If there’s a more target-rich environment for people-watching than an airport, I don’t know what it is. From the second you walk into the place, it’s anthropological. In a matter of moments, the observant traveler can tell who flies fairly often and who hasn’t flown since Pam Am was still in the air… and who is just neurotic and obnoxious and lacking any self-awareness whatsoever.
I happen to be traveling the day after a major storm cancelled several flights. That meant that, when I walked into the airport this morning, there were approximately 427,000 people in the check-in line for Southwest. I had already checked in online, but I needed to print my boarding pass (print connection fail) and had to check a bag because I was bringing my purse and my laptop bag onboard. (Also, I cannot travel without mousse for my hopelessly flat hair, and they don’t make mousse in three-ounce cans. I don’t know why, but they don’t. This leads me briefly to wonder if the hair product people are in cahoots with the airline people. Then I realize I’m an idiot for wondering that.)
The line is longer than I’d ever seen it, but I have plenty of time. I’m sure that half the people in the line with me have plenty of time, too, but you’d never know it based on the panicked expressions on their faces. These are the People Who Don’t Fly Much. Now, don’t get me wrong; I’m not some jet-setter. I fly maybe three times a year, but that’s a lot compared to other people. I happen to know that the Southwest check-in line moves faster than one fears when one first arrives in it. And the security line moves faster than it appears, too. Plus, if you’re checking a bag and don’t have your boarding pass printed, there’s a lonely, largely unrecognized set of kiosks where you can print it, and then you can get in the much faster-moving of two check-in lines (which usually blur into one line at some point, so that when they do split, it totally confuses the People Who Don’t Fly Much and the group I really can’t stand: the Neurotic/Obnoxious Self-Unaware.) I don’t mind offering this little gem of boarding pass information for people who have young kids and a lot of crap to carry. I told the family behind me, and they were, like, hugely grateful.
Once in a while, when a line is really long, airline employees will come through and find those with flights departing sooner. They’ll put those people toward the front of the line. This rarely elicits objection from other travelers; we all know the stress of worrying about missing a flight. But boy, does it bring expressions of concern to the faces of the PWDFM and the NOSU folks. In an airport, there is rarely a perpetration of injustice (racial profiling notwithstanding). But the NOSUs, in particular, are always looking around for it anyway. If they think they spot a sign that they’re not being treated fairly, they complain to the other people in their party. This mostly involves whining and nasality and twitchy blinking. It’s a hoot. Next time you fly, if the security line isn’t backed up all the way through the maze of retractable barriers, duck under the barriers to get to the end of the line. You will completely freak out the NOSU people. They will think you’re doing something very, very wrong because you didn’t schlep through the maze in its entirety like some unthinking rat, and they’ll look around for a TSA officer to arrest you. When that doesn’t happen, they’ll look around at everything in general, and blink a lot.
Now you know who the NOSUs are.
PWDFM and NOSUs are so easily intimidated by all of the micro- and macro-processes of air travel that they wind up shorting out a synapse. Just when they figure out how one line works, they have to get into another one. It’s overwhelming. “Wait, which security line is for us? This looks like one line for the A gates, but I’m a B gate.” It doesn’t matter. If you go through this line, you can access both the A and B departure gates. (There is a large sign that explains this, right above the line.) “Oh, now we have to take our shoes off?” Yes. “Why?” Because of Richard Reid. “I don’t want to take my shoes off.” Well, that’s sort of immaterial. “Why do I have to take my shoes off? They tie.” You’ll survive, and retying your shoes will not make you miss your flight. “I have to take off my belt, too?” Yes. “Why? What can a belt do to a plane?” It has a metal buckle. It’ll set off the alarm on the x-ray machine and you’ll hold up everybody else. “Honestly, they make it so hard these days.” Just take off the belt, pal.
Note: the people who keep asking questions after the first “why” are NOSU. The PWDFM stop asking questions after the first “why.”
Okay, we’re through the security line and we’ve re-dressed ourselves. Now our travel companions need to get into the Starbucks line. This is a whole other Thing. After the difficulty of beverage choice and the fumbling for cash or a debit card, there is usually a loud and harrowed search for the decanters of half and half, whole milk, 2% or skim. The search means slinging around (oversized) carry-on bags and hitting people with them. If it’s morning, the Starbucks run may explain the behavior on display. Ohhh, she hasn’t had her caffeine yet. But if it’s midday and there are NOSUs in the Starbucks line, you’re hosed.
