The Flight from Hell: Air Baltic

I am flying from St. Petersburg to Moscow today and, though I am not running late, my Armenian cab driver must think so, because my he is hammering down the highway like he’s Dale Earnhart, Jr. on the backstretch at Daytona(or is merely Italian), and feels the need for speed (with all apologies to Tom Cruise).  Our Mercedes is drafting behind a Citroen Jumpy (a name designed to scare pedestrians, I guess) at about 160 KPH, and, though I’m not generally nervous in a car, even with someone else driving, I am a little concerned, because the crass French creation ahead of us is being true to its name and is occasionally braking for no apparent reason, sending my driver into catatonic fits of rage worthy of Charlie Sheen on a bender.  I am also a little…well, jumpy, because I am afraid he may be suicidal or homicidal, take your pick.  I say this because he has taken the time to thoughtfully disable not only his own seatbelt, but mine as well.

So here I am frozen in helpless terror in the back seat trying desperately to explain that there’s really no hurry, while we threaten to swap paint with a Gallic car that has a notoriously unreliable reputation, and hoping against hope that I have my life insurance paid in full and that I don’t soil myself before we arrive.  Amazingly at this speed, my cabbie manages to pull alongside his nemesis and roll down his window, simultaneously giving my hair an instant blow dry and gluing my contacts to my eyes with a category 3 hurricane.  Although I can’t tell what he’s saying, I can guess, because he is screaming at the top of his lungs and is colorfully gesticulating at the other driver, who is reciprocating in kind.  While this little dance is going on, we are on final approach to the airport off ramp and in the wrong lane, which doesn’t seem to bother Dale (let’s just call him that, OK?), who is too busy using one hand to sound his horn and the other to form the internationally recognized one finger salute familiar to commuters everywhere.

Ahead I can see a narrow opening in the right lane between two cars that it is apparently too small for us, so of course that is what we aim for at the last possible second.  Our objective is to seize victory through the element of surprise, since I can see that Dale has no intention of signaling his intentions at all and is relying on the fact that he can sprint ahead until he is astride the tiny opening and then abruptly swerve into it, to the dismay, and, possibly, to the doom, of us all.  So with an impressive burst of power and machismo of the “see look at me” type, we close the distance at well over 120 MPH and we actually perform the hair-raising stunt without incident, which you know already since you are reading this, although I doubt there was a law in the Russian Driving Code that we didn’t break in the process.

When we arrive at the decaying St. Petersburg Airport (a monument to Soviet-style efficiency) I am sweating, and not from the heat.  Dale asks me if I’m angry when I leave him without a tip (fare: about $60), and I tell him no, I’m not angry, since he has reminded me of the sanctity of my own life and that I need to do my laundry pronto.

I walk the length of the terminal and can’t seem to find my air carrier.  I walk back.  Then I see a tiny sign on a kiosk window, one among many carriers, about the size of a bumper sticker: Air Baltic (motto: customer service is for spoiled capitalists).  The attendant cheerfully tells me that I should wait in line 3.

Line 3 is about the length of a soccer field and has the same organization as a Chinese dragon parade.  I am standing behind a giant Ukrainian who is bellowing loudly to his fellow countrymen to come join him in the line in front of me, so in only thirty minutes, I have achieved the front of the queue, and am cowering before a scowling agent who no doubt still harbors some resentment from her termination after the KGB downsized in the ‘90s.

“Passport”, she demands.  I produce the document, but too slow for her liking, and of course she can see I am American, which I fear is sufficient in itself to merit a TSA-style body cavity check.  She compares my face carefully to my picture like a zoologist might try to categorize a new breed of insect by referring to a textbook.  At last she seems satisfied, but demands that my luggage be weighed, even though I protest that I want to carry it all on.  It turns out they allow about 17 pounds, which means you should leave such frivolous items as your underwear or shaving kit at home.  So she tells me I must pay an additional $40 for one bag, and that cannot be done in her line.  No, for that, I must return to the tiny kiosk.

Now I am a little worried because I have happily spent all morning in very long, yet…shapeless lines but still have no ticket.  So I pay the kiosk agent my pound of flesh and she hands me a chit and smilingly tells me to go back to my original line, the one that I just came from.  Instead of waiting another half hour, I decide to “pull a Dale” and skip past the other unhappy customers and kind of slip in from the side in front of someone else.  Upon seeing this, the KGB agent gives me a little nod of respect and approval for my audacity, and readily hands me my tickets with a knowing wink, like from one totalitarian to another.  Somehow, I feel a little unclean.

