Of Bikinis and Blizzards

Jan. 31, 2006 — -- One of the joys of early 21st century air travel has been watching it become a routine part of our lives.

We tend to approach flying very casually these days: Take your preprinted, electronic boarding pass; trip lightly to the airport; sail through security; grab a tall, nonfat latte; and board your flight with your mind on the book you're reading (one of mine, I hope).

It's not quite as easy as a science fiction "Stargate" connecting two distant places in a single portal, but we do tend to arrive in Phoenix or Los Angeles or Miami with far less memory of how we got there than in previous decades. One minute you're sipping your double espresso in the terminal in Detroit, and the next, it seems, you're grappling with the reality that the Starbucks kiosk before you is now somehow in Chicago.

It's not just the seasoned business traveler who falls in to this state of routine comfort when teleporting by airplane, it's all of us who fly often. The ease and accessibility of travel that Southwest Airlines, for one, has worked so hard to create ("Ding -- you're now free to move around the country!") has become reality for tens of millions of us who change cities as easily as we change socks: We just do it, without much fuss or prior planning, and that's an enjoyable freedom.

But, while it's really laudable to be comfortable with a small roll-on bag and a few necessities even 3,000 miles from home, the fact is you're still leaping over vast distances into different climatic zones, and without at least a little planning, there can be some rude and literally chilling shocks.

Basically, America, it's time we had a little discussion about a stratospheric dress code, if for no other reason than to defend our immune systems.

Once a long, long time ago, dressing for a commercial flight was simple: Men wore a suit and tie, and women wore nice dresses, heels and sometimes even gloves. That, of course, went out with the 1950s and Playtex living girdles. Today what you wear to the grocery store suffices for a transcontinental flight.

Here's the problem, though. When you dress just for comfort, you tend to forget about such things as the possibility that the summer blouse or T-shirt that worked great a few hours ago in San Diego is about to become a major liability while waiting for a cab in the blizzard that's consuming Boston. The mukluks and parka you wore coming from Anchorage won't work so well on the beach in Cabo, either.

In other words, a certain amount of planning is needed to avoid being really mismatched with the weather, especially if you're moving from hot to cold. (If you detect the ring of experience in this warning, you're absolutely right -- and the cold I caught lasted two weeks.)

There are really two things to consider before zipping your roll-on closed and heading for the airport. First, what's the weather going to be like today and tomorrow at the other end, and second, are you really ready for up to five hours of chilly temperatures in an airborne aluminum tube?

Letting yourself get too cold or too hot for extended periods stresses your immune system and opens a wider pathway for the myriad bugs that you may encounter in any airport or airborne crowd.

In regard to the weather, all you need to do is look at a national weather map, provided daily in most newspapers. When you arrive, ask what the current temperature is and what big changes might be heading to town. (The Internet offers an inexhaustible supply of information on this as well.)

Once you know, pack accordingly and carry your coat (versus packing it) if there really is a blizzard at the far end. Even though it may look a bit weird to lug an arctic parka aboard in tropical climes such as Honolulu, the chills you can encounter just getting to a warm place after getting off the plane can be a big problem.

A quick look at the destination weather and a plan to deal with it (umbrella, coats, sweaters) will save a lot of hassle in the long run -- and may save you a cold, or worse.

The other problem is coping with the temperatures in the airliner's cabin. We'd like to believe that the aircraft will be kept at a perfect temperature, but while all aircrews try to do just that, the truth is the temperature of the air streaming past your window is on the south side of minus 45 degrees, and keeping every seat inside perfectly comfortable and at a uniform temperature is more of a goal than a certainty. There are cold spots, and anyone who's spent five hours in an emergency exit row window seat without a coat or a blanket knows what I'm talking about -- severe cold seeps in around the seals on those exits and can leave you chilled to the core.

And don't depend on finding one of those increasingly rare and terribly thin airline blankets. They, like airborne meals, are a dying breed.

No, if you want to have an easy defense system against a chilly seat, bring a few additional layers in your carry-on bag and be ready and willing to shed a layer if the pilots turn up the temperature to just short of volcanic (or you end up sitting on a ramp for a while without effective air conditioning.)

And, for all of us who do remember when flying was a sufficiently big deal to justify dressing up, I'd be remiss if I didn't gently suggest you might consider the following when preparing for that next trip:

If, perchance, some sort of emergency occurs on your flight that draws all us media types when you land, what you were wearing when you went aboard will be what you're wearing on national television. So, maybe that slightly soiled muscle shirt might not be such a good idea after all.

Again, this is a modern version of mamma's warnings about clean underwear and getting hit by a bus.

One final note, if you please, and an item of courteous protocol beyond the obvious basics of personal hygiene. While most airlines won't deny you passage with most of the skimpy outfits men and women seem to be comfortable wearing onboard these days, when it comes to calculating how much skin to expose, you might consider this: Sitting on an airplane seat with an excessive amount of your skin rubbing against the fabric (or leather) may be a bit more intimacy than you bargained for, considering all those other folks who've sat there in various states of undress on previous flights.