Now we’re at the gate. When you fly Southwest, you get a special, bonus way of determining who is a NOSU: the boarding process. Infrequent fliers and those who don’t usually fly SWA tend to get befuddled by this process, involving the letters A, B and C (boarding groups) and the numbers 1-60 (an approximated order in which you can get on the plane within your boarding group). PWDFM and NOSU seem to have to be in exact boarding order. If they are holding, say, B23, and they find that the person one or three or five spots in front of them is holding, say, B28, well… forget it. They’re quietly outraged that this person is supposed to be behind them in the boarding order but have clearly cut in line. They repeatedly lean sideways to eyeball the line-jumper. NOSU people are big on rules, be they clearly defined or completely made up based on inference. Those who fly frequently with SWA know that the boarding order within a group really doesn’t matter if it’s in a 15-spot range, since you’re getting on the damned plane at the same time anyway, plus why be in such an all-fired hurry to get on a plane and sit there for 20 minutes, going nowhere, just waiting to find out what overweight, bad-breath bearing, hint-missing close-talker is going to sit next to you? This is why I prefer being a B group boarder: NOSUs are more likely to need to be first, so they check in earlier and wind up being A group boarders.
By the time I’m on the plane, they’re already seated, but the hapless Cs aren’t on yet. So there are still aisle seats available, leaving me free to choose a comfortable spot away from the NOSUs. I just have to hope none of the Cs have bad breath.
On this flight, I’ve hit the jackpot: the middle seat has remained open, and the woman in the window seat joined me in mocking the NOSU who struggled for ten minutes trying to get his (oversized) carry-on bag into an overhead compartment, holding up half the Bs and all of the Cs. “How can you be so unaware of the people around you?” the woman in the window seat asked me. Score. We like her.
Flight is a great equalizer. In-flight, everyone is the same, with one caveat: people who intentionally (not accidentally while looking for the reading light) push their flight attendant call buttons before the plane takes off are NOSUs. Other than that, we’re all in this tin can together, so read your book or take your nap (or write your blog entry) and relax until we get there.
Disembarking the plane is a horse of a different color. The next test is what happens when the “fasten seatbelts” sign turns off. If they jump out of their seat immediately, regardless of how far back they are in the plane or how they have to crouch to keep from hitting their head on the overhead compartment, they’re NOSUs. (I nearly took a picture of this, but then I figured a NOSU would demand that someone would arrest me for taking photos on a plane.) I far prefer the people who patiently wait their turn to stand up, get their bag and file out of there. Those are the people who get it. NOSUs just want off the plane as soon as possible, and they don’t care who they bang into or cut off in the endeavor. I figure that’s probably because they’ve been on the plane the longest, having clamored to get in their seat first.
Then there’s baggage claim. Frequent fliers and PWDFM wait pretty quietly, even if it’s taking forever. PWDFM are more likely to worry that their bags have been lost, but that’s understandable. NOSUs, though… they stand right up against the carousel, looking expectantly up the ramp for their bag to come down, even when the carousel hasn’t started moving yet. They issue preemptory threats to the airline and wonder aloud what they will do if their bag has been mislaid. They talk on the phone about how they’re waiting forever for their bag. (This is where I’m reminded of comedian Louis C.K.’s smart and hilarious rant about how people are never happy, even though it’s a miracle we can fly coast-to-coast in five hours and all be alive by the time we get there.) Then their bag comes down, and they box out everyone who might be moving toward the carousel so they can get it. It’s huge, so they have difficulty wrangling it off the belt, and then they sometimes have to open the bag right then, amid all the other people, to make sure that everything is still there.
I’m recovering from having my foot run over by a NOSU’s 40-pound roller bag and reaching for my own luggage when I hear a NOSU loudly explain to her phone friend, “I only checked the stupid bag because I needed my mousse. I looked everywhere – they don’t make it in that three-ounce size! You know, I think it’s just a way for the mousse people and the airlines to make money…”