(Not Quite) Up in the Air

Traveling a couple times this year, I found myself with time to kill at what I call one of the major crossroads of the planet Earth, Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport — a place where people flying most anywhere must pass through in order to get where they’re going. It is a place of constant movement for about 20 hours a day and hosts the souls of about 240,000 people each day, or 87.6 million people a year, with an average of 2,700 flights arriving or departing daily.

On one particular departure and return, I had a four-hour wait and a two-and-a-half-hour wait respectively and decided to take the opportunity to be clearly aware and observe all that transpired around me, and to engage as many people as possible.

On the departure leg, the airport on a Monday morning was teeming with adolescent groups of teens moving quickly, yet unsure of where to go. They clustered in packs and engaged in nonstop nervous, excited chatter about their first journey overseas — the beginning of their understanding that there is life going on beyond the halls of their high school and the walls of their home. This passage to their first worldly experience will change most of their lives forever by expanding their consciousness and fostering a maturing process only travel can bring. These very lucky kids should forever thank and appreciate their parents’ wisdom, courage and financial sacrifice to encourage their little birdies to test their wings and fly.

Next was the old “stuck on the plane” experience and the myriad feelings it gave rise to — namely frustration, anxiety and helplessness. We made it to the runway for takeoff only to be called back to the gate for an “issue” — a valve that wouldn’t close.

For two hours, 170 of us sat fidgeting in the plane, not getting much information or even water. I was allowed to get off the plane and stand in the air bridge when my legs cramped up. Four ace mechanics worked diligently in 100-degree heat outside, returning often to look at the 700-page manual they had placed on the floor near where I stood. Back and forth they went, finally returning with a carburetor-like part in their hand — the piece with the stuck valve. Using a pair of needle-nose pliers, they then proceeded to force the valve open and return it to the plane.

More information than I needed to see and certainly something the 169 other onboard should not know about.

I asked if the plane would go to maintenance that night. “No,” they responded, “it might be a week before it does.” They assured me the part was not critical to flight operations.

Hmmm, I thought. Then why did we get called back to the gate for a three-hour ordeal?

Since I am composing this, you know that all transpired fine.

Last, and most notable, was my Saturday return. The airport was filled with traveling soldiers — an inordinate amount of them. Guess that is a good travel day for military between the business week and Sunday leisure return day. I engaged a dozen in conversation and learned all were deploying over the pond for combat duty. They, too, were nervous and anxious — but in a much different manner. Their responses were short and tight-lipped, yet polite.

I asked them about the kind of reactions they get from the American public when they’re passing through airports. Overall the responses were quite similar. They all felt like invisible persons.

“People look through me,” one responded. “People look away or down (instead of) making eye contact,” said another. “There is often an awkward silence when in close contact on the tram,” and “Some people glare with a sense of disdain.” They unanimously said kids were the ones who engaged them, saluted them and looked up to them.

I was so embarrassed and ashamed to hear the comments of these soldiers, leaving for a war zone and putting their lives on the line to protect people who are unable to just say a few words of support and appreciation. I wished each of them a safe journey and return and sincerely thanked them for what they are doing to protect the way of life many of us take for granted.

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