For the benefit of anyone who has been living in a particularly isolated cave these last couple of weeks, and presumably had a very circumscribed Xmas, on 25th December a young nutter tried to blow up an airliner as it was coming in to land at Detroit, with explosives strapped to his upper thigh, inside his underpants, and he would have succeeded had his detonator not failed to work properly and he hadn’t been overpowered by several of his fellow passengers. If what we read in the papers is correct, President Obama lost his temper, which he is reportedly slow to do in normal circumstances, when he learned the details of this man’s flight. The terrorist bought a one-way ticket from Lagos, Nigeria to Detroit, paying cash at a travel agency in Ghana, and he had no checked luggage with him. His name was apparently on a watch list and had been refused a visa to enter the UK before he even applied for a visa to enter the USA. Obama talked about a failure to join up the dots, though I expect that his language was more basic, and less printable, when he spoke the government functionaries responsible for failing to spot the risk this man posed. Showing both frankness and a breathtaking lack of tact, Gordon Brown has stated that the British intelligence services warned their American counterparts about this person before he even booked a ticket. Heads will have to roll to satisfy an understandably angry public and my guess is that one or two mid-level functionaries at the Dept. of Homeland Security will be publicly fired – possibly the one who gave the terrorist a US entry visa. Visa or no, the terrorist is in the USA now, and will probably be spending a great many years here, though I suspect that he won’t be able to do very much sightseeing.
So how does all this affect the rest of us? Well, as usual whenever there is a terrorist incident, successful or foiled, those responsible for security at airports go into panic mode, increasing all existing security measures and adding a few more for good measure. All of which succeed in making flying a more and more miserable experience. I remember when going on a trip that involved flying was something exciting. Now it is just something to be endured.
My wife and I flew back home from England to our home in Florida last Monday. In normal circumstances it would have been a tiring day, with no fewer than three flights in store for us, but the extra measures made it all pretty miserable. We flew from London to Washington/Dulles, then Dulles to Charlotte, NC, and then from Charlotte to our home town, and I have to say that the actual flights weren’t that bad, considering. I’m 6’2” and airplane seats in economy are not made for people my height, but as long as I get an aisle seat I can make myself reasonably comfortable. I’m used to that. There were a couple of screaming babies on the flight from London but you have to put up with that when flying economy (economy is a relative term here – our tickets were pretty damn expensive). The second and third flights of our trip were on small commuter jets, which appear more cramped that transatlantic jetliners, but the flights were about an hour each, so that doesn’t really matter much.
No, what was utterly miserable, and what made the trip seem endless and frayed our tempers and took all the joy out of returning home was the constant standing in line. Lines, I should say. Long, slow moving lines, snaking back and forth along roped-in lanes. We stood in no fewer than five of those, and because according to my calculations we spent a total of almost four hours standing in line, I propose to describe all of them.
One of the panic measures that the airlines instituted after the Xmas Day incident was to restrict hand luggage. When we had flown west to east in early December the rule had been one item of hand luggage plus one personal item, e.g. a laptop. Now all of a sudden it was one item, period. Now we neither of us were about to put our laptops in out checked baggage, so we had to consolidate our packing, and put only essentials in out laptop bags in the extra zippered pockets that you normally use for flash drives, mice and other laptop extras. That meant we were compelled to put some items in our checked bags that we would have preferred not to (cameras, medications etc). This new measure, by the way, was only for flights from London to US destinations, not for everyone. Anyway, we fetched up at Heathrow airport at 8.30am, having spent the night in an airport hotel, ready to check in for our midday flight. We wanted to get check-in and security over with as quickly as possible, so we could take things easy in the departure lounge, have breakfast etc. Ha!
Check-in took close to an hour. It was in two stages. First we had to line up to use an automated check-in machine, a touch screen which also scanned our passports and my green card, then burped out boarding cards for both of us for all three flights. I was rather impressed at that – nice and speedy. And a fat lot of good the speediness did us, for we then had to get into another line to have our baggage – four cases – checked. That line took well over 45 minutes. At one point the line seemed to have stopped moving altogether. I know there were passengers for at least three United flights in that line (San Francisco, Chicago and Washington) – in other words three jumbo jets’ worth of people – being served by six check-in staff. After a while they opened up a couple more desks. We bid a temporary farewell to our bags and went off to make our way onto the departure lounge via the security check area. This was the security run by the BAA (British Airports Authority, who actually own and run the airport). To my surprise, it was fairly quick and even though it was very thorough we were though it in about twenty minutes. As I stood there on the other side, taking my belongings out of the plastic trays and putting my shoes and belt back on, I sighed with relief that that was all over. With smiles on our faces, we strolled over to one of the many restaurants in the Terminal One departure lounge and had a leisurely and enjoyable breakfast.
