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Thursday, June 22, 2006 | Last week, I took my new metal hip through an airport security detector for the first time. Yes, it beeped, and the way I looked at the young security officer must have told her something. “Hip replacement?” she said, with a smile. “Yes,” I said, and she steered me into a side area, where I was wanded and patted down. I will never again board an airplane without this detour.

Oh well. It was early and the lines were short. My wife and I both like booking the earliest flight out, for two reasons. One, we know the airplane is going to be there, instead of trying to get there from somewhere. Two, the security lines will be short.

We were on the 6:17 a.m. American Airlines flight to Chicago. Passengers boarded smoothly, we buttoned up a couple minutes early, and pushed back on time. We did a very slow taxi to the end of the runway, then stopped. The captain, whose name was Don Partridge, came on to inform us the Lindbergh Field curfew forbade any take-offs before 6:30 a.m. I looked at my watch. It was 6:25 a.m.

“Why,” Karen asked, “if we can’t take off until 6:30 a.m., do they schedule the flight for 6:17 a.m.?”

I shrugged. “Hitting for an average. If they schedule it for 6:17 a.m., it means they’ll probably get everybody on and seated by 6:20 a.m. or so, then make a couple of announcements, push back slowly, mosey down to the end of the runway and get there just at 6:30 a.m. We were just too much on time today.”

At 6:29 and 30 seconds, Capt. Partridge nudged the engines and swung the S-80 into takeoff position on the runway and braked again. We waited, and I could imagine the tower counting down: “Four . . . three . . . two . . . one . . . go!”

And we went. Very first plane out of Lindbergh. The only way to fly.

For breakfast, I had brought some cubed pork barbecue and a slice of CostCo’s rosemary bread. You can’t count on the airlines any more. In fact, here is where in-flight service stands now: the lead flight attendant said they would be coming down the aisles with a choice of muffins: blueberry or bran, $2 each. I girded my loins, waiting for the charge for coffee, but it is still free, for the time being. I guess the attendants don’t miss the old days of meal service, but I wonder now if they get bored with so little to do.

At O’Hare, our gate was the very farthest one from baggage claim and rental shuttles, and it was a hike. An Atlanta-style satellite terminal, concourses, and trains in between would eliminate that hike, just as it would at a new Lindbergh, with stops along the concourse at every sixth gate.

We drove to Kenosha, Wis., an hour north of Chicago, to visit Karen’s son Bill and his family. We had a great time. Kenosha is a pretty town, green and clean, right on Lake Michigan, with a bratwurst shop every half-mile or so. On Sunday, Father’s Day, we went to Wrigley Field for the Cubs and Tigers. Every ballpark should look and feel like Wrigley Field. At home, Bill’s son Andrew was four-for-six with three RBIs in the two Little League games we saw him play.

Monday morning, in the hotel’s complimentary USA Today, there was a business section story about Delta Airlines’ plan to debut upgraded amenities later this summer on its transcontinental flights. There was a quote from a Delta spokesperson: “Customer expectations on longer-haul flights have increased, and Delta is upgrading its long-haul product to meet that need.”

Actually, customer expectations on flights of any kind in the last 10 years have been deflated, folded up, wadded into a tiny ball, fed through a shredder, incinerated, stomped into individual carbon atoms and sealed in bomb-proof steel containers thrown overboard at the deepest point in the ocean. From that starting point, in 2006, what else could customer expectations do, but increase?

We had a dusk flight out of O’Hare, and at the end of the runway, inching forward, waiting our turn, I saw two aircraft, an American S-80 and a Continental 737, in a holding area off the taxiway, ready to go, but side-by-side, perpendicular to the taxiway, apparently parked. Which is exactly what they were.

Airliners follow specific routes in the sky, the same way drivers follow highways. If the sky routes get too crowded, aircraft are held on the ground, at the takeoff point, until there is room on the highway, so to speak. Once at Cincinnati, our captain parked our aircraft at the takeoff point, told us why, and shut down the engines until there was room for us on the westbound highway, which took about half an hour.

It would be interesting to do a story about these air highways, where they are and how many, and how close to saturation they are. It would be particularly interesting in a city that is actually considering spending $7 billion on a new airport because the old one is reportedly reaching saturation. It would be useful to know if the highways will reach saturation before Lindbergh does.

On a scale of one to 10, I would give Lindbergh’s pat-down service a 7, and O’Hare’s a 5. A new game to play now, to relieve the hassle. American’s idea of customer expectations on its evening flights was a snack box for $4. I had leftover pizza and bratwurst, and coffee cake Bill made from a Food Network Paula Deen recipe. The only way to fly. If you have to.

Journalist, author and educator Michael Grant has been putting his spin on San Diego, and the city putting its spin on him, since 1972. His Web site is at www.michaelgrant.com. Or write a letter to the editor.

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