Essay: Cutting it close at the airport
Friday, August 6, 2010; 10:13 AM
I have a fantasy of air travel, and it goes like this: I cab to the airport with my pre-printed boarding pass in hand, go through an efficiently moving security line and get to the gate just as the flight is starting to board.
Clarification: I get to the gate just as the flight is starting to board my particular zone.
Well, who wouldn't want such a thing, right? Let me make sure you understand, however. My ultimate hope is that I never have to break my stride, never wait around for the boarding to begin, never - God forbid - sit.
Since 9/11, we've been told to get to the airport as early as two hours before departure, even for a domestic flight. I understand why, at least in theory: Going through security certainly takes longer than it used to, in the days before toiletries maxed out at three ounces, laptops required their own bins and the most important thing you could do when dressing for travel was to remember to wear slip-on shoes.
But in my mind there's a more pressing problem: I. Hate. Waiting.
So much so, in fact, that a trip to the airport becomes a heart-pounding adventure as I cut things way too close for comfort and rely on far too many unknowns: A working Internet connection so I can check in online. A working printer (enough ink, enough paper) so that I can print my boarding pass at home. The ability to quickly hail a cab. Luck in finding a driver who knows the best route; even better, one who drives like a bat out of hell. A quick line at security.
It's dangerous, really, and admittedly pretty ridiculous. I can't defend it, can't recommend it. And I can't stop doing it, particularly when I'm flying out of Reagan National Airport, where security is usually a cinch and the variables more manageable than at Dulles, although I confess to a recent down-to-the-wire cab ride there, too.
I guess this is in my blood, or at least in my upbringing. I was only 8 and my sister Julie just 10 when we started flying from West Texas to Chicago to stay with my father for a month every summer. Stewardesses and other staff kept watch over us once we boarded and on any layovers, but getting to the airport was another story, especially on the return trip south. Our stepmother was so chronically tardy wherever she went with us that my most vivid memories of O'Hare involve sprinting.
Before 9/11, we weren't the only ones sliding into the gate like it was home plate. Nowadays, of course, it's a different story. And I acknowledge that it wouldn't be so easy to breeze through at the last minute if everyone else didn't seem to allow so much extra time. I sometimes think of "If Everybody Did," a children's book that admonishes young readers (in verse, naturally) to imagine the consequences if they weren't the only ones to "make tracks," "spill tacks," "close the door" or "stomp and roar," and I feel a little childishly selfish.
And then I do it all over again.
Take one of my most recent trips, a June flight to Providence, R.I.
It started with a survey of friends the day before in my dog park. The departure time was 11:35 a.m. I live in Dupont Circle. When would you walk out your door to catch a cab?