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Puddle jumpers skip over key comforts

AS PART OF THE process of applying to graduate schools, I'll have to make several visits to other universities over the next few weekends. Schools always want their prospective students to come and interview with the faculty. It gives them an opportunity to check out the applicants personally, and also allows them to show themselves off. The benefit for me is that I get to take a closer look at the schools I might be attending. The downside to these interviews, though, is that I have to actually get to the schools, and that means using puddle jumpers.

You may not be familiar with that term, but if you've been to an airport before, you might have seen the planes. They have a more polite name, after all -- "commuter planes".

They're relatively small, propeller-driven aircraft. If you don't look carefully, they're easy to miss among all the jumbo jets, darting along like rats in a herd of elephants. Of course, that makes the people inside the commuter planes a little nervous. Ultimately, though, that's nothing. No common experience is more nerve-wracking than your typical commuter flight.

The nail-biting experience starts at boarding, when you begin to feel like a second-class passenger. People on jets get enclosed walkways to the hatch. Prop-plane flyers have to scamper across the tarmac, cringing as the 727's roll past nearby, and wondering why they are the only people on the runway not wearing bright orange vests. Commuter-flight passengers all will recognize the little hand truck waiting underneath the wing to accept the luggage people forgot to check. Flight attendants cheerily ask for your bags, ready to mark them with the mandatory pink or yellow tag.

Some people ignore the important checkpoint the pink-tag cart represents. Foolishly, they think they can store their carry-on luggage in the cabin, much as they would on a jet. Little do they realize that the overhead compartments in a propeller plane are too small to hold even the carrying case for a palmtop computer, much less your backpack full of reading material.

If you think you can stow your bag under the seat, you're in for a major surprise: You actually need to put your feet there. Once you're settled, you're by no means guaranteed to get the seat you were promised on your ticket. One of the least reassuring parts of the flight is the time just before takeoff when you have to swap seats with the fat guy in row six so that the plane doesn't list to one side during your trip. After all, the last thing you need when you're riding the wind shear express is to start leaning to the left.

Even more disturbing is the general age of the planes. It's bad enough that they look like Rosie the riveter made them on a bad day. When you get inside though, and pull out the safety sheet, you'll feel like you've just hit the archives in Alderman. The yellowed paper with engraved pictures crumbles apart under your fingers, even as you realize that your best route out of the plane in a crash is to be thrown free.

Strangely enough, airlines try to maintain at least one traditional part of a jet flight: the inadequate mid-flight snack. As the commuter plane wobbles through the atmosphere, lurching like your typical drunken pedestrian on Rugby Road, the flight attendant makes a daredevil attempt to simultaneously wheel the drink cart down the very thin middle aisle and avoid falling over into the seats. Of course, the drinks get spilled almost immediately after they're served, and the empty cups make an interesting rattling in counterpoint with the flimsy fold-down tray tables.

When you finally arrive at your destination, following a harrowing landing, you often get treated to the ultimate in unfortunate design: the commuter terminal. Larger airports keep their puddle jumper flights on a lower level than the others, but some have completely different buildings. In Cincinnati, all commuter passengers get routed into one huge room with gates around the edges. While you wait to connect, you get to share air with a thousand other passengers, in a confusing place where you have a one in 30 chance of selecting the right gate.

The worst part is that we don't have a choice. Flights out of Charlottesville, unless you're the football team, are strictly limited to propeller planes. So your options are to drive to another city or make that dash across the tarmac.

Oh, and make sure to register your bag with the yellow-tag people.

(Sparky Clarkson's column appears Tuesdays in The Cavalier Daily.)