Column: I’m flying high, but not everyone’s so lucky


For the Valley News

Published: 04-06-2023 2:51 PM

American Airlines Flight 6059 to Burlington swung wide over Lake Champlain and approached the airport from the north, delightfully early, explaining without words why we were early: a strong south wind all the way from Philadelphia. A wheelchair was waiting for me halfway up the tunnel to the terminal. A delightful woman named Tracy trundled me to baggage claim, retrieved my little traveling suitcase, took me right through the terminal exit, and refused a tip. It was a fitting end to a nearly perfect trip.

In recent years many of us, especially we seniors, have come to dread flying. Crowded airports, the hassle of the security check, oft-delayed flights caused by tight schedules and missing crew, and seats designed for (or perhaps by) Lilliputians all combine to create anxiety and exhaustion. So this past weekend’s trip for a couple of days in Pennsylvania has left me surprised and delighted.

Ronald Reagan, emerging from anesthesia for surgery after his near assassination, scribbled a note paraphrasing a famous W.C. Fields comment: “All in all, I’d rather be in Philadelphia.” I can’t say that it’s a sentiment I’ve ever shared. But with an opportunity to meet my sweetheart’s extended family at a birthday gathering in a large Airbnb an easy hour outside of town, I surrendered my recently broken body to whatever the aviation fates might have in store for me.

Hagar, my reliable hybrid, delivered me smoothly to the airport parking garage through easy midafternoon traffic. Than the expected stress kicked in. The garage is notoriously short of handicapped parking; I squeezed into a regular spot a few hundred yards away. Shoulder bag hanging beside me, rolling suitcase in hand, and cane in the other, I trudged slowly and thankfully early to the airline counter.

Suddenly my luck changed. The agent checked my bag and insisted I take a wheelchair to my distant gate. A very good idea, as it turned out. Security was the usual wrangle — I have a plethora of metal parts — but the personnel couldn’t have been pleasanter. Once they determined that my new arm brace wasn’t explosive, they let me go, and even brought me my box full of stuff. The gate agent asked if I’d like a better seat. Is the Pope Catholic? So I got the front double seat with extra leg room, and we took off on time.

Maybe it’s the cane and the faltering tread. Maybe I just look like a pleasant guy. Whatever the reason, people all the way along, as well as in the Philadelphia airport, were at least as nice as the security check folks. The wheelchair pusher, once he found that I had to retrieve my checked bag (Baggage Claim is outside Security) and wouldn’t be able to come back into the food court, offered to bring me takeout while I waited two hours for my friend Bea’s plane to arrive from Boston. I thanked him, but reckoned I’d wait.

Sitting quietly in an abandoned wheelchair in the nearly empty claim area, I struck up a conversation with the attendant at her desk beside me. Sonia, it turned out, was from Jamaica. When I asked her whether there was a cup of coffee anywhere nearby, she made a brief phone call and then wheeled me at least a quarter of a mile, suitcase and all, to a hot dog stand a couple of terminals away, where the woman running the stand handed me a huge banger with mustard and a bottle of Pepsi to boot, and told me that Muhamed (a gray-bearded elderly maintenance guy with, I subsequently learned, 14 kids) had paid for my meal. Muhamed and I had a very pleasant chat till his dinner break was over.

That’s the way the whole evening went. I said hello to everybody who made eye contact, and was regarded, depending on the regarder, as a potential panhandler, a menacing stranger, or a pleasant old coot probably safe to bid a good evening. Evelyn (near the end of a double shift at the Terminal C information desk) shared her fraught life story, and when she saw me get a text informing me that Bea’s plane was delayed, helped me search the big board for updated information.

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Into each life, it is said, some rain must fall. A two-hour wait, especially when enlivened with a first-class hot dog, is a piece of cake. But as the rain (snow in this case) fell into Bea’s life, it splashed all over the place. The waiting stretched far into the evening while I kept chatting with Evelyn and kept checking my slowly dying phone for texts. Finally the flight was on the ground, then taxiing toward the gate, then waiting for something obscure; and a few minutes later we were maneuvering my size 13s through the tiny space in front of the back seat of an electric Uber. The aviation fates had been as kind as they’d ever been to me; but they balked at two. As if to atone for their meanness, they smiled on both of us returning.

Willem Lange can be reached at