Columns » Bob McCord

Planes and trains

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Ben McCord is our youngest grandson and was 5 years old June 16. So my wife and I decided to attend the birthday party in his home town of Austin, Texas. Ben’s father (our son), Ben’s mother and our two daughters called several times insisting that we should fly rather than make that 10-hour weary drive to Austin.

So we did. We took our car to the Little Rock National Airport. I dropped my wife and the bags at the airport entrance and drove the car to the long-term parking lot that is about a half a mile from the airport. I had been told that there were buses that drove the passengers to and from the airport building. It was nearly 90 degrees, so I waited for 10 or15 minutes but no bus arrived. I walked to the building.

My wife had used the Internet to get “A” boarding passes, which would let us board first. We had to show our tickets and our driver’s licenses at first when we got to the corridor leading to our plane. There weren’t many ahead of us, but we lined up to put our coats, packages and shoes in baskets that were examined by the security screeners. When my shoes got through the machinery, all chairs were filled so I had to stand up to put my shoes on.

After a long walk, we arrived at the gate, and discovered we had to line up with others who had “A” seats, but most of them were younger, they got there before us and they were passing the time happily talking into their cell phones.

We stopped in Dallas to switch to another plane that would get us to Austin. We were told the plane would arrive in 30 minutes. Actually, it was two hours, but the waiting was never monotonous. For free, airline employees with machines out in the hall were giving “Mini Charge Massages” on the backs of anyone who asked. Among the 200 or so people in our area waiting with us for airplanes were two, very tall, college baseball players stretched out on opposite benches who tossed balls to each other for an hour or so.

I would estimate that two-thirds of the people sitting next to us were talking on cell phones. Across from me a very attractive college girl talked for 45 minutes to several of her sorority sisters about who was taking care of their rooms in the sorority house in the summer. One big fellow in a fine black suit was standing at a shelf in front of me making at least a dozen calls to different customers, and, if I had been a salesman, I would have learned a lot.

There were 122 seats in the plane that picked us up, and every seat and overhead space were filled. All the women who sat close to us were helped by young male passengers who lifted and stored their bulging bags overhead. I was glad because I couldn’t have done it. It was about then that it came to me that flying isn’t much fun any more.

Sure, we don’t want maniacs with guns and bombs getting into our planes. But it seems there ought to be quicker and easier ways to keep them out. The only thing I have been told is that the federal Transportation Security Administration is starting to sell a $79 permanent card with details and pictures of persons who fly frequently so they can get aboard quickly through a special gate, which might let occasional fliers like me go through regular gates quicker.

But so far the TSA is using the idea in only one city, Orlando, Fla., with promise of others later this year. However, the airlines are opposing the idea because people are already complaining about the high prices now charged for tickets. But something needs to be done.

Last week USA Today printed the longest waiting times people had to suffer in 80 of the largest airports from December through April — 99 minutes in New York LaGuardia, 88 in Milwaukee, 75 in Washington Dulles, 64 in Los Angeles, 62 in Miami, etc. Little Rock’s longest wait was 40 minutes, which is little longer than we had to wait.

At our age when we travel, it’s for fun, and I would like to do it on trains where you seldom have to wait and you can see our country out the window, eat well and have a little privacy. Unfortunately, the Bush administration has taken money away from Amtrak every year. Its only interest in trains seems to be those that carry people in suburbs going to and from the nation’s largest cities.

Last week with the help of all Arkansas congressmen except the only Republican, John Boozman, the House increased the president’s 2007 Amtrak budget from $900 million to $1.14 billion. There’s fear, however, that the Republicans in the Senate will go back to the president’s price.

Little Rock still has two Amtrak trains coming to Little Rock — the northbound Texas Eagle arrives every day at ll:59 p.m. and the southbound train comes at 4:30 a.m. daily. The boarding times are hardly convenient, the trains sometimes go slowly to give way to the freight trains, but I guess we’re still lucky. But the New York Times is correct when it says the nation’s leaders should be trying to figure out why this advanced nation does not have a more advanced passenger rail system.

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