"The basic test of freedom is perhaps less in what we are free to do than in what we are free not to do." ~ Eric Hoffer
Every Passenger a Terrorist
“Welcome to Insolvent Airlines! How may I help you?” inquired Pollyanna, the ebullient ticket agent, as I approached the counter.
“I’m flying to Chicago today,” I replied, handing her my government-issued photo identification card.
“Thank you Mr. Powers,” replied Pollyanna. “How many bags will you be checking?”
“Just one,” I said, placing it on the scale next to her.
“Thank you Mr. Powers,” answered Pollyanna. She placed the baggage tag on my hard shell tool case. “Your bag is checked through to Chicago. Here is your boarding pass…”
“Um, are you forgetting to ask me something?” I blithely interrupted.
“What do you mean?” said the puzzled airline representative.
“You know,” I said wryly. “The two questions! Have your bags been with you at all times? Has anyone unknown to you asked you to carry items for them?”
“Oh, those questions!” she emphatically replied. “The FAA no longer requires us to ask every traveler those inane questions. The federal government finally realized that passengers with malicious intent would simply lie about it when asked.”
“Oh, I see.”
“As I was saying,” said Pollyanna, “here is your boarding pass. Please take your bag to the TSA agent for X-ray and explosive detection. Have a nice flight!”
“Thanks,” I sighed. I wasn’t looking forward to dealing with the Transportation Security Administration. After President Bush federalized airport security, air travel has changed dramatically. Once treated with some semblance of respect, passengers are now viewed as potential terrorists. We’ve all heard the horror stories – wheelchair-bound grandmothers hand-frisked by suspicious security agents; amputees required to remove artificial limbs for inspection; female passengers groped during hand searches by overzealous male agents, just to name a few.
Intended to provide the flying public with an illusory sense of security after September 11, the TSA has driven away many flyers with its heavy-handed tactics. There are several factors that led to the record losses experienced by domestic airlines over the last year. Some people are still afraid to fly due to the remote possibility of a terrorist attack. Expensive union contracts and management missteps are partially to blame for the bankruptcy of United Airlines and the pending failure of American Airlines. However, the airlines have not helped their cause by allowing the government security goons to treat their customers so poorly.
Besides, the myriad of taxes and tariffs imposed by revenue-hungry government agencies at the local, state, and federal levels add between 30% and 40% to the price of a typical domestic airline ticket. Everyone knows of the new September 11th Security Fee, but what about the Aviation Security Infrastructure Fees imposed on the airlines? Implemented to cover the remaining security costs that the September 11th tax does not, these fees are ultimately passed on to customers in the form of higher ticket prices. It’s no surprise that travelers are seeking alternative modes of transportation.
Luggage in hand, I trudged over to the baggage screening area. There sat a number of TSA agents idly discussing the important events of the day. Who will Joe Millionaire pick to be his bride? What will J. Lo wear to the Oscars? When will Britney’s new CD come out? Will Rachel and Ross ever get back together?
One overpaid but well-intended agent asked to take my bag in order to manually search it. I reluctantly unlocked the overstuffed tool case to provide access. Opening the case, the pimply-faced young man cautiously rummaged through it, clearly unaware of the identity or the function of its contents. He probably did not know the difference between the channel locks and the lock nuts, but who am I to judge?
My curiosity piqued as he continued his quest for something unknown to both of us. I decided to ask him about his intentions regarding my possessions.
“What exactly are you looking for?” I said.
“I dunno,” he dim-wittedly replied. “They told us to look for anything suspicious.”
“Oh, really?” I pressed the issue. “What kind of things do you consider ‘suspicious’?”
“Anything that is out of the ordinary,” he said.
Getting nowhere, I ended my inquiry.
After struggling for several moments to properly close the crowded case, he finally succeeded and motioned to place it on the conveyer.
“Wait,” I pleaded. “Do you mind if I lock it? The latches open easily, and I don’t want my tools to spill out all over.”
“Well, you’re not supposed to touch your bags after they’ve been searched,” he informatively responded. “But, since we’re not busy right now, I’ll do it for you.”
