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I’m writing this at 37,000 feet, from an airplane somewhere over Colorado. At least I think that it’s Colorado. From this altitude, the vast, never-ending, perfectly symmetric land squares of Colorado, Nebraska and Kansas all look the same.
After three days in Denver, I’m jetting my way back to Maine at nine miles a minute, via the Garden State’s Newark Liberty International Airport. While I’m almost certain that New Jersey has a garden or two in the Southern region of the state, I’m more confident in saying the concrete/asphalt-to-garden ratio in the Newark area must be a million to one.
Thanks to a last-minute frequent-flier upgrade, I’m sitting closer to the front than the back, in a seat that fully reclines into a bed. Although the flight time from Denver to Newark is less than four hours, immediately upon boarding, I pushed the necessary armrest buttons to convert my “seat” to a “bed.” Neither the passengers boarding after me nor the flight crew walking past seat/bed 2B seemed to appreciate my resting position.
There were awkward stares, followed by a stern directive from a flight attendant (more of a Navy Seal instructor, really) to “return to my full upright position!”
My first memory of flying on an airplane is from the 1960s on a family trip to Florida. We left from Logan Airport in Boston on a propeller plane. I believe it was Eastern Airlines that brought us to the sunshine state with a full complement of “stewardesses” (not a flight attendant in sight).
Back then, Logan and every other airport featured omnipresent brown, metal machines, that sold life insurance policies (valid for the duration of your flight) – basically presenting a gambling option or hedge bet on never reaching your destination.
Commercial planes also had smoking and non-smoking sections separated by only seat numbers. That meant that you could have been in seat 23C, a perfectly comfortable non-smoking seat, with the Marlboro Man himself puffing away for five hours in seat 24C.
After many years of debate and fierce resistance from the airlines themselves, the Civil Aeronautics Board – and of course the greedy, death-purveying tobacco companies – smoking was banned on most commercial flights in 1990, and all domestic and international flights in 2000.
Looking back now, it seems insane that anyone thought smoking should be allowed in a closed metal container flying through the air with humans trapped on board. The evolutionary path of tobacco understanding is in itself a fascinating and cautionary tale with highlights and low-lights that included some doctors in the 1940s and 1950s prescribing smoking to pregnant women to “calm the nerves.”
Today’s climate change obstructionists (almost the entire Republican Party) remind me of those days when Big Tobacco fought against the compelling and dire health warnings attached to smoking, in the same way Big Oil is fighting and funding against responsible climate policy.
Now it’s time for this column’s final approach, as I head toward the Portland International Jetport, also known by its three-letter airport code, “PWM.” Do you know what PWM stands for? Portland Westbrook Municipal.
While few people associate our state’s largest airport with Westbrook, back in the 1930s, when the City of Portland bought the Stroudwater Flying Field from Portland native Dr. Clifford Strange, one of the original navigational beacons was located in Westbrook.
So, while most of PWM is in Portland, that one tiny beacon in Westbrook was the catalyst for equal billing in the airport code. Well played, Westbrook, well played.
Recently, the Portland International Jetport was voted 2015’s Best Airport in North America in the under 2 million passengers category according to an annual survey of passengers by the Airports Council International.
It’s a well-deserved honor that’s reflective of the great management and staff at PWM. By my rough calculations, I’ve taken more than 1,750 flights and traveled through 160 domestic and international airports since 1965, and ours is certainly one of the best.
But I do have one criticism and concern less specific to the Portland Jetport itself and more focused on our aviation infrastructure here in the U.S. as overseen by the Federal Aviation Administration.
After spending an hour visiting the air traffic control tower at the Portland Jetport a few weeks ago, I came away with considerable respect for the men and women responsible for keeping the airport, planes, and most importantly, the passengers, safe.
But, much of their equipment – radar, communications, ground lighting, etc. – is for the most part, outdated and in some cases, archaic. I was told PWM is due for an equipment upgrade very soon, but soon can’t come soon enough from what I saw.
Since the FAA is a federal agency, my observation has nothing to do with the Portland Jetport itself or the employees that staff the tower, but is more of an indictment of how far we’ve let our critical infrastructure deteriorate. These are big and real issues that eclipse the need for a mythological wall to protect us from hordes of invading immigrants.
Now to bring the column in for a smooth landing: Airplane travel has been around long enough that most people, myself included, tend to take it for granted. But, we shouldn’t. It’s an unfathomable engineering and magical feat that enables a large, heavy, tube of metal to fly through sky, taking us to virtually anywhere around the planet.
And, here in Portland (sorry, Westbrook) we’re fortunate to have one of the best airports in the world to start and conclude those journeys.
Steve Woods is from away, but fully here now, living in Yarmouth, working in Falmouth, traveling the world, and trying his best. His column appears every other week. He can also be heard each Saturday at 11 a.m. on WLOB-AM 1310.