There was a time when airline employees treated passengers almost human.
They said "hello" and smiled when you approached the ticket counter. They didn't toss bags of pretzels at you. They didn't pop a blood vessel if you were slow buckling up. And they actually apologized if the flight was an hour or 10 late.
The Friendly Skies have turned sinister. Perhaps up in First Class, behind the drawn curtains, there is still civility. But back in coach we are left guessing. "Are the pretzels so much better up there that they don't want us to see?" we ask each other. "Do they all get up and dance naked as soon as the wheels are tucked in? Is that why the curtains are closed?"
The flight attendants won't say. They close the curtains with flair, trying to make you regret buying that cheap fare you found on the Internet. Every once in awhile you can hear a champagne cork pop from behind the curtain and laughter erupt. Smiles disappear from the attendant's face when she returns to coach. She tosses you stale pretzels and offers you a soda, explaining that you've got 60 seconds to down it before the plane lands. If your legs are big and you have an aisle seat there's a 60/40 chance the drink cart will be pushed over your foot as the attendant chastises you for having such big feet in the first place.
My most recent cattle call came this past weekend on a quick trip to Las Vegas. I booked my ticket in advance and reported to the gate as instructed.
"Did you pack your own luggage and has anyone touched it since you've been inside the terminal?" the woman at the gate counter asked.
"Yes," I answered. "I packed my own bags and I don't believe anyone touched it."
What did she think I would say? "No. A guy with a turban and an ayatollah button packed my bags and while I was getting a drink at the bar three guys in combat fatigues and sunglasses stuck something that was ticking inside the front zipper."
"Thank you," she probably would have replied, satisfied that she had read her manual and had followed the instructions A to Z.
I doubt that terrorists would target a jet headed from Reno to Vegas anyway. Not even they would mess with the casino bosses.
"Get them on the way out of town, not in," they would have been instructed.
The woman then asked for some identification. I told her that I keep my driver's license in a different wallet inside my glove box and showed her my credit card with my photo on the corner.
"This is not a government issued piece of identification," she told me, staring at my credit card as if it were an insect that had just left a nasty trail across the palm of her hand.
"That's right," I told her. "The government did not issue me that credit card, but as you can see, the guy pictured on it is clearly me."
"Well. I shouldn't be doing this, but I'm going to let you on the plane just this once," she said, loud enough for everyone in line to hear her.
"Well," I responded. "I don't think I'll be needing to get on the plane more than once. Not unless it has a flat tire like the last plane I took with your airline."
We finally boarded and were given instructions on how to use our seats as a flotation device in the event we crashed in water. Never mind that we were headed over the desert and it hadn't rained in months.
Shortly after takeoff the pilot got on the microphone to tell us how happy he was to have us flying with him. His voice sounded more sleepy than happy and I was hoping he could stay awake for just another 50 minutes.
After serving the First Class passengers their $500 glass of $5 champagne, the attendant ripped the curtain open to coach and started handing out the pretzels. The guy sitting next to me handed me a bag and reached up for another. "Didn't I just give you a bag?" the attendant asked him.
"Yes. I gave it to him," said the fellow, pointing at me and my pretzels.
The attendant was still suspicious, but she didn't have time to argue and handed him another bag, rolling over his foot as she moved the cart down the aisle.
We all ate our pretzels because we paid good money for them. But by the time the sodas come the salt has caused our lips to swell.
In spite of the attendant's warning to remain seated until the plane had docked, everyone stood to grab their stuff as we continued to roll. I don't know why passengers do that, but they do. They end up standing elbow to butt for 15 minutes while the crew and First Class passengers deplane. If you're real lucky, someone reaches for the compartment above you and a bowling ball bag falls on your head. "Sorry," they mutter, already shuffling up the aisle.
The return trip was supposed to leave Vegas at 6:55 p.m., but the computer screen indicated it would be delayed until 7:05. At 7:05, however, there was no plane at the dock, a pretty good indication that there would be further delays.
At 7:50 the computer screen still indicated 7:05, but there was no sign on the faces of the uniformed airline staff that they were interested in that little detail.
We lifted off at 8 and the pretzels were flying at 8:15. Someone in First Class laughed hysterically and the flight attendant burst through the curtain smiling at what must have been a very funny First Class joke.
I guessed they were laughing at us. The attendant must have whispered that the poor suckers back in Coach were eating stale pretzels with swollen lips.
Jeff Ackerman is publisher and editor of the Nevada Appeal.