Air Travel: The Elegant Days are Gone

I’m definitely dating myself, but I remember when air travel was elegant.  Not the kind of Spy the Friendly Skies eyewash that ABC tried to promote with Pan Am but really a rather pleasant experience.  People used to dress up for it and mind their manners.  There was a style to it.  It was an integral part of travel, not just a delivery system.  Unfortunately, those days are gone and, like the rotary phone, they ain’t coming back.

I understand that the airline industry has grown up a lot since high-heeled stewardesses clicked up and down the aisles, handing out peppermints before take-off.  Back in those days (at least in my neighbourhood) if you were travelling by plane, you’d either been saving your money since birth or somebody had just died.  Air travel was expensive back in the day, and exceptional service was expected.  Now, since the asking price of a ticket to London is cheaper than dinner and dancing anywhere but Burger King™, service has naturally deteriorated.  Sheer numbers have overwhelmed most airlines’ ability to cope.  Processing even one 747 full of sweaty tourists and their over-packed luggage has got to be a nightmare, and the airline industry is doing it thousands of times a day – all over the world.  Obviously, the lines are going to be long, and the guy checking your bags won’t have time for a lot of idle chatter.  After all, he’s looking at two or three hundred other people who need extra leg room and a window, too.

Then, of course, contemporary times have given us the extra added attraction that anybody with a boarding pass is now a target for every homicidal malcontent with a chemistry set.  I’m not going to go into the whole WTF revelation that airline security is still looking for bombs and not bombers, but I’m not the only one who thinks that this misdirection is part of the problem.  Honestly, measuring everybody’s lip balm and eye shadow as if they were Abu Nadel’s murderous grandchild certainly ramps up the grumpy and cuts down on the courtesy.  But let me be the first to say that the security people in every airport I’ve ever been in have done a tremendous job against incredible odds.  Think about it: they have to be right every time; the terrorist only has to get lucky once.

I don’t mind any of this really.  It’s all part of the art of travel.  One learns to hurry up and wait, amuse oneself with eavesdropped conversation and partial undress while holding a passport in one hand and a clear plastic bag with a toothbrush in the other.  (It’s kinda like county jail with postcards.)  Nor do I mind playing hide and seek with my departure gate, fending off imminent dehydration with overpriced bottled water or getting the disinterested plastic glove treatment.  (I guess those guys really can’t smile.)

The thing I object to is the harshness and the impending chaos.  Every time I walk into an airport, I get this vision that it’s sheep shearing time in the Australian Outback and, someplace out of sight, Bluey and the boys are sharpening the shears.  People are flocking themselves back and forth in lamb-eyed confusion as if their best option might be the line marked souvlaki.  Nobody, except maybe the folks who built the airport, actually knows where they’re going.  They all just stumble around until they accidently find their baggage or the connecting flight.  And ID tags don’t mean a damn thing either; every one of them has a different story.  Once, at CDG in Paris, I got all the way out to the street without a passport stamp or my luggage on the advice of uniformed personnel behind a desk.  Try explaining that to a couple of tres curious security guards – in fractured Franglais.

Yes, I know, millions of people make it through thousands of airports every year with only tired and sweaty to bitch about, but really it could be so much better.  I’m not suggesting we return to the days of yesteryear when pilots were all greying at the temples and stewardesses were harnessed into their underwear.  However, getting from here to there should be more than running a guilty-until-proven innocent gauntlet, followed by a six to eight hour nose to knees dinner and a movie.  As Lewis CK says, sitting in a chair in the sky is a fantastic experience.  It could and should be tons more enjoyable.

