Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Airport eczema hell

Nobody likes flying these days. The bag fees, the lines, the security, the delays. But flying is a special hell for those of us with eczema. Each of us has his or her personal pharmacy at home, containing moisturizers, various grades of steroids, and special soaps, shampoos, and shaving creams that cost a lot of money and are difficult to find in stores. When you travel, first of all you have to select what to take with you. Airlines lose bags, so you want to put your vitals in your carryon—but regulations now say that everything has to fit into a quart-size Ziploc, so you have to fill small plastic containers with a few days’ worth of this or that. And if you’re not careful—as happened to me recently—a zealous airline employee can “gate-check” your carryon because the plane’s already full of other passengers’ necessities. You last see your precious mini-pharmacy sitting forlornly on the jet way as you board Untied Airlines 1234 for Topeka.

Untied Airlines. (I don’t want to embarrass the airline, so I’ve given them a pseudonym.)

I’ll never fly Untied again. They made my trip back from my summer family vacation a personal indignity. The worst thing is that it wasn’t the Untied staff, who were almost all truly helpful and pleasant. It was the airline’s system, which was clearly to blame for all the problems. So no free vouchers or drinks will convince me to fly with them again, because the experience would surely be no better next time.

Our trips out and back were two-stage: San Francisco to Chicago to Halifax, and Halifax to Newark to San Francisco. On the way out, both flights were delayed by two hours—but the delays were of the rolling variety, in which the airline tells you the plane’s going to take off in half an hour, but it doesn’t; then they announce it will take off in another half hour, but it doesn’t; etc.

But these delays were peanuts. The real trouble started on the second leg of our return, as you will see.

My mistake was in bringing along on the trip only just enough moisturizers and steroids to last the planned duration. Because the vacation was stressful (my extended family, ten of us, in a small house for two weeks) and heavily air-conditioned, my skin had been especially dry and inflamed—so much so that my dad assumed the redness was sunburn. I ran out of Eucerin two days before our return, and bought a cheap substitute that didn’t really do the job. I squeezed the last microgram of steroids out of a flattened tube, and willed myself not to scratch. You can imagine how that worked out.

I packed my pathetic remaining moisturizer into a small Tupperware container and shoved it into my carryon. As we left Halifax for San Francisco, where my eczema stash awaited, I felt like a nomad in the desert making his way back to a beloved oasis.

We barely made a tight connection in Newark. An Untied employee gate-checked my bag, and I watched my moisturizer disappear into the distance. Untied gave us seats in four different locations throughout the plane, so we had to beg random strangers to let us sit next to our kids. It was 2:00 in the afternoon.

Two hours pass on the tarmac. Then the pilot tells us the flight has been canceled because of mechanical difficulties.

We disembark in confusion. Eventually we get booked on a flight leaving at 8:00 pm. We get food vouchers and search the airport for something that my daughter, who has dairy and nut allergies, can eat. We find essentially nothing. (She doesn’t have known anaphylactic problems, but who wants to gamble?) She's eaten all her snacks already. This is going to be a hungry day for her. We board at 8:00 and, because we have seats in four different locations, beg random strangers to take our cramped middle seats so that we can sit next to our kids.

Three hours pass on the tarmac. The kids fall asleep. Then the pilot tells us the flight has been canceled because of mechanical difficulties.

Someone in the back of the plane yells “Goddamn!”

We all get free drink vouchers and coupons for 10% off our next flight on Untied.

And we get to stay overnight at the Newark Ramada. “Overnight” in this case means four hours, since it’s now midnight and we have to be back at the airport to go through security again for our new 7:00 am flight.

By the morning, my skin is so dry it makes the Dead Sea Scrolls look supple. I introduce myself to my seatmate, but can’t shake hands with her because it would be too painful and disgusting. I look at myself in the mirror of the airplane bathroom. My face is falling off.

Eighteen hours after we were supposed to arrive, we land in San Francisco. The final farce: our bags aren’t on the plane and we have to go searching for them. My wife finds them in a special long-term holding location.

The first thing I do at home is to take a long shower with Dove soap and tar shampoo and cover myself in a thick layer of Eucerin. The second thing: rip all the Untied tags off our baggage.

The moral to this story, I guess, is that you have to plan for the worst when you fly. And I will next time. You have to go into survival mode, and make absolutely sure that you have small containers of your eczema essentials on your person where you can’t possibly lose them. Otherwise, you run the risk of a hellish experience.


  1. When I fly I've always put my eczema Rx creams in a separate Ziploc from my other travel-sized items (not even necessarily a quart-sized one) and run it through security separately. I have yet (knock on wood) to have TSA say a word to me about them. And I've always planned to argue if I ever get flack from them that I need them with me as they are prescription medications and do not come in travel sizes.

  2. Great idea, thanks for sharing. You're brave! The possibility of having to throw out everything at once is pretty scary.

    I think individual screeners have a lot of leeway so if you are pleasant and persuasive you're likely to succeed. I knock on wood for you.

  3. Oh dear, so sorry to hear of your ordeal!

    I can't imagine what it must feel like for you to go through this kind of suffering.

    Indeed, always plan ahead, just in case you get eczema flare ups when you least expect it.

  4. I have never seen a pharmacy at a North American airport. There has to be a market for someone to open a chain of pharmacies that stock basics such as toothpaste and moisturizer, and maybe a few prescription items. It could be located after security. You could make a mint off people waiting for delayed flights.

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