Commercial air travel has always been bizarre. After all, we featherless humans are flying in a fixed-wing, jet propelled, steel tube (fundamentally bizarre!). But it’s not the physics of lift and drag that make flying weird; it’s the parallel, sometimes-dystopian sociality that is airport protocol. For the first quarter-century of my life, the strangeness was primarily related to the airplane, while in the last decade, the airport has become the theater of the absurd.
For a society that prides itself, vis-à-vis Europe, on being classless, air travel in the United States is jarring in its transparent social stratification. We watch as members of the elite-preferred-platinum-advantage set are whisked past us in line after line. Upon boarding, the rumpled coach horde, with its denim fanny packs and Drakkar Noir, is paraded past the bespoke suits sipping Dom Pérignon in their leather love seats.
The safety recitation of the flight attendant is a modern day liturgy, and it may as well be delivered in Latin: Welcome aboard…tampering with, disabling, or destroying lavatory smoke detectors…seatbelts should be worn low and tight across your waist…your seat cushion doubles as a flotation device…you may now move about the cabin…returned to their full upright and locked position…we know you have a choice in air travel…Amen.
Over the years, commercial airlines systematically pillaged customer expectations to the point that headphones and crackers are priced a la carte. Seats with more than caged-hen leg room are “premium.” Hipmunk, the startup travel site, let’s you sort your flight options according to price, schedule, and “Agony.” I would not be surprised to find itemized fees on my airline receipt like “Upholstery Maintenance Fee,” “SkyMall Subscription Service,” and “Oxygen Mask Testing Fee.” All of this relates to the fundamental challenges of the aviation business model, including spiking fuel prices, powerful unions, a constricting regulatory environment, and a legacy of unimaginative executives. It’s like my pilot friends say, “If you want to make a million bucks in aviation, start with two.”
Southwest Airlines remains the best domestic carrier without being old-school awesome anymore. Now they just have to not charge you for checked bags and not run condescending ads about signing up for a Delta credit card in order to “earn” one free checked bag. Generally, I loathe flying less on Southwest than I do on other US carriers (with the exception of JetBlue and, sometimes, Frontier). Southwest has been a democratizing and humanizing force in the domestic airline industry, but it’s certainly not what it used to be. I recall riding Herb Kelleher’s mustard and orange “Texas Taxi” when you boarded with rainbow plastic placards, entered a cabin billowing with cigarette smoke, and munched on Anheuser-Busch brand honey-roasted peanuts. Pilots mingled with passengers, flirted with stewardesses, and gave wing stickers to the kids. The flights were cheap and short. In the sixth grade, I flew with my dad from LIT to LAX on Southwest, and our itinerary required stops in Dallas, Albuquerque, and Phoenix before arriving in Los Angeles. And yet there are still glimmers of levity and humanity on Southwest. I just listened to a flight attendant sing John Denver’s “Leaving on a Jet Plane” to a packed flight prior to takeoff.
But the experience of air travel is no longer defined by what happens on the plane. The most lasting impressions are made in the airport.
Once upon a time, airports were buildings that protected you from the weather while you waited to board your flight. Then there was 9/11. Less than a month after the terrorist attacks (10/8), Tom Ridge became director of the newly created Office of Homeland Security, and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) was formed one month after that (11/19).
The TSA looms over the experience of air travel like the possessed Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. It is more dreaded than feared, more farce than tragedy. Around the world, it is customary for military personnel to stand guard at airports with loaded automatic weapons, but the TSA is primarily armed with walkie-talkies, stern looks, hot coffee, and the apocryphal threat of cavity searches. As I write this, I’m sitting in the Austin Bergstrom Airport within sight of the TSA screening area. A dour woman perched atop a hybrid cubicle-altar watches her colleagues frisk and question. Two flags flank her, one of the country and one of the agency, and she looks like Judge Judy sans the mahogany and black robe. She is the high priestess of the terminal, and her clipboard-wielding minions keep an eye on those who keep an eye on you.
When I stood in the serpentine security line an hour ago, an agent shouted to the masses, “Help us help you!” Minutes later, I handed this same man my boarding pass and driver’s license. As he scanned my boarding pass and placed checks at random on its face, he asked me my name. I replied, “Ben.” He apparently didn’t understand me and asked again. So I repeated myself, “Ben.” He sighed at my apparent obtuseness, “What is your full name?” I pointed to my boarding pass and said, “It’s printed right there, and it’s on my driver’s license.” Clearly frustrated, he shot back, “This is not a trick question. What is your FULL LEGAL NAME?” I slowly enunciated my full name, like you do for voice recognition software or when speaking to tech support in Bangalore. Apparently my ability to read my own name answered a pressing national security question, and he allowed me to proceed.
