Fear of Flying
January 15, 2010 by Chip Wood
To everyone who flew somewhere during the recent holidays, please accept my sincere condolences. You paid a hefty price to spend some time with family and friends. And no, I’m not talking about the cost of your ticket. I’m bemoaning how what used to be a grand adventure has become a test of your patience and endurance.
A friend of mine, flying home for the holidays, forgot to put his permitted three ounces of shaving cream, toothpaste and mouthwash in a one-quart plastic bag. When he finally made it to the front of the line going through security he was told he could throw the items away or return to the airport concourse, purchase the proper see-through container and re-enter security.
“Why do I need to put them in a plastic bag?” he had the temerity to ask.
“So we can examine them,” was the reply. “It’s for your protection.”
“Well, here,” my friend said, as he tried to hand the offending items to the guard. “You can examine them even better outside a baggie, can’t you?”
“No, sir, they must be placed in a plastic bag. It’s for your protection.”
“But couldn’t you protect me even better by actually examining them? Shouldn’t you squirt a little shaving cream, or take a sip of mouthwash, to make certain the bottle actually contains what it says it does?”
“No, sir, they must be placed in a plastic bag. It’s for your protection. I really must insist that you return to the terminal and get the appropriate container. Or dispose of them here (pointing to a nearly full trash barrel).”
By now the line behind my friend was getting noticeably restive. Mutterings of “C’mon, for God’s sake, we’ve got a plane to catch,” could be heard. But my friend tried once more to apply some common sense to the situation.
“If a plastic bag is so essential, why don’t you have them here at the checkpoint? Why should I have to return to the terminal to buy one and risk missing my plane?”
The security guard had clearly been taught the one magic phrase that she was to use whenever she was questioned: “Sir, it’s for your own protection.”
My friend finally acquiesced to the inevitable. He deposited the offending items in the barrel provided for that purpose and—to the relief of everyone in line behind him—was finally allowed to clear security.
Frankly, my friend got off easy. Ms. Security Guard could have ordered him to step aside while every article in his carry-on luggage was pawed over. Heck, he could have been ordered to take off a lot more than his shoes and his belt. It’s been known to happen.
And all to accomplish what? Is there anyone anywhere who actually believes that the demeaning inconvenience of airport security is actually making us any safer?
Before you raise your hand in the affirmative, please consider this: No airline employee—not a single pilot, flight attendant or even a mechanic—has to endure the same security procedures that you and I do. In many airports they have their own private entrances where all they need do is to flash some ID and, presto, they pass through their own private portal. I’ve been told that they never even have to take off their shoes.
How difficult would it be for a potential terrorist to steal or forge some airline ID? They’d be waved through security in a second, while some 80-year-old grandmother has her denture cream checked. (We can’t be guilty of “profiling,” don’t you know.)
Let’s be honest here: Airport security has become the biggest boondoggle since Franklin Roosevelt created the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has given jobs to tens of thousands of people who would barely qualify to flip burgers at McDonald’s. And don’t some of them just love the authority they’ve been given to boss us around? Talk about creating several thousand petty tyrants.
Another issue that really rankles me is the millions of productive man-hours that are being lost every year, as we shuffle through lines that are longer, slower and far more degrading than anything you have to endure at Disney World.
Is there anything worse than being herded like sheep by people you probably would never hire at your office—all the while knowing that none of this is really making you any safer?
And worse than all of the individual indignities is the effect on us as a people. We are being conditioned to be docile and obedient… to never question authority, no matter how unreasonable or abusive it becomes. And that’s what frightens me the most.
Thanks to the ridiculous rules and their degrading enforcement by Homeland Security we’re becoming afraid to speak out, to protest when some low-level employee abuses his authority, to stand up and say, “This is wrong.”
I’d do it, but I don’t want to risk missing my plane.
While I’m on the Subject
When I try to tell any of my children how enjoyable flying used to be they look at me with bored disbelief. (It’s sad when someone has heard all of your favorite stories a dozen times—as my wife would quickly agree.)
But by golly, in those golden days of yore, flying was fun. It was a grand adventure that you looked forward to for weeks. When the big day finally arrived, you dressed up a bit for it. You certainly didn’t want anyone to think you were a slob.
When I first started flying between Boston and Los Angeles on a regular basis there was actually a cocktail lounge in the back of the plane. After takeoff you could stand there with a Bloody Mary in hand and feel incredibly fortunate—especially if you were leaving the northeast in the middle of winter and knew warm breezes and palm trees awaited when you landed. (And let me remind my nicotine-addicted friends that yes, you were actually permitted to smoke on an airplane back then.)
A few years later, when airline economies forced them to replace those cocktail lounges with additional seats, they still bragged about their “champagne” flights. Soon after takeoff the flight attendants brought bottles of bubbly (to the folks flying coach!), compliments of the captain. And if you stayed awake long enough they’d be back with a piping-hot meal.
Contrast that to a recent trip where the only “snacks” were a package of stale peanuts, the only free drinks were carbonated and you had to pay five bucks if you wanted to hear music or watch the movie.
To top it off, we were packed in so tightly we could barely move. The gentleman to my left, in the middle seat, planned to do some work on his computer during the flight. But as he was pulling the computer out of his briefcase the fellow in front of him dropped his seat back as far as it would go. My seatmate found a dandruff-flecked scalp inches from his nose. His laptop couldn’t be opened far enough for him to turn it on, much less look at the screen or strike any keys.
With a few exceptions, airline personnel on the ground aren’t nearly as friendly and helpful as they used to be. (And, while a gentleman shouldn’t say so, the ladies in the air aren’t as young and comely as they used to be, either.)
And yet… and yet… when business requires me to fly across country I’m struck by the fact that I can do it for the same price I paid 30-some years ago: sometimes even less. That’s amazing.
Granted, the planes will be bigger and more crowded. They often won’t take off or land on time. And getting through security and into the boarding area has become an incredible hassle and the risk of your luggage not being on the same flight with you has increased dramatically. But it is remarkable how far and how fast one can travel these days on very little money.
Maybe it’s not as much fun anymore. But it sure is efficient.
Still, forgive me for a few moments of nostalgia, as I remember the days when you looked forward to the trip as much as you did arriving at your destination.
Until next time, keep some powder dry. (But don’t say it out loud at an airport.)