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Saturday, July 11, 2009

Traveling Back Home

On Wednesday morning, I got up early and finished packing everything. I had breakfast and then started mowing the lawn. It was drizzling, so it was not exactly ideal weather to be doing yard work, but I had no choice. I wanted the lawn to require no maintenance until I came back home in 3 weeks, and I postponed the mowing to the last minute to make sure the lawn did not become overgrown during my absence. Sometimes, when you postpone things to the last minute, things don't work out ideally, as in this case.

After that, I took a shower, had a light lunch (I knew that I would get more food on the flight once we got underway. Moreover, I ran out of all the food I had cooked, which made me proud of my planning!). I loaded and switched on the dishwasher so that my wife would have clean dishes on arrival instead of finding a pile of dirty dishes in the sink. Then, I loaded up my luggage in the car, locked up the house and drove out to the airport. I reached the airport around 12:30 or so.

My travel home takes about 17 hours of flying (in addition to waiting at airports), and consists of two legs on 2 different airlines. It is difficult to look forward to the traveling part of it even though the trip would be something to look forward to most of the time. This time, the entire trip weighed heavily on my mind and I did not look forward to any aspect of the trip, least of all the travel.

I checked in around 12:40 and waited for an agent to check my bags through to my final destination. I was assigned a seat in business class at check-in, and added to the upgrade list for first class. I then cleared security and reached the gate around 13:05. At 13:10, my name appeared on the cleared list on the overhead monitors and I was given a seat in First class.

I roamed around the gate area for a while after that, and also spoke on the cell phone with a friend in San Diego. Boarding began at 13:45. I met the wife and kids of another friend of mine near the gate at that point, and spent about 10 minutes chatting with her about her vacation plans. They were visiting her brother in Germany. My friend was going to join his wife and kids at her brother's over the weekend before they took off to France and Italy for the rest of their vacation. During the conversation, my friend's wife told me that she would have to wait at the airport for about 2 hours to be picked up by her brother because the flight reaches there about 2 hours before the earliest train her brother can get to the airport on. She seemed a little unhappy about it, but was also resigned to it.

She told me she had earlier been booked on a flight leaving much later (and there would have been no waiting at the airport to be picked up by her brother), but my friend had rebooked her on this earlier flight. The later flight was on an Airbus A340 while this flight was on a Boeing 777. She told me my friend had rebooked her on this flight as soon as he had heard about the Air France crash. I have read in newspapers about the effect of air crashes in the past. Some prospective passengers do not book flights or even cancel travel plans in the aftermath of an air crash. But I had not realized the extent to which something like this affects people.

I can honestly say that I personally would not have given a second thought to the specifics of an upcoming flight just because of an air crash. The basic point is that air travel is incrediby safe. Practically every other activity in the world has a higher mortality rate than flying on a commercial flight. Given that safety record, air crashes are essentially freak events. The manufacturer and model of the aircraft, the route, the airline and pretty much every other aspect of an air crash are nothing more than coincidental details, for the most part.

Now, there are exceptions to this general rule. For example, the DC-10 was one incredibly unsafe aircraft that had specific design defects that made it unsafe. Douglas Commercial cut corners in the design and manufacture of the aircraft to save money and was the subject of several books on ethics and morality. In essence, the DC-10 was like the Ford Pinto of commercial aircraft. But I don't think there is anything systemically wrong with the current generation of Boeing or Airbus commercial aircraft.

Similarly, there are air carriers that routinely cut corners to cut costs, and otherwise operate in an unsafe manner (they may fly poorly maintained aircraft, recruit poor pilots and train them poorly, etc.). Most of these air carriers are located in third world countries where regulatory oversight is less strict than in the US. As far as the US is concerned, I trust the oversight enough to consider any carrier operating in the US to be approximately as safe as any other airline operating here.

So, I would not feel less safe traveling on an aircraft manufactured by the company that produced a crashed aircraft, or operated by the unlucky carrier that operated a flight involved in a crash. By the same token, I would not feel any more safe if my flight were operated by a carrier that had not had a crash recently, or operated in an aircraft that had been manufactured by a company whose aircraft had not crashed recently. I was surprised that a friend of mine, who has a scientific and engineering background about the same as mine, would feel compelled enough to go to the trouble of changing existing travel plans just to avoid an Airbus aircraft over a Boeing aircraft.

I think my friend's wife, left to herself, would not have changed her travel plans given the inconvenience of sitting at the airport for an extra 2 hours, just to increase her chances of survival from 99.99999999998% to 99.99999999999%, even if such an increase in survival rate could have been documented. As far as I can tell, in this case, her change of plans did not increase her survival chances at all, it just caused her a lot more inconvenience!