I moved swiftly through the public undressing room that is our modern airport concourses. I fly a lot, so I’m pretty efficient at this: shoes and belt come off mid-stride. I do think it would be a delicious act of civil disobedience if some people insisted on stripping to their skivvies before passing through the body scanner.
The items selected for closer inspection feel arbitrary. Coats, hats, and sweaters constitute a security loophole, but socks and neckties do not. Laptops are a national security threat, but iPads and Kindles are not. Water bottles, shampoo, and cough syrup could potentially compromise our safety, but granola bars, deodorant, and pills are no threat. Nail clippers and pocketknives border on treasonous, while cigarette lighters account for 85% of all items confiscated by the TSA.1
I enter the cylindrical body scanner and stand on parking stripe yellow footprints. I place my hands above my head like a mime in preparation for my digital frisking. The arms slide past, and I don’t feel a thing.
As I wait on my belongings to clear the Quizno’s x-ray toaster,“modesty algorithm” to obscure a person’s face and genitalia.3 While no identifiable data is maintained, it is important to note that everyone is subject to being strip-searched. If you make a big stink about this process (I’m looking at you, Senator Rand Paul), then the TSA will gladly escort you from the airport, and you will be welcome to join John Madden on his tour bus. By purchasing a ticket to travel by airplane, you are consenting to have your body and all of your personal effects exposed. You have a choice of three flavors of intrusion: you can be digitally stripped, physically wanded, or felt up with the backside of a rubber-gloved hand. Some people win the security lottery and get all three in one trip.
TSA procedures sell both terrorists and heroic citizens short. If you’re an aspiring terrorist, you need only be semi-original to circumvent the system. All of our prevention is, in fact, reactionary: locked cockpit doors, prohibitions against forming lines at the forward lavatories, removing shoes for screening, etc. Because one bumbling punk stuffed his soles with C-4, we must all skate through security in our socks and stockings. It’s like building a defensive game plan on the principle of stopping the offense’s previous play, which, of all the plays in the playbook, is the least likely to be called.4
The element of surprise was instrumental in the devious success of the 9/11 attacks. I can’t help but think that hyper-aware air travelers today would mob a group of would-be copycat terrorists. The heroic passengers of Flight 93 did as much without any perspective on the scope of the threat. The harsh reality is this: there will, sooner or later, be another terrorist attack on American soil, and it probably won’t involve an airplane. As soon as it happens, the setting will become the new locus of our reactionary panopticon. Vigilant citizens, not peeping government, are our first and best line of defense.
I started ruminating upon the idiosyncrasies of air travel and about security theater this past Sunday. My flight was scheduled to leave Little Rock at 8:00pm that evening.5 About 6:00pm, as I was driving to Little Rock, I received an email from Southwest Airlines alerting me that my flight had been delayed until 11:00pm. I decided to make lemonade out of the situation and took a detour to surprise my niece and nephew and take them out to dinner. We had a great time, I dropped them off back at their house, and I continued to the airport, arriving about 9:30pm. To my surprise, and to the surprise of about five other business travelers planning to board the same flight, the TSA Security area was closed, the metal lattice screen locked and lights turned off. Along with my befuddled frequent flyer cohort, I marched to the Southwest ticket counter to learn how we would board our delayed flight. The answer: “Sorry, we can rebook you for a flight in the morning.”
A collective “Whaaaa?” echoed through the otherwise desolate airport. We all laughed at how preposterous this was.
The only way we could have boarded our delayed flight, we were informed, was if we had arrived more than three hours prior to departure. The ticketing agents, in true Southwest style, were empathic and genuine. “We’re sorry,” they said, “TSA shuts down at 8:00pm no matter what the flight schedule is.”
One of the spurned passengers pressed, “Why didn’t you tell us? I got an email and a phone call about the delay but nothing about this. I already returned my rental car!” Another passenger asked why the TSA wouldn’t stay until the last flight of the evening. The agents shrugged and apologized again, explaining that they have no say-so over TSA policies and noting that Southwest’s automated notifications were sometimes less-than-helpful in these nuanced situations. In the end, we all rebooked for flights the next morning. To top off the experience, I was, of course, charged for parking and ended up idling in line for 30 minutes in order to exit the understaffed parking lot. As the raised mechanical arm begrudgingly permitted my release from the premises, I received notification on my phone that my flight had been delayed an additional ten minutes.
- HHS and the CDC should subsidize the TSA as part of a national make-it-difficult-to-smoke campaign. ↩
- The Milwaukee Airport has a FABULOUS sign hanging from the ceiling in this part of the airport that reads: “RECOMBOBULATION AREA.” ↩
- I’m sure parents of teenagers would pay handsomely to license the algorithm for other purposes. ↩
- Unless you are Houston Nutt. ↩
- Little Rock National Airport is now the Bill and Hillary Clinton National Airport, or the Hillbilly National Airport for short. ↩