Adventures in flight: A tale of illness, security and the clanging of one-armed bandits

Each time I work up the courage to get on an airplane, I can count on acquiring new information useful for future flights. On my most recent venture to the East Coast over Thanksgiving, I learned three invaluable lessons: Never attempt to get on an airplane if you only have a one-way ticket; don't even think about flying if you have a cold; and, if at all possible, avoid the Las Vegas airport, especially late at night.

The original plan called for my daughter to take a flight out of the Bay Area a day after I arrived in Connecticut, our destination. She would land in New York, spend a couple of days there with friends, then take a train to Fairfield, where I would meet her. Like many plans, this one went awry.

On my second day with relatives, my daughter calls with the news that she has a miserable cold and is reconsidering her trip. We all urge her to stay home, forget about joining us and concentrate on getting well.

She says she'll think about it, but in the meantime spends time and effort looking for alternate flights--on the weekend before Thanksgiving, no less. Miraculously, she finds one, but on a different airline.

She ends up keeping her return flight on the original airline, but purchasing a one-way ticket on Jet Blue to New York. What none of us considered were the alarms one-way travel sets off in the minds of airport security.

When she gets in line for the obligatory identity check and baggage screening, she is asked to step aside for a more thorough interrogation. Her carry-on baggage is scrutinized for threatening paraphernalia. She is wanded and patted down by a female security employee. She is questioned about her travel plans.

Eventually, she convinces them that her one-way ticket was the result of illness, not ill intent, and she has a runny nose and hacking cough to prove it. Once it's been established she poses no threat to national security, she is allowed to board. This turns out to be a mistake.

Motivated by the need to see relatives she hasn't seen in seven years, she gets on the plane despite the cold. Who knew flying with a cold can lead to a potentially serious complication known as, I kid you not, "airplane ear"?

Airplane ear is characterized by pressure and discomfort in the ear accompanied by pain and a temporary loss of hearing and is caused by rapid changes in altitude and cabin pressure. In my daughter's case, the hearing loss, although only partial, lasted the entire time she was in Connecticut and finally abated after a few days back in California.

Although usually not a serious or permanent condition, airplane ear may, on rare occasions, lead to permanent hearing loss. If you must fly with a cold, we belatedly learned from the Mayo Clinic Web site that there are some precautionary measures you can take to minimize your chances of finding yourself deaf in addition to congested.

Use a decongestant nasal spray in each nostril just before takeoff, making sure to spray each side thoroughly while holding the other side shut.

Even if you don't have a cold, it's always a good idea to suck candy or chew gum during the flight. Another way to keep your ears clear is to gently blow through pinched nostrils. Keep your mouth closed during this procedure, both on takeoff and landing, to help equalize the pressure.

Get yourself to a drugstore and purchase a pair of filtered earplugs. These are specially designed to "equalize the pressure against your eardrum during takeoff and landing," according to the Mayo site.

My daughter followed these guidelines on her return flight and found herself suffering from far less pain and discomfort than she had endured on the eastbound leg of her trip. Of course, she was already several days into her cold, so that likely had an effect.

Finally, a word about the Las Vegas airport. After a cross-country flight that left me bleary-eyed and exhausted, the last thing I wanted to face was a dimly lit concourse full of slot machines and their accompanying noise. I admit, I was able to find a last-minute gift for hubby (chocolate covered macadamia nuts), but I would have been happy to return empty-handed if it meant avoiding the cacophony from the loud, gaudy, one-armed bandits. While tolerable at 3 p.m., it was the last thing I wanted to encounter at 10 p.m. (which was 1 a.m. according to my East Coast-set watch).

When I finally landed at our beloved Tucson International Airport, I let the quiet wash over me like a gentle spring rain.

It turned out to be colder here than it had been in Connecticut, but it didn't matter; I was home at last.

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