Last summer a pilot for a commuter airline serving my home state of Maine got a fair amount of publicity when he apparently fell partway out of the plane while it was flying. He hung on for dear life and the copilot landed the aircraft in Portland. It was national news for most Americans, but for those of us who use the commuter air services serving the Pine Tree State, that was just flying Down East-style.
Over the years, I have entrusted myself to various commuter airlines which, as the laws of gravity and the federal bankruptcy courts allow, try to fly to Maine.
The thrill begins at Boston's Logan Airport at the remote and shabby ticket counter of whichever tiny commuter service is operating in Maine. In the past 20 years there have been a blurring succession of these operations, most inevitably flying off into the wild blue yonder of Chapter 11 or worse.
Flatlanders, as out-of-staters are called at home, often ask my advice about air travel. Here are a few of the tips I dispense.
Luggage. Take none, as all luggage for passengers flying to Maine is sent to Oregon (where there is another city named Portland, naturally). You can buy anything you need at L.L. Bean, which is not far from the airport.
Schedules. Flights to Maine leave whenever the spirit moves the airline's staff, and departure and arrival times have nothing whatsoever to do with the printed schedule.
Dress code. This is a tough one, as it is difficult to prepare for unpressurized cabins where temperatures can soar into the nineties sans ventilation or, as the case may be, drop to zero.
Announcements. All in-flight announcements are completely unintelligible because of the droning of the aircraft. However, as the pilot and copilot are separated from the passengers by only a curtain or old blanket drawn across the portal, just tap one of them on the shoulder if you have a question.
Heart patients and the elderly. Stick to the Greyhound.
Children. Children under the age of 6 are lashed down before departure in Boston, and because of acute oxygen deprivation, soon fall fast asleep.
Inflight service. Because the aircraft are given to bucking and lurching through the sky, no attempt is made to serve food or drink.
Navigation. Informal. The copilot usually makes no attempt to conceal from the passengers the fact that he is using a state highway map to guide the pilot northward, generally following I-95 if it is visible from the air.
(And what of the flights when the copilot leaves the map on the bar at the Cloud 9 cocktail lounge at Logan? On such occasions it is necessary for volunteersto come forward to aid the crew in identifying whether the city they are approaching is Augusta or Lewiston. It was only my own extraordinary knowledge of the state's topography that kept us from landing in the parking lot of an abandoned drive-in movie theater on the midcoast one foggy night.)
Here are some oft-asked questions:
If my flight is delayed, will the airline assist the party waiting for me in Maine?
Yes, the airline's staff of trained experts, ever anxious to assist the traveler, will tell your loved ones, many of whom have driven long distances, that you are not on the next flight up from Boston, or the one after that, either. And that they have no record whatsoever of your intention to fly with them.
Are the airlines staffed by skilled and trained experts?
Yes, indeed, with preferential hiring treatment accorded former crop dusters and unemployed stuntmen.
Can I reach out-of-the-way destinations easily?
No problem there. Maine airlines, in a manner reminiscent of rural bus travel, will stop just about anywhere there's an airport, even if such destinations are not announced in advance or regularly scheduled.
Will taxis or shuttle vans be available at Maine airports?
Yes, both cabs will be at the airport in Portland, ready to serve you.
Why do travelers put up with such service?
The natives are a simple folk who know no better. Turistas in quest of lobster traps to make coffee tables will put up with anything.
What does the state of Maine hope to gain from this?
The return of passenger trains by the end of the century. Christopher Corbett, author of the novel "Vacationland" (Viking), did not have the strength to fly to Maine for Thanksgiving this year.