Now I must hurry, so I make my way through a fairly painless security process, but I wish our homegrown agents passed the same test as Russia’s, because apparently you must be not only adept at examining explosive underwear but also be a runway model in your spare time.  So I am hoping against hope that, instead of some huge guy named Bubba examining my crotch for contraband against my will, I will actually ask that Natasha do that for me, since I am after all a terrorist, trust me!  But Natasha will have none of that, and simply rolls her eyes, and motions for the next passenger, so I am denied even that cheap thrill, though I am delighted that I am not finger printed and possibly imprisoned as I would have been in the good ol’ USA for the same stunt.  OK, I actually made that part up, but I would’ve enjoyed a strip search by that officer.

So I am waiting for my flight.  And waiting…Soon there is the inevitable announcement that there will be an “equipment change” and we must move to a new gate, which is conveniently located down two flights of malfunctioning escalators and a half mile of underground stationary walkways that used to move sometime back in the Soviet era.  Of course this means that now I didn’t need to hurry after all, because the departure time is about as accurate as a long-range weather forecast and is probably a bizarre inside joke for employees.  After about 30 minutes, during which time I have found out that the WC is actually nothing more than an indoor Port-a-Potty, we are told we must move again, like a herd of migrating cattle, only with luggage (though of course most of us have no udders), and go back to our original gate!  Yes, the fun is just beginning on Baltic Air, where we hate to fly, and it shows!

So I am eating a cardboard croissant ($4!) in the only terminal restaurant, wondering what kind of petroleum byproducts were used in the airport bakery, when the announcer says we should board the plane, which looks like a real airplane only it has these things called propellers on the wings and is about the size of a small bus.  So I haul my luggage down a flight of stairs and bake on the tarmac while the plane is loaded in the usual fashion, meaning eastern Europeans elbowing to the front without so much as an “excuse me” so they can charge up the stairs onto the plane and secure the primo seats, which don’t exist, really, but it doesn’t matter to them because it is all about the status of beating out the other guy and impressing their statuesque girlfriends, who are shallow enough for this rudeness to actually work.   I have settled in when I see a huge Latvian couple waddling down the aisle sideways and am hoping against hope that they aren’t sitting next to me, but of course they are, and they pour themselves into their seats like pure lard into a tub and I am instantly robbed of my elbow room, but at least I am able to enjoy their exotic foreign aroma, which surrounds them like a cloud, and gets worse when we all realize to our horror that the air conditioning doesn’t work.

I can understand why they didn’t want to spring for the auxiliary power for air conditioning, since we were after all insulated from the worst effects of the noonday sun by sitting inside an aluminum can on asphalt, but I’m still amazed that the steely-eyed stews managed to look so cool and crisp in their vested (and skin tight) outfits in spite of the soaring temperatures.  Yet down the aisle they strutted, telling us sternly that no, there would be no respite from our agony, in such a way that you were sure that their last job involved a white uniform working for Dr. Kevorkian.  So there I am, sweat streaming down my face and stinging my eyes, trying to strain myself upward to catch just a feint whiff of the hot air that is wheezing out of the overhead vent, and thinking this can’t get any worse, when a baby begins crying behind me.

But I am granted a reprieve from the screaming by another announcement: that this aircraft also has “equipment issues” (isn’t there a lemon law for that?) and we must deplane.  To my amazement, this announcement is not met with the dismay you’d expect, but merely the kind of resignation you might get from a man walking the Last Mile on Death Row, and everyone files off of the plane like shackled inmates, or Air Baltic customers, but then I repeat myself.

So now the Russians decide it’s a good time to get drunk, since it’s noon and all, and they break out the vodka in the sweltering waiting lounge, which is, like the plane, devoid of such frills as air conditioning, even though the facility has the same general architecture and correspondent humidity as a reptile terrarium.  They also offer me some booze, probably because by now I look like a defeated tourist in need of a drink, which I am, but I’m thinking that vodka and triple digit aircraft temperatures don’t go well together, so I decline their offer, citing medical issues, which is partially true, since I think I will die soon if this @#%$^&* plane doesn’t go.  This is a good excuse.  Slavs generally do not trust or like anyone who declines a friendly offer of a 90-proof lunchtime cocktail, but it’s OK if you’re deathly ill or a child under the age of 16, though of course there are exceptions even for that.

So it’s getting a little loud in our little corner of Hell in the waiting room, and the more staid businessmen passing by our gate are looking askance at this great heaving, boozing, sweating, stinking sea of humanity that we have become, and are purposefully giving us a wide berth, and I can’t blame them.  Finally we are herded once again onto the aircraft, but as I am walking up the stairs to the cabin door behind a wobbly drunk, I notice a grinding metallic sound coming from the port engine, and mention this to the cool blue eyed stew, who greets this information with the complete and utter disregard which I have by now come to expect.  So I’m not surprised when, after cramming our luggage into the familiar overhead bins (which have the same capacity as the glove box on a Smart Car), and having once again wedged myself into the seat next to the porcine pair, that I am being told we have “equipment issues”, though this time we will stay on the plane until they are fixed, since the ambience is so much better than in the airport zoo.

