For Philly I bit the bullet and flew coach. I lucked out for three of the four legs of the flight, having an empty seat next to me in two and a diminutive person in one. In the last leg back, from O'Hare to San Diego, my luck ran out and I was seated in the same row as two other good-sized men. It wasn't as bad as it could have been, though, because I had aisle and the guy next to me had served in Afghanistan. He was used to flying for thousands of miles in a coach seat on a plane packed with nothing but 200-pound men. He compacted his body as much a possible, forgoing the use of both armrests, recognizing the inherently indefensible position of the person in the middle seat. We chatted pleasantly about San Diego, where he was making his first visit, and where I live, and compared it to Flint Michigan, where he lived, and where I have never visited and definitely don't want to. When we got off the plane, I thanked him for his service, and also for keeping his elbow out of my ribs.
So it wasn't the realization of my worst airborne nightmare, which has nothing to do with the wings icing over, or hijackings, or crazy co-pilots flying my aircraft into one of the Alps. It is to be seated next to an obese man. I say man, not women, because an overweight woman is self-conscious about it and will attempt to shrink into her seat. Not so the fat man. Fat guys just billow. And they all seem pretty smug about it, too. You imagine they are laughing internally. "Yeah, I know that's my pancreas in your armpit. Deal with it. Har, har, har."
Because my carry-on had been confiscated by the airline for bulging dangerously over the carry-on limit, I was stuck with the entertainment choices the airline offered on the screen on the back of the seat in front of me. I could pay to watch movies I had already seen, watch TV I had already seen for free, or check out the interactive flight map. I chose the map. I don't know whether that made the flight more interminable or less. You could touch-screen the map to shrink or enlarge it relative to the digital plane on the screen. You could see the whole route, where the digital plane's nose appeared to be in Kansas as soon as you took off from Chicago, or you could shrink it down so you could see how long crossing the country actually takes, even at 471 miles an hour ground speed.
The map gave you that information, along with altitude, time to destination, time at destination and outside temperature if you pushed the right button. You could amuse yourself by thinking "Hah! The pilot promised us a cruising altitude of 36,000 feet and she leveled off at 35, 955 feet and she's keeping it there. Liar, liar, cockpit on fire!" or note that outside the plane's skin it was minus 53 Fahrenheit. "That's brisk," you think, and wish they would turn up the heat.
The map would give you a simulated view out of the left side of the aircraft, the right side of the aircraft, or the cockpit. Towns like North Platte, Nebraska and Independence, Missouri simulated on by. Having only ever lived on the Right or Left Coasts my whole life, I have a natural disdain for the flyover states, for two reasons. First, I've been to most of them and second, it's one of the few nasty prejudices left that it's still socially acceptable to harbor. I narrated the map to myself. "On the right side of the aircraft we have A Big Mess of Nothing. On the left, A Big Mess of Nothing With Confederate Flags."
The cockpit view was ridiculously optimistic. Even from 35, 955 feet, I doubt you can see San Diego from the Arizona—New Mexico border, but the simulation promised you could, just to remind you we were getting there.
I found another button that would make the map give you the distances to the closest two towns. This provided another scant second or so of amusement. "Look, we're 122 miles away from Silver City, New Mexico. Just where I've always dreamed of being at this point in my life."
But eventually, we arrived. I untangled myself from the ex-military guy, grabbed the twenty Philly soft pretzels my beloved demands as the price for not taking her along on my trip to the Big Cheesesteak from the overhead compartment and—bonus—my forcibly checked bag slid down the baggage claim first.
Good to be home.