Monday, May 23, 2022
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Flying the Friendly Skies Again

After two years of various masking requirements, millions of Americans are back to some semblance of normalcy – at least for now. When the mask restrictions were eliminated two weeks ago in airports and on airplanes – one of the last bastions of federal control that serve a huge amount of people daily – it made a world of difference for the 37.5 million Americans aged 18 and over who, according to the National Institutes of Health, report that they have trouble hearing. That’s 15% of the adult population of our country and I’m one of them. 

For those like me with some hearing loss it was tough enough communicating in normal places with masks on. Luckily I didn’t have the need to go to many places that required masks, but when I did it presented interesting conversation options. In many cases I simply did not have a clue what the other person was saying. Seeing someone’s facial clues is an important part of talking with others for me – even with hearing aids. When someone with a mask was talking I waited for them to pause to signal that they had completed their thought, and then depending on the tone of their voice I had three standard responses. I either chuckled politely, said “right,” or thoughtfully responded “hmmm.” In other words, if you had a conversation with me the last two years while you were wearing a mask, rest assured I most likely didn’t hear what you said.

But everyone wearing masks in airports, and especially on airplanes, was extremely difficult to navigate without seeing visual facial clues and lip movements. Airports tend to be busy places with a certain amount of ambient noise, which increases the level of hearing difficulty. Then on airplanes, where the altitude changes can easily clog your ears, having to decide what the flight attendants were saying was just a best guess scenario. Not to mention it took all the friendliness out of the friendly skies.

Which is why my flying experience a weekend ago was a glorious return to some semblance of normalcy. Agents at the counter, security screening personnel, food service staff, gate attendants and flight attendants were almost all unmasked and making the flying experience a friendly one again. 

One item of note: I did not fly out of State College. I have heard from friends and colleagues about issues with connecting flights so I got a direct flight to my destination from Dulles International Airport near Washington, DC. Plus, now that the parking rates at the State College airport have gone up, there’s minimal cost savings there. And with multiple airport options available within a three-and-a-half hour drive – Dulles, BWI, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia – you can get a direct flight to just about anywhere without the added stress of a possible connection snafu. For my money, direct flights are manna from heaven.

One of the other bonuses of driving to Dulles airport specifically is that the shortest route from my house is down the two-lane roads through Huntingdon, Mt. Union, Orbisonia, Cowans Gap State Park and on to I-81 at Greencastle. Which means I’m driving right past the Little Ice Creamer in Orbisonia – all the convincing I need to stop and get a quart of soft-serve! But even the other driving options, such as U.S. 322 to Harrisburg and then U.S. 15 to within 10 miles of the airport, are an enjoyable mix of highway and local roads with plenty of options for stopping.

And because we hope to begin flying internationally soon, the opportunities from Dulles are unprecedented. For example, following is a list of the international arrivals at Dulles airport between 2:30 and 3:30 on a recent normal Wednesday afternoon: 

Zurich, Switzerland; Vienna, Austria; Providenciales (Caribbean); Montreal, Canada; Munich, Germany; 

Panama City, Panama; Cancun, Mexico; Jeddah, Saudi Arabia; Frankfurt, Germany; Dublin, Ireland; Mexico City, Mexico; Paris, France; and Hamilton, Bermuda

So yes, you can get lots of places in the world non-stop from Dulles.

As those of us with hearing impairment get back to normal in airports and on airplanes, here’s a word to the wise for everyone: get TSA PreCheck. The process was created to make airport security screening easier for passengers. No removing shoes, laptops, light jackets, most belts, etc. Unfortunately, since its inception those of us in Happy Valley had to drive all the way to Berkeley Springs, West Virginia, if we wanted to complete the in-person portion of the process. But now the Staples on North Atherton Street has a TSA PreCheck stand, so you can pay your $85 there and be good to go for five years.

Along with the benefits I listed above, with TSA PreCheck you get to go through their separate security line at most airports rather than the regular screening line. At State College airport that doesn’t mean much since there’s only one line for screening. But at the bigger airports you’ll generally be met with shorter lines and definitely by a quicker and much less invasive screening process. The best way to describe it is you’ve gone back in time a decade or more. You just empty your pockets, put your carry-ons on the conveyor and walk through a metal detector. No more belt, coat and shoe removal from your body, and no more laptop removal from your carry-on.

Now, there is a caveat to that. If your belt buckle contains a good bit of metal then you’ll probably have to take it off (my normal-sized buckle made it through without any issues). And, I don’t know if it was the fact that almost everyone was unmasked, or the TSA screeners in the PreCheck line are just happier, but the screeners were all very cordial and even joked with me as I went through the line. This was a huge departure from the intimidating demeanor I’ve encountered in my past TSA experiences.

So, for those of us who may have been avoiding the flying experience, especially because of hearing loss and the potential communication issues, now is the time to get back out and enjoy traveling by air. The friendly skies seem, at least to me, to be smiling again.