Not so long ago, I had a conversation with my friend Matt that we both thought was really funny.
What if, we imagined, we walked into a bar one day and heard two people at nearby stools engaged in an animated debate over who was more important: Orville Wright or Wilbur Wright?
As we imagined it, this argument would be no contest of drunken fools. Rather, the debaters would have their facts straight, offering points and counterpoints on the relative merits of each Wright brother. Though the Wrights are typically joined at the hip in history (in Time magazine's list of the 100 most important people of the 20th century, Orville and Wilbur formed one entry), these debaters would reject that notion categorically.
In the end, according to the scenario Matt and I laid out, the disagreement wouldn't be settled. Such arguments rarely are, especially when alcohol is being consumed. But privileged bystanders would know a lot more about each of the Wrights.
In the year that has passed since we dreamed up that encounter, my work as the aviation editor at Travel Weekly has clued me into many things about flying and airlines, among them that just last year Simon & Schuster published "The Wright Brothers" by David McCullough, which provides just the type of details Matt and I imagined these two brilliant, if slightly buzzed, barflies debating. It turns out that Wilbur was the diligent and responsible brother, while Orville was the dreamer and ideas man. Together, they made history.
More frequent musings on the advent of aviation are just one example of how some of my most basic thought processes have changed in the 16 or so months since I began covering the airline industry. Prior to that time, I had no particular expertise on matters of flying. Sure, I traveled often. I always have, for leisure primarily, and more recently for work. So I knew the basics of the airline industry. What I had never done was to think about the details.
Now I do. All the time. Often to the detriment of people around me.
For example, it used to be that when a plane flew overhead, I'd look up, give it a quick glance, then return to whatever I was doing. Now when I see a plane darting across the sky, I find myself making a desperate attempt to identify the airline. Worse than that, I often ask whomever I happen to be with to do the same.
Failure is usually the result. It seems carriers don't paint their livery on the bottom of the craft.
Here's another new quirk of mine: Seeing a plane heading off to parts unknown makes me want to guess where it's going. With this task being more futile than guessing the airline, I usually refrain. But the very question often gets me thinking big picture, and I find myself contemplating the way air travel impacts all our lives. Sometimes I'll even make a sarcastic comment to that effect. "If this aviation industry ever really takes off, it will change the world someday," I like to say. Responses to this are inevitably dismissive, insulting or both.
Of course, my newfound attention to aviation sometimes takes a useful bent as well. Now that I cover commercial carriers, I find myself asking anyone who tells me of travel plans which airline they chose. If someone talks about a recent trip, I ask the same question, then ask how the flight went.
When I think of major cities now, the airline that hubs there is often as prominent a thought to me as the actual distinctions for which those cities are known. I suppose I always did that with Atlanta and Dallas, associating them with Delta and American, respectively, because as a relatively frequent flyer who lived for more than two decades in Louisville, Ky., changeovers in Atlanta and Dallas-Fort Worth were routine. But now when I hear of Newark I think of United, for example. And when Detroit comes up, Delta is on my list of associations just below automobiles, urban decay and the fine, suburban Jewish delis in which I have so often eaten while there.
Nothing, though, has changed more for me than the flying experience itself. From the moment I enter an airport now, I find myself analyzing and scrutinizing almost everything. In the security line, I routinely compare the TSA PreCheck queue to the standard line to see if the PreCheck customers are getting their money's worth.
Similarly, when I look at the crowds at a busy checkpoint, I find myself thinking about what security analysts have told me -- namely, that such choke points are rich targets for terrorists and other bad actors.
Meanwhile, if I experience something out of the ordinary during my trip through an airport, I can't let it drop. For example, last May, as long security lines were making national headlines, I passed through the regular TSA screening line at Miami Airport without having to take off my shoes or remove my laptop from my bag. Professionally curious, I found myself emailing the TSA the next day to understand why. It turned out there was a bomb-sniffing dog deployed to that checkpoint, which eliminated the need for a shoe or laptop check.
In flight, my former routine of walking aboard, paying attention to almost nothing, then waiting impatiently for the trip to end, has also been turned upside down since I became an airline reporter. I used to basically think of all coach aircraft seats as similarly uncomfortable. Now, armed with knowledge about the different interior configurations employed by various carriers, I observe seat width, the type of materials the seats are made from and the distance between rows. Flying on JetBlue, I think about those extra few inches of legroom they like to talk about and take note of how much comfort I believe those inches add.
Once seated, my new routine is to quickly pull out the seat-pocket information sheet to learn what model aircraft I'm on. Is this an Airbus A320 or a Boeing 737? And if it's a 737, is it a 600, a 700, an 800 or a 900ER? And how can I tell the difference anyway?
Next, I pay attention to the WiFi, something I never cared about before, since I always welcomed flight time as a reprieve from the connected world. But I don't just pay attention to whether the plane has WiFi; I also look at who the provider is and use that information to discern whether this is an air-to-ground or satellite-based system. Hell, the person next to me might just ask.
Finally, once in the air, it's the food service that I pay most attention to. Are the customers enjoying the Illy premium coffee United just sent me a press release about? Has JetBlue actually added the Ocean Spray Craisins it so proudly raved about to its snack options?
On a trip from Miami to Houston last April, having such minutia stored in my head actually worked to my advantage. I knew that United had just brought back free snacks after years of hiatus. But no snacks were being served on my flight. When I asked the flight attendant why, he apologetically explained that there had been a mix-up. Snacks should have been available.
To make up for it, he came back with two cans of Pringles that happened to have been in the galley. At the sight of the chips, I could feel my arteries lashing out at me. But my spirits? Like the airplane, they were soaring.