feeding us nothing and making us wait for delayed flights with almost no explanation. 99.99% of us and maybe even more are NOT terrorists and whatever our age we are humans who deserve to be treated with dignity and respect -- we are paying well in order to be tortured and insulted. Won't someone step forth and start a movement demanding concern and dignity?
Posted by: June Calender | Thursday, 07 July 2011 at 03:02 PM
I learned how to fly without too many complications by swallowing my pride(i.e. I don't need help from anyone.)
Well, as a matter of face, if I take all the help that is offered to me it makes my trip quite nice.
First, in most airports you will see a row of red seats along the main walkways. They are "Need Assistance" seats.
If you sit in one of those red seats the golf cart will come along and pick you up and take you to your gate.
Once there, when they begin to board the flight and ask for people who need special attention to board, get up and take advantage of that courtesy. You will have the whole plane to yourself for two or three minutes which gives you time to settle in before your seat partners show up.
I always choose a seat as close to the front as possible so I can exit quickly and catch the first golf cart to baggage claim.
When I lived in the city we used to say that certain people were "Street smart". Well, I am now what you would call "Airplane Smart".
It's still not as much fun to fly as it used to be, but if you take advantage of the perks you get for being old it's not that bad.
Posted by: Nancy | Thursday, 07 July 2011 at 04:18 PM
Ronni, your post is timely. Dolores and I recently took her parents from RI to Roanoke, VA. There was no option to go direct so having only 30-40 minutes to make a connection when traveling with elderly is unfortunately laughable and near impossible.
We did request a wheel chair and electric cart for all legs of our travel. It was only delivered on time without a second request once, on the final landing.
Be cautious if ever having to go through Charlotte, NC. Having finally obtained an electric cart, it could only take us part way from terminal E to terminal C as the levels changed. We needed to get off, take an elevator to the upper level, hail another electric cart and then only make the flight due to it being delayed for weather/traffic reasons.
If our parents travel again, we will arrange our travel a little differently to give us more time between connections in particular.
Posted by: Steve Sherlock | Thursday, 07 July 2011 at 06:34 PM
I agree with Brenda V, Ronni. Ask for a wheelchair when you make your reservations. I did that the last time my mom came to visit us here in Sweden. She only had to go through O'Hare, but still...
It all worked swell EXCEPT for when she arrived in Stockholm. For unknown reasons, no one with a wheelchair was waiting for her when she got off the plane. Meanwhile, Hasse and I were out front where you greet arrivals once they've got their bags and gone through customs.
She didn't come and didn't come. Tons of passengers came. The crew came. She didn't come. FINALLY the doors opened and here came this little stooped-over white-haired woman, dragging a suitcase, walking ever-so-slowly... I thought I'd DIE! No, I thought SHE would die! I was SO mad! Still don't know what went wrong.
Anyway, when it works, it's great.
Posted by: Nikki | Friday, 08 July 2011 at 02:59 AM
I'm with Darla - train travel is so much easier. High speed trains for long distances would be wonderful. I used to travel for business via train. The aisles were wider, the seats bigger, more comfortable, only two across and had a lot of leg room. Newer trains have WiFi and electrical outlets at each seat. Since I am a small person I had room to keep my luggage by me instead of in an overhead. Rest rooms were easy to get to as was the cafe car. You can watch the scenery fly by and laugh at stalled traffic.
Caveats: 1. Train travel is not perfect but it sure beats air travel. 2. Granted, I did travel on Amtrak's Metroliner and Acela trains.
Posted by: Flutterby | Friday, 08 July 2011 at 04:43 AM
Steve Garfield's comment above is on point. Delta sux! Northwest used to be tolerable, but they've been on a downhill slope since the Delta merger. (Northwest was no better at making that cross terminal connection in Minneapolis tolerable though. If Detroit planes could come in at gates somewhere near the center of the mess that is the MPLS terminal, those long hikes or "taxi" rides could be cut in half.) Glad to know you survived the trip!
Posted by: Frank Paynter | Friday, 08 July 2011 at 09:57 AM
I fly once or twice a year to see far flung kiddies. I haven't used a wheelchair yet but will hail a "taxi" if need be and one's near.
In another, long ago life, I was a Flight Attendant (Continental called us Hostesses) I loved the job, especially the customer service aspects. When regular chores were done, we were expected to cruise the cabin and chat with passengers. I learned a lot about the "oil bidness" (and got hit on a lot) in my DC-3 over Texas and New Mexico. It really frosts me to see and hear the flight attendants hanging out in the galley laughing and talking or sitting there reading a book when their duties are done. Your mentioning the impossible to reach overhead controls is a case in point. When I need to turn on an overhead light or fix the air thingy, I can't even reach the call button to get the help I need. Catch 22. A good attendant would be cruising the aisles, slowly, and making eye contact to be available to help out.
I've learned how to stuff everything into a small wheelie case including my pillow. It get's too heavy for me to lift into the overhead bin, but I just draft some young gentleman who's rewarded by my big smiling thank you and the admiration of the rest of the folks. Same to get it down, though that's a lot easier. I don't hesitate to ask seat mates for help if I need it.
Make reservations pretty far ahead so you can select your favorite seating. Mine's aisle toward the front, though the down side is you're in the last seating group and there's often no bin space left. Ronni, the seating now goes from window seats through centers to aisles instead of back to front, on UAL. When done right, it works pretty well.
I still like to fly. It helps that I'm in pretty good shape and use airports I'm familiar with. I also bring my own food. And I haven't directly paid for a ticket in ages, using reward miles from my credit card.
One VERY important thing: on long flights, get up to stretch and walk often. Wiggle your feet and massage your legs. All this is to prevent blood clots in the legs from sitting too long.
Posted by: Tarzana | Friday, 08 July 2011 at 10:56 AM
I actually enjoy airplane travel, despite the problems. I am always so excited to be in the air that I will tolerate almost anything to be there.
Posted by: kenju | Friday, 08 July 2011 at 12:21 PM
I hope you asked someone else to watch your bag after dontchaknow refused you. I've never had that request refused, and I've watched plenty of bags for other women.
Also, carry nuts and dried fruit with you always, so that you won't go hungry after tight connections.
Posted by: chrissoup | Friday, 08 July 2011 at 06:27 PM
My husband & I have a joke that he doesn't hear well and I don't see well, so we've got to stick together. This comes into play in a serious way when we have to occasionally fly. If sounds are too loud (like in an airport), his hearing aids shut down and become stoppers. We recently left our pastoral woods in northwest Florida for a trip to New York City to spend a week living in an apartment on the Lower East Side doing research for novels we are both working on. It was an exhausting, exciting, productive week. Every night after a full day at the Municipal Archives or some other spot we would come "home" and order take-out or scramble ourselves some eggs.
The airline travel was miserable. After two abortive attempts to land at La Guardia, then a rocky 3rd attempt and finally a safe landing, I vowed I would never fly again. But I did fly home. Not fun, but despite all that, in this case it was worth the effort and discomfort.
Posted by: Elizabeth Westmark ("Beth") | Saturday, 09 July 2011 at 04:46 AM
All of which (your blog post and the comments) reminds me of why I won't fly either..... I'll content myslef with overland, preferably in the campervan
Posted by: Freda | Sunday, 10 July 2011 at 09:35 AM
I'm dreading the only flight in my future, a trip to London next February for my brother's wedding. It's a 10 hour flight! Traveled the same flight 12 years ago and it wasn't too bad. I'm thinking of flying to New York first, take a couple of days off and then continue to London.
Posted by: Mary O'Connor | Monday, 11 July 2011 at 09:49 AM