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The Oakland International Airport in Oakland, Calif. (Laura A. Oda/Staff File)

Before terrorists hid bombs in their underpants and airlines were mired in red ink, travel by plane used to be an almost elegant experience. Passengers dressed for the occasion, meals were included and seats were roomy.

I was reminded of those ancient times when I recently took a trip that only a cockeyed optimist or a dutiful relative would make. I went from the Bay Area to southwest Florida. Under any circumstance, it's a challenge to get from here to Florida's Gulf Coast, a distant land composed entirely of swamplands and golf course communities.

Under the watchful eye of scowling TSA agents and in the discomfort of 17-inch-wide coach seats, the trip compares favorably only with a visit to the dentist. Connecting flights, which are unavoidable, always are located at a distant gate, and the only time they leave on schedule is when your plane arrives late. This put me in the perfect frame of mind for a 7:15 a.m. flight out of SFO.

Because every tube of toothpaste now is a potential explosive and travelers can no longer be trusted to pack only themselves inside their underwear, security checks are more thorough than bar exams. I allowed an hour before takeoff, which meant boarding BART an hour before that, which meant awakening while coyotes were roaming the streets.


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Lots of people endure this drill, but I was still surprised to arrive at the airport and find dozens of sleepy-eyed grouches ahead of me in a security maze manned by grouchier TSA agents.

For unknown reasons, those of us traveling to Atlanta were redirected from one waiting line to another, like Herefords cut from the herd. Then we waited some more until an agent summoned us, one by one, with a scowl and a stern finger waggle.

I remember my grade-school principal wearing that look after I got into a playground shoving match.

From there, it was on to the shoe-, cellphone- and keychain-removal station, followed by a march to the full-body scanner. People complain about its invasiveness, but the glares I got from security were just as piercing.

"Remove your wallet and anything else in your pockets," an agent barked. "Take off your belt and put it in a tray."

Then I stepped into the scanning chamber, raised my arms and hoped my pants didn't drop to the floor. TSA's goal is to make travel so unpleasant that not even terrorists will put up with it.

When I boarded the plane, every seat was accounted for -- the airlines could teach sardine canneries a thing or two -- and all of them were ideally sized for a 12-year-old girl. Once I was folded into mine, my knees were wedged perfectly against the seat back in front of me.

The airline was pleased to provide Wi-Fi service, if I was pleased to pay $7.95. The lunch menu had an egg-salad sandwich for $6.75. Touch-screen monitors offered movies and games at the kind of competitive prices you can only find at 30,000 feet. Pillows and blankets were also available, but I was running out of cash.

From portal to portal, the one-way trip took 12 hours and three Tylenols. I've spent worse days in my life, though I can't recall them right now.

"It's been our pleasure having you onboard today," the pilot said at trip's end.

Pleasure may not be the right word to describe what air travel is today.

Contact Tom Barnidge at tbarnidge@bayareanewsgroup.com