I handed him my key, and he dutifully locked the tool case. Ah, customer service at last!
Proceeding to the assigned gate, I mentally prepared for the inevitable security gauntlet. After presenting my government-issued photo identification – again – I was permitted to continue to the dreaded passenger screening area. Despite nearly a dozen government agents manning the two monitoring stations, a lengthy line ensued. Approaching the screening area, I was forced to endure the rants of yet another security agent who shouted at hapless travelers like a surly Catholic schoolteacher chastising rowdy students.
“Remove all metal objects from your pockets and place them in the tray!” demanded the squatty screener. “That includes change, keys, and watches!” I was grateful that I recently had the titanium plate removed from my head.
Placing my carry-on in the tray, I advanced toward the metal detector.
“Sir!” the security tyrant said to me, menacingly. “You must put your shoes in the tray so they can be X-rayed.”
“Why do you need to X-ray my shoes?’ I naively asked.
“Ever since that man boarded a plane with explosives in his shoes, we have been screening shoes.”
“Oh!” I gleefully replied. “It’s a good thing he didn’t hide them in his underwear!”
A stern look from the TSA menace confirmed he did not approve of my futile attempt to be humorous.
Only then did I realize that strip searches and anal cavity probes might not be such a remote possibility for future air travelers.
As my carry-on reached the X-ray monitor, the examiner showed an inordinate amount of curiosity in it, pausing to examine its contents. Or, perhaps he just dozed off for a second, feigning interest. I couldn’t be sure.
After escaping from the conveyer prison, my bag was quickly snatched by yet another agent.
“May I check your bag, sir?” she asked.
I’m not one to give in to authority, so I resisted.
“Do I have a choice?” I asked.
“Not if you want to fly today,” she curtly responded.
I dejectedly complied. Just then, I wished I had packed something really offensive in my carry-on. I envisioned the inquisitive bag browser screeching at the sight of a large, battery-operated likeness of the male genitalia. Ah, sweet revenge! Oh, well. Maybe next time.
I packed lightly for this trip. Very lightly. I didn’t even bring a change of clothes. It was the third day of what was supposed to be a daylong business trip, so my carry-on was stuffed with dirty clothing and various sundries that I had purchased during the trip just to get by. Even the clothes on my back were a new addition to my wardrobe. I purchased them the previous morning in order to maximize my comfort and cleanliness while minimizing any noticeable body odor.
Rifling through the unkempt pile of newspapers, magazines, business documents, and soiled undergarments, she pulled out a handful of disposable razors that I bought the day before.
“What’s this?” she demanded.
“Well,” I explained, “after a few days, a man accumulates a stubborn growth of hair on his face around the check and jaw areas, and, in order to alleviate the condition, he applies a facial cream and uses these devices to remove it . . . .”
“I know what they are,” she interrupted. “But why are you carrying them on the plane?”
I explained my situation, to no avail.
“I’ll have to confiscate them,” she demanded.
“Alright,” I sighed, nervously shifting side-to-side in my stocking-clad feet. “But can I at least get my shoes back?”
“Of course,” she brusquely answered. I donned my threatening loafers, grabbed my bag, and headed for the gate.
One final identification check - the third time’s a charm, I suppose - and I was boarding the plane that would return me to the chilly but comfortable confines of my suburban Chicago home.
With some idle time remaining prior to takeoff, I perused through Insolvent Airlines’ in-flight magazine. It featured an article written by the company CEO welcoming passengers and thanking them for their patronage.
“Thanks in large part to the Transportation Security Administration,” the CEO said in the article, “air travel is safer and more customer-friendly than ever.”
As I looked around the nearly empty plane, I wondered how many of my fellow passengers (and non-passengers alike) thought that “flying the friendly skies” is safer and more customer-oriented than ever before.
More intrusive and invasive? Yep. More expensive? You bet, thanks to the post-9/11 taxpayer bailout of the airlines, the creation of additional taxes to pay for the massive new federal bureaucracy known as the TSA, and the billions of taxpayer dollars spent on upgrading baggage-screening capabilities throughout the country. More customer-friendly? Not a chance. Safer? I’m not convinced.