Well Seated

It was my own fault and I was seething. I had done this to myself, even though I knew better. Now I was going to pay the price. There was nothing, absolutely nothing, that could make me feel better. And I knew it.

The object of my scorn was me, myself and I. I don’t know about you, but I tend to get more angry with myself than I ever do with anyone else.  Even though I knew better, the stars had aligned in such a way that I had booked an outbound flight for late in the afternoon—from Dulles Airport no less. As someone who flies to and from all four Washington airports (BWI, DCA, IAD and RIC) with regularity, I know that, above all, you stay away from Dulles on Friday nights, Sunday evenings and Monday mornings.

Yet here I was in the middle of a torrential rain storm, in a security line that they had closed down for 15 minutes to let some bigwig I didn’t recognize through. Mercifully, I was able to take the shuttle to the D Gates rather than go through the new underground train that leaves you off a mile from any sign of civilization. Some bright project accountant must have said “hey, we don’t have money for two train stops, so let’s just put one smack dab in the middle of where they should be and let people schlepp their stuff for an extra 10 minutes,” they cackled. “What a great diversion it will be from our normal, boring lives to watch from behind the ‘under construction’ barricades as people buckle under the weight of their carry-on bags.” So that’s just what they did.  Anyway, I digress.

Now when I booked my flight a few weeks ago I was assigned a seat, number 23A—a nice window seat in Economy Plus on United. For those of you who don’t know, Economy Plus offers two perks: first, you get the whole can of soda and, second, you have enough leg room so that you probably won’t get deep vein thrombosis on flights 5 hours or less.

Somehow, though, between when I booked my ticket and when I printed it out the boarding pass, my nice little 23A had been replaced with the ominous phrase “See Agent.”  For those of you who don’t fly often, “See Agent” is rarely a good thing. “See Agent” on a boarding pass without a seat number is usually gate agent-speak for “you aren’t goin’ anywhere; I just don’t want to tell you yet. I want you to enjoy the illusion of traveling without really doing so. And, with any luck I will be off-duty and long gone when someone else finally has to break it to you.”

So what did I do, even though I knew better? I went up and saw the agent. Now here I will tell you that I fly a lot. I actually have more than one million flight miles with United (and, that’s a story in itself, some other time). I mention this because when the agents know you fly that much, they know that you are fluent in gatespeak. Sometimes they don’t even try it on you, like in this case.

“This means I don’t have a seat for you yet,” said the very nice gate agent with a great voice and a Sideshow Bob-ish hairdo. “Just sit down and I will call you once I have a seat for you.” Smile.

So down I sat. I sat through early boarding, Zone 1, Zone 2, the kid-and-wheelchair zone, I sat through six whole zones until it was just me, the gate agent and a nice but totally bewildered visitor from Chile.

“Uh, excuse me, but I couldn’t help notice that the whole plane is pretty much loaded and I know you told me you would get to me but, given the fact that they are closing the door and all, I just thought I would check again because, see here, it says “SEE AGENT.”

You must never be rude to gate agents. You must remain totally subservient to them because it’s the right thing to do. Besides, if you don’t they will get you. They are so good at this you will not even know you have been gotten until it’s too late. I learned this years ago when I had the audacity to calmly and politely question the wisdom of delaying a planeload of 300 people (most with connections) for more than 90 minutes waiting for misplaced coffee cups. “Given the choice between coffee and making their connections,” I observed sweetly, “I dare say most of us would have opted to forego the coffee and make our original connection.” That earned me a seat in a row with an exit row in front and another in back of me. Not only did it lack legroom, it lacked even knee room on the 6-hour flight. So I treat the agent like the great and all powerful Oz.

“$%^&)*,” said Sideshow Bobette under her breath to the agent next to her. “She doesn’t have a seat and she is supposed to.” This is how I got the only open seat in the plane in the middle seat of the middle section on a 767 in the United Economy Minus section. But at least I was on. So what if I didn’t have enough room to open my laptop— heck, I was going to write this blog on that flight—no big deal, at least I’d made it.  And when we sat at the gate for 57 minutes because, as the pilot put it, they didn’t have enough manpower to load the bags in the rain, I was okay with that. Even the additional hour on the tarmac was no sweat because I couldn’t feel my legs anymore anyway.

Truly, though, deep down I was angry for putting myself through this and I was angry at the airlines for continuing to pretend we are important to them while trying to see how much we will take before we revolt.

But that feeling changed in an instant.

Just as we started to turn to take off, I was able to see across the aisle clearly and out the window. There, not more than what seemed like a few hundred feet away, was the Space Shuttle Discovery, parked bareback atop a 747, in all her unique glory. I had seen the Enterprise circle the Beltway many years ago and that was exciting. But this was even moreso because you could see the knicks and dings and the wear and tear that 147 million miles of space travel bring. She was magnificent.

In an instant, my sophomoric self rantings about my seat and the day faded away. “We did this,” I thought. “The U.S. did this. We made it and there’s nothing like it anywhere else.” Before I could stifle it, a lump of patriotic pride made its way to my throat.

So you got this blog instead of an analysis of changes at the primary manufacturers, but  I’ll make up for it next week. And the United flight attendant who mysteriously ended up in 23A may have had a great seat, but she didn’t have a great view. See I learned a great lesson today: Sometimes, the middle seat is the best seat on Earth.