In a half hour, I am completely dehydrated, my shirt is stuck to the fleshy blimp next to me like wet plaster, the plane reeks of burping vodka vapor, and the baby behind me is just hitting her high notes in stride.  The captain says we are ready for take off.

So I grip my seat arm and pray, knowing that this “equipment” only an hour ago was making alarming, yet somehow…ominous sounds, and has probably just been checked out by a guy who flunked high school because he was too busy smoking pot to do something frivolous like attending class, and that besides, I’ve already survived one near death experience today, and I’m not like a cat with an extra eight lives to spare.  But in the event, the plane “slips the surly bonds of earth” without incident, and soon the air conditioning kicks in, and life is good, or at least tolerable for the moment.

That’s when the turbulence starts, and it isn’t good news when the captain says we can’t fly above it, but it isn’t a surprise, since our vintage aircraft is hovering around the height of a tall grain silo, and I can actually make out not only the houses below us, but who is sunbathing nude as well, and I can see they are not happy about our spy plane.  We begin to lurch and buck like a mechanical bull, and soon my fellow passengers are giving up their vodka lunches in great retching buckets, and you can imagine the stench, though, inexplicably, the “fasten seat belt” light remains off.  Still, I’m amazed when my rotund neighbor decides this is the perfect time for a potty break, but away she trundles, lurching from side to side as she makes her way down the aisle like a Shanghai sailor on shore leave, rudely bouncing off of every other seated passenger as she goes, and of course not bothering with an apology.  Now the rain starts in earnest, eliminating my view of the ground, so I have no idea how close we are, but I can tell my aisle mate is worried, because he is kissing his St. Christopher’s medal and has assumed the crash position.

After only three hours of this fun, we are on final approach, and some crewmember has decided it’d be a great idea if everyone had a pilot’s eye view of our vertiginous descent, so the cockpit door is left open.  I lean out into the aisle so I can get a better angle and look Death in the Face, and what I see is disturbing, because what I see through the front windshield looks like something from a bad video game.  The plane is crazily yawing through the air and the runway is a moving target, just like a stormy naval carrier landing, except that we don’t have ejection seats or government sponsored life insurance.   It’s hard to tell the visibility, since the windshield wiper, working with Yugo-like speed and precision, can’t clear the torrents of water away fast enough.  I decide it’s better just to enjoy the dazzling lightning show out the side window, for now, and to pray.

Suddenly, we hit the ground violently enough to bounce off of it like a basketball.  For no extra charge, we are suspended in air like astronauts before we slam back down with enough force to restart my heart.  As we shudder to a halt and it dawns on everyone that we are still breathing and won’t be a headline in tomorrow’s paper focusing on the deplorable lack of emergency response crews at the Moscow Airport, a cheer goes up and the applause begins for our deliverance from evil and modern aviation, but here again I repeat myself.  As we leave the plane, our cold robotic crew is there at the door, and, incredibly, they have the chutzpah to thank us for flying Air Baltic, as if this was just another typical commuter trip instead of a mind bending near death experience. I hope they weren’t expecting much kindness in return, because they didn’t get any, especially from the Russians, who do not tend to mince words much with buffoons, or those who are not politically connected and unarmed.

You might think reading this that I am indicting Air Baltic as an incompetent organization full of airheads and idiotic rules. Well, that’s true, but I’d say the domestics give them a good run for the money (it wouldn’t be fair to mention the very worst offenders like Allegiant or Delta would it?), and that our homegrown security process has gotten to the point where only a Stalinist dictator would enjoy it.  So I’m here to indict the entire air transportation industry, which has gotten to the point where the only people well served by it are the army of bureaucrats working very hard to make our misery a priority, and the terrorists who must be laughing their asses off thinking about how every one of us must now remove our shoes because one of their most incompetent agents failed to blow up his Hush Puppy’s a few years ago.

