I went to the airport for the first time in a year and a half, and I bought a new MicroClimate helmet for the trip. This is my experience.
My itinerary began at LAX, with a layover at McCarran Airport in Las Vegas, and continued on to PDX. This is a trip I have made many times, and I have spent untold hours at each of these airports over the past 15 years.
I’m a pretty experienced traveler - or at least I used to be, in the before-times. Things are different now.
I figured that the form factor of my MicroClimate helmet would advertise itself pretty clearly. This is a serious piece of equipment. I had read up on the corporate website, and it looked like other users were experiencing friction from various airport personnel. I assumed that I would get different responses depending on where I went and who I interacted with, and I was right about that.
TSA and my airline, Southwest, were both pretty clear that a mask “covers the mouth and nose” and that it loops behind the ears.
Obviously my MicroClimate helmet covers the mouth and nose, correct? But my mouth and nose are visible!
This is where I recall all the cartoons I ever saw of confused computers and robots with steam blasting out of their vents, going all swirly-eyed and then exploding.
My first issue was at the baggage check counter in LAX. I had been in the airport just long enough to check in and print out my baggage claim stickers. The agent told me that she understood, but TSA was going to make me take off the helmet and they weren’t going to let me wear it on the plane.
I turned away, took off the helmet, and pulled out the double-layer fabric mask that I had in my pocket. “I apologize for making you uncomfortable,” I said.
“Oh, it’s not me, I’m here to help *you*,” she said.
I put the helmet back on for the short walk down the hallway and into the public restroom. I saw nobody, and thus no one said anything. I had felt anxious about being in the enclosed area of an airport restroom during the pandemic, and wearing the helmet definitely helped me feel better.
When I emerged, I realized that swapping out the helmet for a cloth mask in the security line was not an experience I wanted to have. It was a cattle call. Nobody was distancing more than about 18 inches and there were at least 100 people packed together.
I stepped to the side and put on my fabric mask and zipped my helmet back into my bag. This was very disappointing because this 1000-square-foot area was the precise reason I wanted the helmet in the first place.
Hundreds of thousands of people a day pass through LAX from all over the world. I have gotten respiratory illnesses probably more than half the time that I have traveled through this airport. I don’t care what the statistics are about being onboard an airplane, or how their filtration systems are rated. I care about standing in line at the airport itself so the TSA can examine my internal organs.
When it was my turn to hand over my ID, the TSA agent asked me to remove my fabric face mask.
There ya go. My exact worst nightmare. Standing in the filthiest place on Earth with a bare face, where another dude was standing doing the same thing five seconds earlier. Buy any mask or filtration system or biohazard suit you like, and TSA will interfere with you and insist that you participate in equal-opportunity disease exposure.
I made it to my flight on time, boarded, waited until takeoff, and put my helmet back on. Not a single person said a thing. My seatmates on either side glanced at me and went back to whatever they were doing, clearly unfazed.
We landed, and I decided I would just push it as far as I could go. I would leave the helmet on as we disembarked. A few of the flight attendants and gate agents made eye contact with me and said nothing. Cool.
As I walked into McCarran, it was immediately obvious that we were in Vegas, for two reasons. First, the slot machines, and second, the anything-goes atmosphere. A lady walked up to me, all smiles, and asked where I got the helmet. A man gave me a thumbs-up. People were checking me out as I walked to my gate. I sat for an hour, texting with my family and my husband.
Someone sitting directly behind me coughed, and I didn’t have to worry.
The performance of the helmet itself is, as far as I can tell, flawless. The fan does a good job of unobtrusively tuning out most background sounds, like a white noise generator. I was a bit hot, but probably because I tried to dress for Oregon, not Nevada or California, and I would have been more comfortable in short sleeves.
Face ID recognized me on my iPhone, but not on my iPad. Go figure. I was able to pair my AirPods and listen to a show, although I did have to turn up the volume higher than normal.
I don’t really like the chin strap - I wear a XXS bike helmet and the MicroClimate helmet is one-size-fits-all. It took a lot of finagling to adjust it so it would stay in place on my tiny little head. As a competent costumer married to an engineer, I will probably go in and rig a more customized strap setup for myself. And then send a drawing and photos to MicroClimate.
We boarded our connecting flight. The ticket agent greeted me but said nothing about the helmet. The flight attendant at the end of the jetway greeted me and said nothing. The flight attendants doing the safety presentation said nothing.
Then another flight attendant came over and handed me a surgical mask, making eye contact but saying nothing. I put it in my lap.
We took off. After the safety presentation, a different flight attendant came over and firmly told me that I needed to wear the surgical mask.
I understand how this works, because I also work on a team in which we sometimes take turns being “the enforcer” or “good cop” or “bad cop.”
Having no desire to give any hard-working safety professional a bad day, I indeed put the mask on underneath my helmet and obediently wore it over my mouth and nose throughout the flight.
Is this all they want from me? That I check the box for their baseline instructions and pointlessly wear the paper mask, even though I am wearing a helmet that literally covers my entire head and has its own air filtration system?
All right, fine.
Get used to it, though. Given another pandemic of a respiratory virus, and/or heavy wildfire smoke or a volcanic eruption, and/or any kind of chemical spill, and/or [insert nameless dread here], more and more people are going to decide to get themselves a helmet just like this.
The reception of the crowd to this device was either positive or neutral. Almost everyone completely ignored me. Not a single person gave me a dirty look or appeared scared or annoyed. A little girl waved at me - and I waved back and smiled - and it may have been one of the few times she saw a stranger’s actual smiling face in well over a year.
A couple of women came up to me and asked me where I bought the helmet, looking very intrigued. It would have been a great opportunity for MicroClimate to include a bunch of business cards, or even put a QR code on the back of the helmet. I wouldn’t really mind if people wanted to take pictures of me wearing it. I am a photo-shy person but I feel somehow anonymous in my helmet, like a person from the future.
Which I am, now.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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