30 Airports in 30 Days

Flying the Friendly Skies
Dispatches from the front lines of travel.
Nov. 12 2010 10:18 AM

30 Airports in 30 Days

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Boston to JFK to Burbank, Calif.; Long Beach, Calif., to Salt Lake City to Long Beach, Calif., to Portland, Ore., to JFK to Tampa, Fla., to Newark, N.J., to Orlando, Fla., to Austin, Texas, to JFK

I would like to say that I've entered the homestretch, but I can't. There are too many stops to make before I'm actually home. But I have finally reached the last week of this slog, and after approximately three bloody noses, one box of Sudafed, and 654 tissues, the cold is in remission. I am once again eager to fly.

Which is unfortunate, because I—and the rest of JFK—am not going anywhere. Fog has rolled in, and my flight to Burbank, Calif., is delayed for at least an hour and a half.

As I would learn later, behind the scenes, JetBlue's staff at a nondescript office building in Queens is in overdrive. In a large dispatch room, dozens of staffers sit monitoring weather and airports across the country. On an average day, this place is surprisingly quiet. Workers are doing online shopping, eating lunch at their desks, watching ESPN on the corner television. But on a day with delays, the pace quickens.

Employees are organized into three groups based on the scope of their job. Some manage the three-day schedules, some look at only the next day's flights, and others focus on just the next few hours. If a plane can't land at JFK, it takes only a few clicks of a mouse to divert it to, say, Charlotte, N.C. That's first a headache for the person managing the immediate schedule. But there's a trickle-down effect. That same plane may have been meant to fly from JFK to Long Beach, Calif. But now it won't make it there. Which means all those Long Beach passengers need a new plane. It's a cascade of logistics.

When the news of our delay finally makes its way from the office to the airport, the boarding area gasps in unison. It's a shallow intake of breath, followed by a pained exhale. The cell phones come out, the exasperated calling/texting begins, and we all become vile, impatient people. (Earlier this year, Slate's John Dickerson assembled an epic taxonomy of how we deal with delays.) Some people still stand by the boarding door, determined to be first in line, no matter how long it will be before that line begins to form.

30 Airports in 30 Days, Illustrated. Chart No. 6.

I'm going to Burbank to have dinner with my family, which makes this the first delay that I've been upset about. Every other disruption to the schedule has amounted to little more than getting stuck in traffic. And traffic is only inconvenient if you really want to get where you're going to. Air and ground travel both run on the fuel of anticipation.

That's why delays rile us; our potential energy boils over, waiting to be turned kinetic. We become wind-up toys with nowhere to go.

break.

A few days later, as I'm taking my seat on a flight to Portland, Ore., somebody across the aisle calls my name. When I look over, I'm surprised to find that I also know his. It's Adam.

I met Adam back at the Price Is Right meet-up, when, in a fit of male bonding, he pointed out that one of the contestants had "beautiful eyes." That, his name, and the neat iPhone app he was using to keep track of his travel itinerary were about all I remembered about him. But now that we're on a flight to Portland together, we're comrades if not friends. And after 24 days of flying alone, it's nice to have company.

On our way out of Portland's fantastic airport—Exposed architectural trusses! Adjustable-flush toilets to save water! Great sculptural art that you can sit on!—we discuss our plans. I'm here to see two friends, one from college and one from middle school. He's here to do some fly fishing and drive to the house where they filmed The Goonies. His plans win.

A few hours later, while eating with the college friend, I get a text from Adam:

So I complimented the cougar at the hertz front desk on her earrings n asked for an upgrade. she offered me a convertible for $4 more a day. If u want to hit a bar i'll pick u guys up I feel like a VIP lol

I couldn't go to the bar. But I could go to the Goonies house. Which is how, the next day, I found myself in a Chrysler Sebring convertible with my oldest friend and my newest. Susie, whom I've known for more than half of my life, has graciously accepted my invitation to tag along. She's here partly to run interference in case Adam is an ax murderer (it turns out he's not) or a tremendous bore (thankfully, not that either). But I was also intrigued by what would happen when I brought a person from my outside life into the cloistered world of All You Can Jet.

After a two-hour drive, we're in Astoria, Ore., a quaint seaside town that deserves to be known for more than just The Goonies. Conversation was cordial and steady during the drive up. We swapped biographical details, complained about the three minutes of ads JetBlue forces us to watch on every flight, and tried to figure out why we were all so willing to make the Goonies pilgrimage. (As someone who has never seen the movie, I did not have a good answer.)

We arrive in Astoria … and leave 30 minutes later. There's only so long you can stare at a couple of buildings, even if they were in a movie you've never seen. On the way back, the conversation is livelier. We're sharing our best stories—the time Adam nearly died in a rock slide, the time I met Mary-Kate Olsen on a multimillion-dollar yacht—and some of our more serious thoughts. When Adam drops us off, we hug goodbye and say, "See you later" as though there's still some chance we might run into each other again.

There isn't. The next day Adam is off to Las Vegas for a party with more than 100 other AYCJers. (Organized on Meetup.com, natch.) And that night, after a wistful goodbye with Susie, I'm headed back to New York for my final few flights.

Later, I'll stumble across one of the photos we took in Astoria.

1_123125_2068716_2241223_2273860_2273867_101109_wt_day5_gooniestn

It looks like a picture of three friends.

It is a picture of three friends.

break.

It's rare I get to play with a $12 million toy. But because I'm a journalist, JetBlue has invited me to do just that in Orlando, Fla.

From the outside, it looks like I'm sitting inside a box on hydraulic stilts. But on the inside it's a perfect replica of an Airbus A320 cockpit. This is one of seven flight simulators JetBlue uses to train pilots. But to me it feels like Willy Wonka's elevator. And I'm Willy. I have complete control of this plane (simulator), and as I take off from LaGuardia, I actually see my Brooklyn apartment down below. Off in the distance, 3D models of New York's skyscrapers pierce the sky.

The most important thing I learned in the simulator: Planes can fly themselves. When autopilot is engaged, human pilots have the best job in the world. They're 30,000 feet high, a computer is doing their job for them, and they can watch DVDs on their laptops. (The A320 cockpit comes with a little laptop stand, though pilots are strictly prohibited from using a laptop to watch DVDs.) Even I—an uncoordinated, easily overwhelmed, neurotic little man—figured out how to take off and land twice without killing any imaginary passengers. Though I came close the second time, as you can see below.

Thankfully, somebody else is flying me to Austin, my 30th airport. I anticipate that JetBlue's CEO will be there to congratulate me on a trip excessively done. Maybe I'll even get a key to the pilot's lounge. Or at least a key to a charter jet that I can fly home.

But when I land, I'm greeted by, well, just another airport. The smell of unripe lemon only adds to the anticlimax. By the time I get back to New York tonight, I will have flown 45 times, tallied 43,477 miles (enough to fly around the globe 1.75 times!), and burned an estimated 19,129 pounds of carbon. And here I am. In the 30th airport. Which feels startlingly like the first. And the 10th. And the 20th. I've been traveling for weeks. But have I actually gone anywhere?

30 Airports in 30 Days, Illustrated. Chart No. 7.

To celebrate reaching the 30th airport, I head to a bar that looks like every other airport bar I've been to. Except this one has live music. A gravelly singer is sitting front and center, playing a rainbow-painted piano and singing Tom Petty.

Well she was an American girl raised on promises

She couldn't help thinking that there was a little more to life somewhere else

After all it was a great big world

With lots of places to run to

After 28 days of running, I think Petty has it wrong. There isn't that much more to life somewhere else. Especially when you're running to nowhere in particular.

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