There was a time when we had to change planes to get to heaven or hell.

At least that's what old timers in the Lowcountry said for many years when Delta Airlines held Charleston travelers hostage to their infamous hub system of air travel.

In short, it meant that no matter where you were going, you had to change planes in Atlanta to get there. And that interlude in your flight plan not only slowed down the arrival to your final destination, it also increased the odds that your luggage would be lost or your connection would be missed.

When US Airways came to town, the circumstances were much the same. Their hub system routed us through Charlotte with similar inconvenient connections.

In recent years United and Continental have added a few non-stop flights to New York and Washington. But now Southwest Airlines has upped the ante in the direct-flight game.

Bypass purgatory

Over the Fourth of July holiday I flew Southwest for the first time, and it was a pleasure.

Not just because of price, or because the airline is fun to fly, or because it doesn't charge for baggage. All those things are well documented and advertised.

No, the real joy was being able to board a plane at Charleston International Airport and fly direct to my destination, Chicago, in less than two hours.

It is, for those of us who have spent a lifetime changing planes at Atlanta's Hartsfield Airport or Charlotte Douglas International Airport, the equivalent of bypassing purgatory and going directly to our Great Reward.

No more running through terminals in Atlanta trying to catch those trains, and holding your breath as you pass the designated smoking areas; or sitting in those rocking chairs in Charlotte waiting for your connecting flight, which, by the way, might be delayed or has already left.

Euphoric experience

With Southwest's long-awaited arrival in the Charleston market, we now have access to direct flights to Chicago (Midway), Nashville, Houston and Baltimore/Washington, for starters.

On my recent trip I found Southwest lived up to its easy-going reputation, from flight attendants with a sense of humor to comfortable seats, a no-hassle boarding process and on-time arrival.

Cost-wise it was comparable to other airlines ($366), considering it was a relatively short-notice trip on a holiday weekend at a time when the big boys are matching fares to remain competitive.

But money is not the main factor in this battle.

Flying direct is a euphoric experience for those of us who have been pistol-whipped by the major airlines for decades, and have grown weary of the game.

To step onto an airplane and a few hours later step off at your destination is something many travelers in major cities long have taken for granted. But for those of us who live on the outer edges of the dreaded hub system, it's a godsend.

Reach Ken Burger at 937-5598 or on Twitter at @Ken_Burger.