Friday, December 16, 2011

Now boarding: Delta flight 296 direct service to Seattle

Editing note: When I landed in Seattle, I went back and fixed up what I'd written so far (originally, I'd written this using the dictation function on my phone).

12/17/11, 2:30 p.m., Narita airport
In just 10 minutes, my flight to Seattle will board and I will embark on my 12th flight across the Pacific Ocean. Air travel is part of the routine for me--not as frequent as a businessman, no, but I fly more than anyone in my family. In college, I made the multi-flight trek from Iowa to Washington and back several times each school-year (each Christmas and occasionally Thanksgiving or Spring Break). Since moving to Japan, the amount of time I spend in the clouds has only increased. So much so that flying is something I largely take for granted. In fact, I didn't really take the time to think through whether I actually enjoy traveling until I started writing this post. The verdict: Overall, yes--I do enjoy traveling.

Of course, there are some aspects that I'm never going to enjoy or get used to... jet lag is probably my least favorite part of air travel, especially flying to the states from Japan. It can take as much as a week for me to recover, and those days of recovery are not pleasant. Ever since working the graveyard shift at a grocery store several summers ago, I've been very sensitive to anything that disrupts my sleep schedule and I tend to dislike such things on principle.

12/17/11; 9:20 am; SeaTac
The flight itself seems to get shorter every time. This time, it wasn't just a feeling bred by familiarity; we actually landed about 40 minutes earlier than expected: less than 8 hours from take-off to touchdown! Of course, the return flight to Japan is not quite so pleasant, as the air currents (I think?) add at least an additional hour of travel time. It's a long time to sit in one place, and I tend to get restless. However, I've managed to balance this somewhat by always booking an aisle seat. On the shorter flights during college, I preferred the window, but the freedom to stand and move around is far more valuable to me than the view (which on an international flight is altogether scarce).

Random observation: why is it that people scramble to get in line when it's time to board the flight? This is one of the few times in life where order doesn't matter even a little: you've got your seat reserved already--it's not like you can call 'shotgun' and ride in the cockpit... so... are the people who practically trample others to get to the front of the line under the impression that if they board first, they'll arrive at the final destination before everyone else? It's so confusing. I like to point out the absurdity by voluntarily giving up my place in line and retreating to the back several times... because it really does not matter one single bit, and frankly I'd rather be standing and moving for as long as I can rather than sitting and waiting for everyone else to board. Hmm.

Worth noting: We landed in Seattle at 6:50 am, just as the sun was starting to rise. It had been years since I'd landed in Seattle while it was dark out and I had forgotten just how spectacular the view is: Seattle's city lights are a sight to behold from several thousand feet up! Couple that with the mellow hue of the sun coming up on the horizon... absolutely the best way to start the day (especially since it's my 2nd time through this day)!

I wouldn't say I'm an expert on airports, but I've got a broad enough base of comparison to say clearly which ones I like and which I do not like. Here's my ranking:

1. Narita: Just has an organized, convenient, classy feel to it. I love watching the sun set over the tarmac from one of the many good cafes in Terminal 2. Plus, lots of options for shopping (or if you're me, just browsing... although the large selection of Japanese candy in a few of the shops has saved my skin on more than one occasion when I forgot to buy omiyage for my family beforehand).

2. Bangkok: Okay, so the layout of this airport would be murder for anyone adverse to exercise... the part of the airport I'm most familiar with is essentially a LOOOOONG hallway (800 meters/half a mile, to be precise) with departure gates on one floor, and a row of shops, restaurants and coffee shops up above. It is impossible to run out of things to do and places to see, and, more than any other airport, in Bangkok, browsing is a legitimate cardiovascular workout.

3. Vancouver: Similar to Narita, but smaller. Very classy, convenient feel. Plus, they have Tim Horton's.

4. Minneapolis/St. Paul: I don't remember much specific about this airport aside from the fact that it was very straightforward and convenient, for being such a large international hub. Also, once when my flight was snowed out, they put me up for the night in a nearby hotel free of charge. Good stuff.

5. Denver: Again, I don't remember much specific, but I do recall that I always preferred flying through Minneapolis (hence the placement).

6. O'Hare: Flew through O'Hare once--I needed to get from Salt Lake City to Sioux Falls, but for some reason, they weren't flying direct on that occasion, so I wound up taking a last minute flight to Chicago, and then flying on to Sioux Falls. It didn't seem like a bad airport, but I really didn't spend enough time there (quick layover) to get a good read.

7. SeaTac: My "home" airport. The satellite set-up is not convenient, but they do have free wi-fi. Oh, and Starbucks!

8. Salt Lake City: Confusing, ill-designed, inconvenient, cramped, crowded, smoky. Justifiably last place on my list of airports I visited frequently enough to make this call.

Honorable mention (too small to be seriously considered on the list):
Bellingham Airport
Sioux Falls Airport
Chiang Rai Airport
Haneda Airport
Nagasaki Airport

Airports I've been to, but didn't feel like I could make an accurate judgment based on how little time I spent in the airport:

Hong Kong
San Jose

Reflection on traveling: Flying internationally takes a lot of time (and not just in the obvious "crossing the ocean takes time" way--international travel involves a lot of hoops that aren't present when flying domestically, such as customs and immigration lines). It was very intimidating the first time I flew to Japan, but the more it has become habit, the more I enjoy the process. It takes me 30 seconds to fill out the embarkation/disembarkation card; I keep a pen handy so that I can fill out the customs declaration sheet right away when I get on the plane; my reentry permit cuts down time spent standing in line at immigration. I know what I need to do and where I need to go, so mostly I can just sit back and enjoy the ride. It's actually a very soothing and relieving feeling: I have nothing immediate that I need to accomplish--no deadlines or due-dates (at least not for the duration of the flight). Traveling is a major mental vacation for me.

I am not unaware of the fact that the ease, peace and convenience of such travel days will end when I have a family of my own. As much as I'll appreciate traveling with my wife and kids someday, there's no doubt that the extra bodies will complicate what is for me a relaxing and easy process. I'm increasingly trying to be understanding and empathetic with parents who are desperately trying to calm screaming infants on international flights--that may well be me someday.

Okay, well I am going to stop the note here because I am rambling (a combination of jet-lag, plus coffee plus trying to eat up time while I wait for Ben's flight from Denver to come in). All of this to say, I really do enjoy traveling!

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