Believe it or not, there was a time when you didn’t have to worry about whether Achmed might ignite his own crotch in a botched effort to kill infidels like you and I, and airlines actually knew exactly how many seats were on a plane.   It was a time when flights would arrive (on time!) from such exotic locales as Amarillo or Dubuque loaded with people who would actually glance in the mirror before travel, and possibly even bathe.  Ladies wore these things called hats and gentlemen wore suits quite frequently, and if you showed up at the Departure Gate with your pants falling down and sporting a profanity-laced T shirt you’d have been escorted off of the premises by a rather large and ruddy Irish cop, who didn’t have to worry about the ACLU Nazis if he judiciously used his baton. You actually used your own locomotion to propel you to your assigned gate, which, incredibly, was in the same county as the main terminal.  Stewardesses (they were all women) were courteous, young, and attractive, and that was considered normal, and the security check was your ID at the ticket counter.  It was a more genteel era, to be sure, when flying was a not only a rare treat but a pleasure.

Today’s air travel is more modern, which is to say inferior.   Central planners have built our airports in a different area code so we can commute two to three hours in advance of our flight, park in what used to be productive farmland, and take a cramped bus to the wrong terminal, where we hoof our luggage a quarter mile to a line that’s just as long and pay extra for everything from a chance to board first to an extra pound of baggage (soon they’ll charge you extra to use the in-flight facilities).  Then we must watch as the TSA goons (Latin motto: Semper Rectumis) ogle our daughter’s breasts and fondle our grandpa’s privates while the Muslim extremists stride on to the aircraft unhindered because to subject them to the same treatment would be discriminatory.  After that, we walk another half mile on conveyor belts to a Disneyesque Monorail of the Future, which leads to the Land of Waiting, where we pay $5 for a cup of brackish coffee while the airline announcer tells us that either: a- they need a volunteer to be “bumped” (or is that dumped, I’ve forgotten?), or b- there will be a delay for a thousand different reasons, but none of them will result in a refund from said airline.  Meanwhile, we can enjoy the spectacle of creature watching, as a veritable freak show of multi-culti circus rejects marches past, each more repulsive and degenerate than the next, and without a spare brain cell to share between all of them, yet they seem to survive and even thrive in the warm climate of the New World Order, just as a colony of brainless jellyfish do in the primordial soup of the sea, and they apparently are swimming to the airport to spawn.  Once we finally board, we are by degrees ignored and abused by surly, yet, somehow…menopausal flight attendants whose only real ability seems to be a hundred ways to say “No”, though you can always count on a little flirtation from the gay flyboys who seem to gravitate towards these jobs.  All this while squeezing into a seat designed for a midget and being kicked in the back by an unruly infant.

I’m not so naive as to think we can bring the “good old days” back, but is it too much to ask that we at least get a cigarette after our pat down?  I mean, what do you think Old Hickory would have done when some young buck tried to give him a cup check for security reasons? You know what he’d have done.  He’d have presented him with a set of dueling pistols and challenged the little fascist to twenty paces at dawn.  Now we just hang our heads and drop our drawers, and it’s a damned shame, because it means we’ve lost our spine.  It’s time we said no to all of this.  No to body scans, no to delays without compensation, no to overbooking, and no to invasions of privacy.  If the only way we can fly is to give up our freedom and dignity, then let’s just unfurl the white flag and surrender, because the Muslim, corporate, and government terrorists have already won.

That’s right.  They won. Are you OK with that?  If you are, then join the crowd, because there are plenty of people who will justify almost anything in the name of “security” and/or corporate profits, and they will proudly sing anthems dedicated to liberty even as they are forced to strip naked for the cause.  But let’s just get one thing clear: I’m not one of them, and we aren’t on the same side.  I’m on the side that says we still ought to have rights, that liberty is worth preserving at all costs, and that freedom and unwanted colonoscopies don’t blend well.  So let’s do something about it.  Let’s decide right here and now NOT to travel by air if we can, because to do so under these circumstances is a vote for slavery and a boon to tyrants.  Let’s get in our cars and drive instead.  That’s right.  Vote with your wheels.  You might even save time, and you’ll definitely see more of the real country, the part the elitists in Washington and Noo Yawk derisively call the “Flyover Territory”.   Well, here’s a news flash: the Flyover Territory is what built America, it’s where its greatness comes from, the corner gas station needs the money way more than Big Air, and the pump jockey won’t try to grab your crotch while you’re there (except in some parts of Taxachusettes, perhaps).  So go ahead, get in your car and go.  It’s a vote for freedom, and it’s good for the soul.  Just don’t let Dale do the driving.

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4 Responses to The Flight from Hell: Air Baltic

  1. caprizchka says:

    How exhausting. Yes. That taxi and Baltic Air story beats any one that I’ve got. Well done! Your pain is our gain.

  2. Rurik says:

    Ahhh! The flight from exotic Suburban Pulkovo. Ochen Zhal! Next time I recommend using the train to travel between Peterburg and Moscow. Get yourself a sleeping room on the Red Arrow.

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