Airline Bumping Circa Mid-Nineties

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Ten minutes before departure, I skid into line at gate B-3 to catch the last flight from West Palm Beach to La Guardia. A dozen passengers are ahead of me at the ticket desk; I thought I was the only one who budgets scarcely enough time to buy Life Savers. As if he has tuned into my musing, the man in front of me turns and says, "Most of these people are giving up their places in exchange for a free trip. The flight's overbooked. Sucks, doesn't it."

Back when suck was a dirty word, confirmed plane reservations meant you could count on a seat. Ironically, my heebie-jeebies about flying are now augmented by the prospect that I could get bumped. I imagine showing up at my parents' condominium, which I just left 45 minutes ago. My mother will, again, defrost: cottage cheese containers swollen with her famous baked lima beans and Ziploc bags of blintzes caked with frost. Don't get me wrong. I love my mother's freezer-burned blintzes and beans. What I cannot face is another night of pre-flight doom--eight hours in the dark, heartsick over my imminent, untimely end.

It’s the mid-nineties and when I finally advance to the counter, I tell the agent this is the first time I’m trying the new ticketless travel. Apparently sensing my anxiety, she assures me I’m top priority, even though she cannot yet assign a seat. "Wait over there in the priority seating area while the other passengers board," she says, fondling everyone else's tickets.

"I'd like to sit on the aisle," I tell her. "I'll throw up if I'm squished in the middle."

"You and the rest of humanity," she answers, scanning the lounge with blue-lidded orbs. But I really will, I want to say, even though I really won’t.

Instead of shuffling to the "priority seating area" to bide time with the standby B-personalities, I hang with five or so A-types, propping my elbow on the counter, continuously shifting my weight. After a few minutes, I ask another agent how it's going. "You'll get on," she tells me, "but you need to be patient."

Agent number one, annoyed by my hovering, says, "We can't do anything until all of you proceed to the priority area by the gate."

I sprint to be first in the priority line, wondering just what makes it priority. The B-types remain seated nearby, calmly reading USA Today; the A's crowd behind me, too intent on competing for plane seats to open the Wall Street Journals that are wedged under their arms. A half hour past scheduled departure time, a scowling, sausage-shaped woman, wearing a badge that says Vera, instructs us to board in the order in which we are called. Straining my neck to read Vera’s printout, I locate myself--last on the list.

Fabrications spring to mind. "I'm being deposed in the morning." "My Aunt Minnie’'s funeral is at dawn in Brooklyn." "I checked my cat."

Finally, she calls my name and I rejoice. Hopes of sitting on the aisle are dashed when the only empty spaces appear to be two centers in the rear and another behind the bulkhead. I make my move for the closer one until I see it’s already occupied by a toddler whose chestnut curls reach no higher than the Airfone. When I glance up, the back rows are filled and I’m standing solo, like a solo straphanger on the Lexington Line. With every eye in this suffocating chamber aimed my way, it occurs to me I ought to feel ill at ease, yet all I can think of is I’m glad my hair looks okay.

"I have to take this flight," I tell the flight attendant. She goes to her microphone and announces the standard bribe to see if a volunteer is willing to be enormously inconvenienced in return for a "free-round-trip-ticket-anywhere-we-fly-in-the-continental-U.S." It’s as though she has hollered, "Freeze!" because nobody moves. I fancy myself sweetening the deal by waving a twenty. And throwing in a complimentary weekend on the sofa in my basement.

Vera materializes, interrupting my contrivances. "Come with me," she says. I follow her toward first class, but when she backs onto the jetway, I halt. "I am not getting off this plane," I say.

"Come here; I just want to talk to you," she sings in a tone that belies daggers. Two flight attendants are poised by the cabin door, ready, I am certain, to slam it behind me.

"You can talk to me here," I answer as I inch back toward economy, then plant my carry-on firmly between my Nikes. Although I feel trapped, like a worm dangling from the bill of a robin, I am consumed with morbid curiosity to see what will unfold next.

"Just come," she coos, beckoning with a curled index finger. I expect her to emit kissing sounds, the way you summon a cocker spaniel.

Maybe if I had not had a confirmed reservation or had not been told three times I would get on, I would not feel such a keen sense of entitlement. "I am not getting off this plane," I repeat, enunciating each word. From the hush, you would think all the passengers have fallen asleep, or died, but everyone is in upright-seatback position, riveted to my drama.

By the pilot's cabin, a flight attendant whispers in Vera's ear and runs up the aisle. She comes back for another powwow, then addresses me, "A gentleman is vacating row twelve. You may take his place." As the man rises from his window seat and slithers past his rowmates, I avert my eyes and mutter, "Thank you." The “audience” explodes with applause. For whom? For this man, his magnanimity? Or for me, my chutzpah? My own heart is clapping Yea for me! the way it did in 1959 after my class voted me friendliest girl in the ninth grade.

While buckling my seat belt with trembling hands, I ask a passing flight attendant, "Who was that man?" The Lone Ranger of air travel, I’m thinking.

"He's a pilot. He paid for his ticket because he needed to get home, but since he's an employee, we asked him to give you his seat."

Oh, brother. I do not need to hear this. I also do not need to go home. I am not even going home; I’m going to a hotel in Manhattan to meet my husband who, by the time I arrive, will be deep in REM sleep. Now that I’ve gotten my way, my self-congratulations turn to dread. After all, isn't it bad luck to push so hard to get on a flight? I can just see how it’ll play on the 11 o'clock news: One unlucky passenger almost escaped the tragic explosion of flight 1554--she was to be bumped but refused to deplane. A good Samaritan relinquished his seat to the shrew at the last minute.

In the unlikely event we land safely, I am certain my taxi will crash. I calculate that I’m not secure until around noon tomorrow when the flight I would have switched to arrives; any disaster before then can be blamed on my persistence. On the other hand, maybe tomorrow's plane will crash; the thought gives me a perverse sense of vindication for my willful behavior.

We touch down smoothly. In the taxi, I become possessed by an urge to know: Whom were they clapping for? Even though I had not checked luggage, I regret not having gone to baggage claim to poll my fellow passengers--to accept their cheers or to get booed. I consider placing ads in USA Today and The Wall Street Journal: To passengers of flight 1554 . . . . I'll give a 900 number folks can call to vote for him or me.

As soon as I arrive in our hotel room, I elbow my husband awake and recount the evening's odyssey. "Who do you think they were clapping for?" I ask.

"You can rest easy," he says. "They were New Yorkers—they were clapping for you."

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