Go ahead: touch my junk

Recently an airline passenger didn’t feel it was necessary to be groped by airport security and he told them so — in no uncertain terms.  I think what he said was “If you touch my junk I’ll charge you with sexual assault,” or something like that.  Suddenly, the whole security/rights debate was on again.  Let me make a couple of things perfectly clear concerning air travel.  I do not want to get blown up at 30 thousand feet, and I want my government to protect me up there.  Therefore, I am willing to help them do it.  For example, I think it is reasonable to identify yourself before you get on an airplane.  I also think it is reasonable that sharp objects and things that go boom are prohibited from airplanes.  I think it is reasonable to go through a metal detector and/or be searched before boarding an airplane.  I think these are just prudent precautions that everyone should take before getting into an oversized, airtight aluminum tube with a bunch of strangers.  I have nothing against my fellow passengers, but when I’m speeding through the sky, I think trust is an overrated concept.  Having said that, I would also like to know what sorry sack of stupid is in charge of airport security.

I love the art of travel.  Everything about it breathes adventure.  If I ever won the lottery, I would walk into British Airways with a stack of 20s and say, “Just tell me when it’s gone.”

However, at the risk of stating the obvious, air travel is really not as pleasant as it used to be.  There’s nothing wrong with the friendly skies or the airlines that fly in them.  They’re pretty much the same as they always were — average movies, mystery food and a complimentary crying baby – all part of the experience.   It’s the train wreck (oops!) they’re calling security that’s ruining it for me.

First of all, I don’t feel safe.  The last time I went through security at YVR (Vancouver) I thought I was watching an amateur theatrical troupe performing The Bourne Identity.  The person at the baggage scanner looked like she was checking groceries at Safeway.  The woman snooping through my backpack didn’t have her glasses on, and the roly-poly guy with the gun couldn’t have caught Betty White in a footrace (no offence, Betty.)  If it wasn’t so serious, it would have been funny.

Unfortunately, it is serious.  There are people out there trying to kill me.  I can theorize and chatter all day about why, but does it really matter?  I have paid huge dinero in taxes, and I don’t think it’s too much to ask that my government return the favour and at least give me the illusion of safety when I decide to fling myself through the stratosphere.  Or better still: why not actually make it safe?

 The problem is the people in charge of security are acting like a bunch of nomadic tribesmen chasing the rain.  Every time they see a cloud, they run to it. Every new avenue of attack produces yet another set of procedures, restrictions and devices.  We can’t go on like this indefinitely.  Eventually, we’re all going to be getting on the plane naked.  Personally, I don’t care.  If somebody wants to feel my junk, let him go ahead.  I would even submit to a cavity search if there was an ironclad guarantee that my cavity and I would arrive at our destination intact.  But there is no guarantee, so keep your hands to yourself.  By the way, you might want to change those little blue gloves every once in a while: I don’t know where they’ve been.  I wouldn’t mind getting pinched, poked and prodded by teams of semi-trained farmers, so much, if it did any good.  It doesn’t.

Airport security and their minions are hunting the wrong thing.  They’re searching for weapons when they should be looking for terrorists — who are a hell of a lot easier to find.  I’ll grant you that keeping guns, knives and explosive devices off airplanes is a #1 priority.  However, until terrorists perfect a Star Trek style transporter, somebody’s got to be carrying that crap around with them.  That person — whoever he or she is — is going to be stuck in the airport for the same length of time as I am.  They are going to have to go through ever-narrowing gates to get to my plane, just like I do.  And each of those gates is going to have a variety of personnel gawking at them.  There are always going to be new and better devices that can kill me, but people haven’t changed that much since Eve discovered the recipe for applesauce.  Technology is a wonderful friend, but security is a people business.  We need to concentrate on finding the people who wish to do me harm, not the things they bring with them.

Let me make a couple of suggestions on how to do that.  We need to get some people who are willing to conduct themselves in a professional manner.  We need to train them to be more than just junk feelers.    We need to motivate them: after all, they’re on the frontline of the War on Terror.  We need to give them tons of professional help.  Finally we need to pay them as professionals – minimum wage plus tips doesn’t cut it.  In the end, they won’t be running around looking for a needle in a haystack; they’ll be preventing the guy from putting the needle there in the first place.