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Jennifer Evans Gardner Headshot

White Knuckles And Champagne In The Front Of The Plane

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I am a white-knuckled traveler.

This may be no big deal to you, but for one who writes travel articles, it's a bit embarrassing to admit. Like many, I love and hate to travel, with equal passion.

I have no problem with automobiles, trains or boats. It's airplane travel that I take issue with. In fact, I hate flying so much that it takes me forever just to book a plane ticket. I will wait and wait until the last minute, when fares begin to rise to the ridiculous. I'll look for excuses as to why I should not go: I have too much work. I should just stay home. Who wants to go to Marrakech/Paris/Tulsa/Maui anyway? Me, the other part of me screams. I want to go! Finally, I drag my sorry paranoid butt back to my laptop, take a sip of wine or a bite of chocolate, and purchase my now insultingly overpriced ticket.

Which is the exact moment that real anxiety sets in. I tell myself that it's silly, this fear of flying, but it persists. I begin to lose sleep for no particular reason. Only there is a reason. I am flying in 20 or 10 or 2 days.

Back in our parents' day, flying was a pleasant experience. They dressed up to get on planes where pretty, smiling stewardesses in designer uniforms poured bubbly and served piping hot meals -- all complimentary. Flying was an adventure.

Today, sadly, air travel has become an awful, dignity-sucking ordeal as we are forced to stand in long lines without shoes on, subjected to pat downs and body scans. This all for the privilege of being crammed like sardines into a tin can where we might sit on the tarmac for hours, with nary a pretzel or cup of tap water in sight. Once in the air, rather than the gourmet meals and snazzy cocktail lounges of yesteryear, we pay exorbitant prices for stale sandwiches and tiny bottles of grain alcohol, whatever it takes to get us through the hellacious hours of turbulence as we compete with other passengers for limited molecules of oxygen. We fly knowing that pilots and the ground staff are being paid less and working longer hours and that a mere bird (or a guy with a bomb in his undies) can bring a jet to the ground. Plus, no one is smiling. How can it not be scary?

If you were sitting next to me on a plane, you'd never know how much I hate flying. I am a great pretender. While I'm sitting serenely flipping through my Whole Living magazine, I'm secretly praying that the pilot isn't a manic-depressive who has no reason to live or who has been working overtime and is about to fall asleep. I'm making a deal with God that if the plane doesn't suddenly plummet from the air, I will be a better person (really, I will). I calm myself down by thinking things like, "What would this experience be like if I had no fear?" I remember Nora Ephron's observation that it's narcissistic to think that YOUR plane is going to be the one that crashes. I get very spiritual and recall phrases like "You cannot have faith and fear at the same time." I beg to differ. And then I drink two little bottles of wine and take a Xanax, and I feel a bit better.

Sometimes, when I'm very lucky, I get upgraded, which works miracles in the fear department. Why, you ask? Well, if you have flown first class, you already know the answer to that question: you are so focused on the pampering that you forget to be afraid. There's the great wine and food, the flight attendants who actually respond when you touch the call button, taking your jacket, freshening your glass, bringing you warm cookies and ice-cold milk. With this kind of treatment, plus the extra oxygen they are clearly pumping into this section of the plane, you really can trick yourself into believing that you are one of the 1% -- and that you haven't a care in the world.

Recently, I found myself in Air France's Executive Affaires Class on a last minute trip to Paris. From the moment I checked in, I was treated with warmth and grace by the staff, who whisked me to the front of the security line within minutes to the Air France lounge where free Wi-Fi and an assortment of nibbles and cocktails awaited. On the plane, I was pampered silly with fine champagne, foie gras and other treats. The plush seats are so spacious, you can stretch your legs out for miles, and with the touch of a button, you're reclining with a feather pillow and cozy blanket. Add to that mood lighting, non-stop movies, TV and music with noise-canceling headphones and a posh Clarins amenities kit with moisturizer, lip balm and other goodies. This being a French airline, of course there is also a cheese cart.

Fear of flying? What fear of flying? I was in heaven. One can only imagine what first and business class will be like on the new A380s they are rolling out for the LA-Paris trip in 2012.

If I had the money, I would never, ever fly anything but business or first (or what the hell, private). It is well worth thousands (maybe millions) of dollars not to feel claustrophobic and paralyzed with fear while careening through the skies for hours and hours on end. For the record, I would never, ever let you fly anything but business or first, either.

But why can't flying be pleasant for all of us, all the time? Okay, maybe that is reaching a bit, but how about simply restoring a little comfort and dignity to airline travel for all?

Months ago I saw a photo of a dream airliner in the Los Angeles Times that featured wraparound windows; the entire plane was supposedly made of some kind of acrylic glass. How ethereal, I thought to myself. Flying in such a contraption must surely give the sensation of floating. I imagine that everyone on that fantasy plane -- from coach to first -- is served champagne before takeoff from smiling flight attendants, and that caviar and/or warm chocolate chip cookie carts make their way down wide aisles throughout a smooth flight.

I imagine that the entire plane is infused with ambient lighting, beautifully scented fresh air, and a mood-lifting soundtrack to accompany the on-board massages (yes, I know, Virgin Atlantic already has them). True, this is just the pipe dream of one white-knuckled air traveler, but why not dream? In the meantime, I'll downgrade my vision and simply wish you all happy, safe and fear-free travels for 2012.