Shuttling to Denver

Someone once told me I could make anything interesting, so today’s challenge is to write something halfway entertaining about this routine flight to Denver. This is going to be quite a challenge and I doubt I can do it. Here goes.

I am at thirty five thousand feet, there is little turbulence but there is this annoying TV screen in front of my seat that I cannot turn off. This at least is new, at least on the United Airlines 737 fleet. You now have the option of DirecTV on this flight, with a hundred channels to choose for the low, low price of just $7.95, but should you not be interested there is no way to turn off the screen. So if United cannot convince you to swipe your credit card for this service, they figure they might as well subject you to annoying ads instead for the full length of this three and a half hour flight. The off button has been conveniently disabled on my armrest. This is all for my pleasure, or something, but of course is really about United’s bottom line. The only way solution is to shut your eyes, which is what I have been doing until my last podcast ended.

On this flight I am trying a few new things to handle the tedium of traveling quickly two thirds of the way across the country. First, I purchased a set of noise canceling headphones. These jetliner cabins are noisy places, eighty decibels or more. You get used to it after a while, but it can’t be healthy. Noise canceling headphones do not deaden the noise of air whooshing across the airframe, but they do make it tolerable. They cancel perhaps twenty decibels of sound, which is good. I can now hear content through my headphones again, not only when it is at near piercing volumes. So both watching and actually hearing movies on my iPad in flight is now a possibility and something perhaps to try on the next trip. This noise canceling technology, while hardly perfect, is making sitting in an airline cabin for three plus hours much more bearable.

I am also trying to use my smartphone for entertainment during the flight. It is in airplane mode, of course, but it still has its uses. I can read books and articles on it easily enough and, at least for this flight, I can listen to podcasts with the nice little BeyondPod podcast app I installed. I won’t listen that much to music, but I can queue up a nice set of podcasts. My playlist is actually a mixture of political, economic and tech podcasts, and I can listen to them or not. Usually my brain is like a sponge and likes to be fed a steady stream of facts and opinions until at some point, like now, I can’t take more input and have to do some outputting, which means blogging. Being that the smartphone is much more portable than even my iPad, it will probably end up as my default electronic traveling companion.

It seems that if you have to travel by air, early December is a great time to do so. This plane is about three quarters full, which means I have the luxury of an open middle seat next to me back here in economy class. Also empty were the airline ticket counters early this afternoon at Washington Dulles International Airport. Two Ethiopian dudes speaking behind the counter seemed really animated about their topic of the day, not that I have any idea what they were saying in Ethiopian. This is another example of the weird multiculturalism around here, but has become so routine that I hardly notice it, other than the language is different. There is no line at the TSA baggage check, and only a couple of people ahead of me at the TSA credentials check. Note to self: try to travel more in the off season and schedule flights that leave in the middle of the afternoon. This no hassle way is the only way to travel by air.

You know you travel too much when you get sloppy at the airport. Today this meant I never bothered to check my concourse and gate. Concourse C, I figured, since that is where I usually catch these United flights. I stood for a few moments before the subway to Concourse C before I thought to check my boarding pass. Oops. My flight was out of Concourse D. No subway for me; instead I had to take one of the old fashioned mobile lounges to my gate. Washington Dulles seemed as close to dead today as it can get in the middle of the afternoon. No lines at the Starbucks or Subway sandwich shop in Concourse D. The stalls in the restrooms were even spotless. All of them!

We passengers on Flight 1160 are an apathetic and self-absorbed bunch. Mostly people are not bothering to look out the windows, but instead are focused on their tablet computer of choice. Tablet computers and eReaders are everywhere on this flight. Hardly anyone can be bothered to get up out of their seats and walk the aisles. With kids in school, there are no crying children to distract us or ratchet up the noise level. One lady across from me is studiously writing in longhand in a spiral bound notebook, which suggests she is at least forty something. Increasingly, cursive is not being taught in elementary schools. In fifty years will anyone remember how to read cursive? Ah, there will be a Wikipedia entry on it.

Off season also means the plane is relatively clean. This makes a nice change of pace for United, where they go through the motions of cleaning the cabin but you can usually find trash under the seats if you look or sometimes crammed between seats. I flew on two regional jets with United recently that were disgracefully unclean. Not only was it filthy, you could barely see out the windows they were so caked with grime and what looked like encrusted saltwater. Today, there is a dirty stain or two on the carpet, but at least the carpet looks vacuumed. This is high quality for United Airlines. Instead of rating the flight the usual C- perhaps I will give it a C+. The best news of all is at the rear of the plane: no lines at all at the toilets! This is very unusual and for once I can ponder the possibility: do I want the starboard or the port toilet? Decisions, decisions.

I figure that since 2004 I have made at least twenty trips to Denver, mostly on United Airlines, which means roughly forty flights between Washington Dulles and Denver International. It’s a mostly featureless flight, but usually there is a bit of excitement on approach to Denver. Denver International (DIA) consistently gets strong crosswinds coming off the Rocky Mountains, to the point where I expect them on approach and to encounter a bit of a bumpy landing. A smooth landing is the exception at DIA.

Once deplaned I know what to expect: I will be in Concourse B, probably need to use the restroom, then take a smooth subway ride to the terminal. On the ride there will be the annoying recorded announcer with a fake cowboy voice on the PA system. I will claim my bag at Carousel 12, and take a shuttle to rental car row, a few miles from the airport. Thence will commence a substantial drive from the airport in far northeast Denver to Lakewood in the rental car, where the local Towneplace Suites awaits, our hotel of choice for the last four years or so. It feels like my second home now. While I have a rental car, I will likely walk down to Jus Cookin’s for dinner instead, a one of a kind family restaurant where everything on the menu is home style, cheap and delicious. Tomorrow there will be the continental breakfast to greet my tummy, and three days in a conference room at the Denver Federal Center.

With luck on Friday I will be on an on time return flight to Dulles, arriving toward dinner hour. My spouse is likely to whine about her boss. My cat will be complaining that he is starving even though he will have been fed. In February I am likely to do this shuttle circuit again.

It’s boring business travel but at least this time of year, unless there is a premature snowstorm, it is at least predictable. For that and the empty seat next to me, I am grateful.

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