Monday, March 31, 2008


Yes, we're back. We hit Indy at around six on Thursday evening, after bidding farewell to our son and Berlin some twenty hours earlier. It seemed almost fitting that it was raining about as hard as it could as I dashed the thirty or so feet to my car from the shuttle bus I'd caught at the terminal out to the long-term lot, where I'd parked.

I suddenly realized I was being pelted by small hail as well. By the time I managed to open the door of our red mid-90s Le Sabre, (ubiquitous amongst people beyond a certain age) rip off my coat, and flop down in the front seat, I was soaked pretty much through. I had been overly thorough in cleaning out the car prior to our leaving, so there was really nothing with which to dry my head, face, and hands. I used a couple of those small, travel-sized tissues to daub the rain from my forehead and eyes as best as I could.

I started the car with rain still dripping from my hair and drove over to the exit gate to pay the $70.50 parking fee. (Not bad, I guess, for ten days, right?) I made my way back to the terminal to gather up my wife and our luggage for the final leg of our trip home.

The house smelt a bit musty and was dead still as we entered. Nevertheless, it's always great after an extended trip away to make your way into your living room, drop whatever you might be lugging, and plop down on the couch with a relieving sigh - to sit with eyes closed, your head reposed on the sofa back uttering "Oh man, we're home!"

In the couple of days since, I've had some time to consider our experience during the ten days spent in Germany. I hope to go into more detail about some of it soon, but for now I'll just discuss some observations regarding air travel.

If you want to experience what it could be like to live under a police state, fly - anywhere. You'll get a more in depth experience if you take an international flight, but almost any time spent in a commercial airport will give you a taste of Big Brother.

Frequent travelers probably don't generally notice much. They know the drill. They carry minimal luggage, perhaps dress in such a way that the walk through security will take minimal time and effort: slip-on shoes, little or nothing left in pockets, no big belt buckles. They keep their heads down, their mouths shut, and just go with the flow. Since security procedures have evolved fairly slowly since before the millennium, it probably seems to most of these hardy souls just business as usual.

They come to know the venues, the airports - the concourses, the shops, the bars and restaurants, the restrooms, the gates - they haunt on a regular basis. They know the planes and their configurations. If they're fortunate enough to fly business or first class, they know once aboard, the flight will be, well, like flying. If, however, they must travel in coach, they learn where best to choose their seats in the various planes. I'm told that on some planes it's best to sit in the emergency exit aisles which may afford more leg room and/or may have only two seats across rather than the usual three. I'm sure there are other tricks of the trade as well.

For the casual, infrequent traveler, an airport is a foreign, nerve-wracking, and even frightening experience. Once on airport property, the rules of behaviour change. Observing driving, stopping, loading/unloading, and parking rules takes on a heightened importance.
Upon entering the terminal, one becomes aware of a greater regimentation that increases perceptively starting with the lines at the ticket counter, confronting the airline's agent, schlepping bags up onto the scales, getting boarding passes, making one's way haltingly from the counter to the proverbial point of no return just prior to entering the security maze, leaving your unticketed loved ones behind, perhaps never to be seen again.

The whirlwind truly begins at security. Travelers are directed to lines feeding into the various screening devices somewhat reminiscent of checking out at the grocery. Here you are not emptying your grocery cart; rather, you are emptying your pockets, placing your keys, change, glasses, maybe your Ipods, coats, hats, carry-on bags, and yes, your damn shoes into plastic bins which you are instructed to roll forward into the maw of the ex-ray machines.

Meanwhile, you are directed to step through the personal x-ray and "sniffer" which blows an unexpected puff of air over your body, invariably setting off a buzzer or bell of some kind. Officers then direct these hapless guys and gals to step aside and stand arms raised for a wand sweep up and down their bodies, hesitating, hovering when and where the thing beeps. Unusual or unexpected beeps result in the offending souls being directed to a small screened-off area of some sort wherein they may be directed to drop trou, as I was, revealing the braces for my arthritic knees, which I had forgotten to remove prior to entering security.

Because I have sleep apnea, I bring what is known as a CPAP machine allowed as an extra medical carry-on. This machine always perplexes Transportation Security Agency (TSA) inspectors, who invariably dismantle the damn thing, wiping it down with little explosive trace detecting cloths, leaving it to me to reassemble and replace in the carrying case while I am still juggling all my shit - my other carry-on bag, coat, shoes, change, keys while also holding up my still unbuttoned pants as inspectors urge me to move on to make way for the next potential hijacker or suicide bomber.

While no one was particularly unpleasant with us, most were and are generally polite, even at times deferential, neither is there much tolerance for confusion, resistance, anger, or even humor. It is expected that everyone simply respond willingly, obediently to each and every direction: "Step forward, please." "Turn this way." "Ma'am, stay behind the red line." "Raise your arms, sir." "Drop your arms, sir." "Don't move." "Let's keep it moving." We are expected to answer questions briefly and succinctly with no embellishments, no unwanted histrionics, no unsolicited explanations. This, most will say, is as it should be.

To those who remember the world before 9/11 and before the millennium — a world wherein travelers were looked upon more as guests and valued as job security — the current atmosphere in airports is one in which people are taken to be potential criminals. It's nearly incomprehensible. Now we are all suspects.

Note also that it is far easier to get out of the country than to get back in. On our trip out, leaving first from Indy and then Newark, the inspections were comparatively cursory. We each had two carry-on bags and only my machine was given any particular scrutiny.

The real challenge came when leaving Berlin. At the counter we were forced to consolidate everything into one carry-on each - counting even my wife's purse requiring impromptu, Olympic-quality stuffing. Then we ran the gauntlet as described above. Upon landing again in Newark, we were first stopped at immigration. Then we had to retrieve our luggage and schlepp it to another location where they were to be rechecked for the flight to Indy even though it was the same airline we came in on.

On the way to the check-in we were stopped and quizzed by a fellow wanting to know if we had any fruits, vegetables, or seeds with us or in our luggage. "Uh, no." We must not have been terribly convincing as we were directed to go through a set of doors to yet another set of scanning machines into which we were further directed to place all of our luggage and other stuff for fruit and veggie scrutiny.

Once again, they opened the bag with my CPAP machine, presumably expecting to find clandestine broccoli, pomegranates or rutabagas in it. Not until we were sitting in our living room did I feel we could no longer fear someone snooping through our belongings. I should add that with all this, we didn't suffer any long delays, missed flights, or even lost luggage. Everything from that standpoint was essentially normal.

I worked for the now defunct TWA back in 1969/70. It was a far different world. During my tenure there, the first American passenger plane was hijacked to Cuba. Say what? Little did we know. The first couple of months of my employment were spent working on the ramp loading and unloading bags, mail, freight, and so on. On a few occasions I got some overtime by staying to clean the interior of planes parked for the night. At that time, anyone could have boarded one of them. Security was essentially non-existent. On more than one occasion I made my way up front taking a seat in the captain's chair and played pilot. I did have the sense not to flip any switches or push any buttons, but still.

Back then an airport was a pleasant, welcoming, and even prestigious place to go. Airlines competed for business and treated people traditionally as customers - people paying for and expecting deferential treatment. Flying could be a white-knuckle experience for some, then as now, but every effort was made to put nervous flyers at ease. Stewardesses (there were few stewards at that time) graduated from smile school. They always sported pleasant, if at times toothy, grins across their invariably pert, blemishless faces. Flying was the safest way to fly.

'Tis a far different world we now find ourselves in. A large thank you goes out to Osama, George, and the rest of the gang.


No comments: