4 Travel Deals: Ah, that Airport Experience

One of the fondest memories from my childhood is that of visiting the airport.  That’s right, Newark Airport was close to our home and when I was lucky enough I would be able to go over and visit the terminal where my Dad worked for a few hours.  The airport was a happy place and I always felt was the portal to a world of endless possibilities.  I remember strolling through, watching all of the people, most of whom were well dressed, wondering what great destination they might be visiting.  Europe, Asia, Florida, all seemed far away and their journeys were beginning right here in Newark! 

There was a definite elegance associated with aviation that I have always admired.  I guess a portion of that effected my personal decision to make a living in the travel business as I grew older.  Airplanes were the key to providing oneself the freedom to move about the world, even from the humblest of starting points.  You could be anyone, but once on a plane you were equal with everyone who was going to the same place you were.  I always liked the feeling I got at the very beginning of a journey by plane, and until this day, it still reminds me of my days as a boy, wandering the airport terminal matching the destination with the faces of all those passing by.

Of course a lot has changed over the years and not just the homogenization of airlines themselves but in the structure that once represented my “portal to the world”.  I now identify airports as imitation shopping malls with the same entry procedure as the county jail.  I don’t believe that law abiding citizens allow their rights of privacy to be violated on this kind of scale at any other venue in our country.  It is a more vigorous process than one you are put through when you visiting a prison, or a courthouse or even a national landmark.  Normal people are x-rayed, and sniffed and felt up in places that you never want anyone but a really close friend to touch you and all in the name of the public good.   Your introduction to this process is cold, hard and impersonal and begins at the end of a long line where young kids, elderly Grandmothers and exotically dressed foreign travelers are essentially treated as equals.  People slowly snake their way thru a rat’s maze of lines all while being warned by a shouting TSA officer about taking out their electronics, pulling off their shoes and belts and, of course don’t dare think of concealing that shampoo.  You and your fellow passengers are now being funneled into just 2 checkpoints, where a generally unpleasant TSA agent wearing rubber gloves reviews your identifying documents while his eyes glance up at you with distrust and wary.  My mind always wanders back to those WWII movies where people crossing the borders in Europe are examined by black uniformed soldiers who hold the fate of their passage in the whim of their observations.  Presenting my “papers” at the airport to me is virtually the same process where if, for any reason, the agent feels you are circumspect you can be treated to a host of additional interrogation, inspection and basically have things done to you that a police officer could not do to a suspected criminal.  It is a lot of power to give to an “agent”.  Fortunately, most people’s papers are in order and they are passed through to the second, physical step of the process, the one where technology and the watchful eye of the TSA professionals will determine if anyone’s baggage represents a further threat to safe travelling. 

On a busy day the distance between the checkpoint for your “papers” and the physical security apparatus isn’t very large and is crammed with travelers in a hurry to get free of this process.  It seems more agents are busy restocking plastic bins, shouting out commands about empting this or that and of course taking out the dreaded gels and shampoos.  As I traveled to my latest flight there must have been 300 people waiting for 2 security machines in a space of about 600 square feet.  We were stacking up like groceries at the end of belt at the grocery store where nothing was making its way into a bag.  TSA agents scrambling everywhere to restock bins and shouting commands to us to move here or there.  People with one shoe, two carryon bags, belts dragging and a laptop in under their arms were hopping and dragging all over the area.  Security tables and belts overflowed with various items as the agents conversed leisurely about this or that amid the fracas.  This obviously was business as usual.  The agent in charge of reviewing the bag x-rays sat behind two large monitors doing his job while engaged in a conversation with another agent about something unrelated to security and seemed to be seriously reviewing each and every item the machine was scanning.  How he could concentrate amidst this chaos and his conversation is totally beyond me.  As my bags entered the tunnel, I stepped shoeless, beltless, pants sagging, pockets empty, shampoo exposed into the body scanning apparatus which in a tenth of a second rendered me to the Promised Land on the other side.

I was happy that on this trip, no further examination of my person or carryon was necessary.  As I scrambled to get on my shoes and belt, I glanced over at the table where a woman’s luggage was being examined and swabbed for whatever reason.  She had that, “I am innocent” look on her face while she tried to quantify why she had been selected for this special examination.  Of course, I laughed because I generally get to enjoy this extra attention but today must be my lucky day!  As I stroll away from the security check point I am struck by the fact that I now have lots of time to kill and a bevy of choices for shopping and eating and purchasing anything from a Hugo Boss leather jacket to a brand new sound system.  Is the TSA working in conjunction with the Chamber of Commerce?  Hmmm, that is an interesting thought.

I am hard-pressed to understand why this entire process hasn’t been evolving over the past 13 years since 9/11.  I know we must put public safety above our own convenience but I don’t think cramming people into a small area where agents are more engaged in restocking bins offers the best opportunity to observe and protect.  Why are these agents allowed to engage in personal conversations while on duty?  Above all, why not simply register law abiding citizens like me who would gladly give my fingerprints to avoid a good portion of this process?  I am not security expert but I wouldn’t examine a 90 year old Grandmother the same way as a 20 something foreign traveler. (Please forgive me if that is profiling but security is all about profiling threats)  It seems to me that we are interested in being politically correct while we violate everyone’s rights to privacy.  Can someone please inject some common sense?

I guess part of my dismay is that yearning for the days of my youth.  The ones were elegant people strolled to flights with dignity and grace, sparred the indignity of today’s process.  We should expect, no we should demand more.

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