Then, in line with what the woman who checked our bags had told us, we made our way to the departure gate at about ten-thirty; an hour an a half before the plane was scheduled to take off. And it was here that we were confronted with another long, slow moving line. United Airlines had decided that in addition to the airport security they were going to have their own. I suppose that would have been fine if they had run it differently, but as it was, they had four security staff dealing with the First Class and Business passengers, while we peasants in Economy were dealt with by five security staff. Five people to check about 200 passengers. No wonder the line crawled forward so slowly that at times it seemed that it wasn’t even moving at all. It took about 50 minutes for us to be seen. Each passenger was directed to a small table where he had to empty is pockets and his hand baggage was searched by hand. The unsmiling woman who dealt with me even riffled through the pages of the paperback book I was carrying – no doubt to see if I had any wafer-thin dynamite sticks in it. Then I was patted down by a male security agent – a very incompetent search really. I was taught in my police days how to do a so called pat-down search, and patting doesn’t enter into it at all. The end result was a lot of disgruntled passengers in a hot, sealed-off departure area where for whatever reason even the drinks machines had been turned off.
We took off 40 minutes late but somehow were able to make it to Washington/Dulles on time. As I say, the flight wasn’t all that bad – just long and boring, as transatlantic flights usually are. I didn’t watch any of the films on offer. I was more entertained by the moving map. It took just over four hours to cross the Atlantic, but since we made landfall over Newfoundland, It took another three hours to head due south to Washington. We landed at Dulles airport a few minutes ahead of schedule.
Never again will we take a flight that arrives at Dulles! Once we had got off the plane, we followed the signs for transfer passengers. I reckon at least half the passengers on our plane were taking onward flights, not to mention passengers from several other planes that arrived round about the time ours did. The result was a huge, and I do mean huge, crowd at Immigration. Approximately half of them were foreign visitors, and the other half were US citizens or permanent residents. There was a line for each category. So, straight away we found ourselves in a long queue, between ropes, shuffling first one way across the hall and then the other. This was the worst one so far. What annoyed me was that there were five positions closed that I could see. You’d think that they’d manage to find an officer to man every desk in the hall at what was obviously a peak period. I think it took us an hour to get to an Immigration officer’s desk. A few minutes and a couple of rubber stamps later we made our way to the baggage claim area. As you can imagine, it was very crowded. The carousel assigned to out flight was also assigned to flights from Geneva, Vienna, Tokyo and Berlin that had recently landed so there was a huge throng milling about, everyone getting in each other’s way. Also, to my surprise, there were long lines of unattended suitcases across the floor, as though forlornly waiting for their owners to come and collect them. Our bags arrived after about 20 minutes and we put them on a trolley and trundled over to the Customs inspectors. At least this line didn’t take more than a few minutes. When we got to the front, the inspector seemed almost indifferent. “You bringing in any food?” “Yes, some candy and about two thousand tea bags.” “Ok, good enough.” He waved us through and we re-checked in our bags for the next two flights.
Now, I thought, we just need to find out which gate our connecting flight is leaving from and then we can relax for a bit. Wrong!! At the end of the customs hall there was a crowd of people. I couldn’t think why there would be at first and then I realized that we were about to be security checked yet again. We were still airside, mind you, and still “sterile” from the previous security check at Heathrow. I have no idea why they needed to check us all again, but they did. This security check had the appearance of something that has been hastily put together. It wasn’t in a special hall or wide area, but had been located at a place where the corridor turned at a right angle, and everything was very cramped and bustling. There were just four lanes, and with hundreds of passengers to be screened there was a bottleneck. This line moved the slowest of all. We waited almost an hour to get to a screener and then went though the familiar ritual: laptops out of bags, pockets emptied, belts and shoes off, walk through the metal detector, recover all the plastic bins with your property in them, try to put your belt and shoes back on and replace your laptop in its bag, all the while other passengers are crowding behind you and trying to grab their property too and everyone is getting very irritated with everyone else while officious TSA people are shouting something about keeping the lines moving.
When we were finally through there, we were able to take a shuttle to another part of Dulles airport, catch our flight to Charlotte, where the gods did actually smile upon us because our connecting flight left from a gate just a few yards from the one where we arrived. No frantic hustle from one end of the airport to another. There was one more wait, at our final destination, where it took about thirty minutes for our baggage to be loaded onto the carousel, but our local airport is almost a one man and his dog operation, so we weren’t too surprised and anyway we were too tired to get worked up about it. One great advantage of flying from the regional airport right here in town – our front door is just a ten minute taxi ride from the terminal.
Now, I know some people have suggested that profiling of passengers would be a very good idea and others have recoiled in horror at the suggestion of such blatant discrimination. I am not sure what the answer is, but I am almost 100% certain that we can assume that a mother, father and three young children, such as the family immediately ahead if us at the security check, present a threat to no one. If we look back at all the terrorist incidents of, say, the last ten years, we can’t help noticing that the number of outrages perpetrated by young children was, at my reckoning, zero. I think the same applies to grandmothers in their seventies, among others. Of all the lines we stood in, all those hours we spent moving forward a foot or two at a time, three were far more miserable than they should have been because of the incompetence of the people organising them – United Airlines’s extra security at Heathrow, where there weren’t enough screeners: Immigration at Dulles, where they didn’t have enough people on duty to cope with the volume of passengers: the Dulles post-customs security check that was an overcrowded shambles. I don’t want to belabour the point but lets have a bit of common sense about airline security. It need not be as downright horrible as it has become.
Meanwhile I leave you with a memory from a more innocent age, when flying away somewhere was still exciting and even romantic.