In any case, the flight was extremely comfortable. I was served two very good meals and I also watched the movie Gran Torino on the personal video player. The movie was pretty well-made. The ending was probably the most sensible course of action Clint Eastwood could have taken, but it still seemed a little anti-climactic. I was also a little saddened by the ending, though I knew right from the beginning that it was inevitable. Between the meals, I tried to sleep, but I was unsuccessful. I read a book on Vedic Mathematics for some time and the results will be evident in a future post.

I checked in for my connecting flight at a transfer counter. I then spent time at the gate reading my book, some newspapers, etc. Unfortunately, I was not upgraded to business class on this flight, and was stuck in coach for this flight. The seating was quite uncomfortable with limited leg-room. The meals were bad and the service was quite poor too. I did have in-seat video, and a view out of the window but that was about it as far as redeeming qualities were concerned!

In any case, I watched the movie The Pink Panther 2, on this flight. It was a decent comedy, as long as one did not question the plausibility of the plot too seriously. It was fun and light-hearted, with some laugh-out-loud scenes, and a very happy ending. But then, to expect anything else out of a Pink Panther movie would be absurd!

I chatted for a while with the person seated next to me (he slept through most of the flight and was available to chat with only towards the end of the flight). He had some stories to share with me about the absurdity of the bureaucracy he had to deal with in getting passports, visas and other travel documents from consulates of various countries at various times and so on.

For some reason, when I am just chatting with strangers that I know I am not going to meet or chat with ever again, I feel compelled to keep the conversation going by coming up with interesting chatter that is not necessarily 100% true. It is an interesting phenomenon that has been studied by researchers. Most people admit to "inventing" interesting things to chat about when they meet somebody else for the first time. It makes them seem more interesting and people admit that they do it to impress the other person. They don't even consider most of the stuff they invent to be lies as such. They just consider them exaggerations or they attribute to themselves what they have heard had happened to somebody else. I am sure psychologists have a specific term for the kind of untruths that get bandied about between strangers when they are forced to keep each other company just because they happen to be seated next to each other on a commercial flight, for instance!

The conversation turned towards what my friend had done, changing his wife and kids' travel plans to avoid an Airbus aircraft. He was also quite surprised that somebody would do something like that. He opined that it was driven more by superstition than by anything else, though I had not considered my friend's behavior superstitious in the strictest sense of the term. I guess it was somewhat unscientific, but it did remind me of some unscientific behavior I have encountered in the past. I had a friend, for instance, who insisted on always starting every journey going forward if possible. He hated it when people put their cars in reverse right off the bat and started out going backwards. He believed that things were more likely to work out in his favor if his journey started out with forward motion rather than backward.

Obviously, it is difficult to dissuade people from sticking with such beliefs because it is impossible to prove or disprove their beliefs. If, for instance, something bad happened to my friend during a journey that started out going forward, I am sure he thinks things would have been much worse if he hadn't started the journey going forward. If things worked out like clockwork on a journey that started out going backward, I can't prove that things couldn't have been better if he had started out going forward instead. Moreover, if something bad happened on a journey that had started out going backward, he had a ready-made explanation for why bad things happened during the trip. People like me might either ignore such things as chance occurrences or spend a lot of time trying to find scientific explanations for such things. He was happy with his beliefs and it saved him a lot of time. As they say, to believers, faith needs no explanation. To non-believers faith has no explanation.

As part of my "exaggerating" rather than "outright lying", I related to my seat mate that this friend hated flying, and avoided it as much as possible because of this superstitious belief because most flights started out being pushed back from the gate rather than moving forward. I actually had no idea if this friend avoided or disliked flying in any way, but that is the only detail of the conversation that was not true, so I did not feel guilty about the embellishment! My seat mate agreed that such superstitions did not serve any purpose, but that was part of keeping the conversation going, so I had no idea whether it was true or not!

Once we landed, we said goodbye to each other and went our separate ways. As part of my arrival paperwork, I had filled out a separate form asking about symptoms of H1N1 swine flu. The form also had instructions on what to do if I developed symptoms after arrival and during my stay in the country. Ultimately, the swine flu screening consisted of someone in a face mask stamping the form with an official seal without so much as looking up from his desk at me. After that, I cleared immigration, then collected my baggage and cleared customs. I left the terminal, and 5 minutes later, I was picked up by my brother, and was on my way to my parents' home after leaving my home some 22 hours earlier.

I visited the hospital only the next day to see my dad and mom (my mom was in the hospital with my dad when I reached my parents's home with my brother). More about my days at the hospital in later posts. Unfortunately the internet connection at home is out, and I am unable to even check my email at home. I have internet access from a cousin's place now, but the details of that will have to wait until later too.

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