Five o'clock shadow? You're a marked man!

In times of terror alert, international travel turns into an endurance marathon -- and a financial train wreck.


Andrew Leonard
January 7, 2004 5:28AM (UTC)

On Sunday, Jan. 4, the check-in counter for Aeromexico Airlines in the Mexico City International Airport opened at 4:30 a.m., fully four and a half hours before a 9 a.m. flight to Los Angeles was scheduled to take off. For even extremely cautious travelers, four-plus hours might seem like adequate time to pick up a boarding pass and get one's bags checked.

But to the people who had missed their flights the day before at that same airport, four and a half hours seemed to be cutting it dangerously close. Over this past weekend, heightened security measures resulting from U.S. Transportation Security Administration alerts about a particular Aeromexico flight led to what may have been the most extreme security measures ever carried out at the Mexico City International Airport. I know, because I was there, and after waiting seven hours in line on Jan. 3, and missing two flights to Los Angeles, I wasn't going to take any chances. I was in line at 3:30 in the morning.

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Or, to be more precise, I was in line to get in line, because airline personnel had blocked off the main check-in area and were admitting travelers through the barricades in dribs and drabs. And already, at 3:30 in the morning, the lines to get in line were 30 to 40 people long, and getting longer at what seemed like a geometrically expanding rate. By 6 a.m., when I did end up actually getting a boarding pass (after having had all my luggage hand-inspected for the third time in 24 hours), multiple lines to get in line stretched awesomely across the airport's concourse, summoning up images from the evacuation of Saigon or scenes from "The Year of Living Dangerously." Those who had arrived, say, a mere two hours before their flight was due to take off were in for a rude awakening.

And checking one's bags in was just the first step. Then there were the lines to get through security, and then the lines to get on the plane itself. Lines to get in lines to get in lines to get in lines. Even at the best of times, there's a certain Borgesian labyrinth feel to Mexico City International. On this particular weekend, Borges was channeling Kafka.

The proximate cause of the chaos was the cancellation of two Aeromexico flights to Los Angeles (and the turning back of a third, and the fighter-jet escorting, reportedly, of a fourth) earlier in the week. The decision to hand-inspect every piece of luggage -- and conduct rigorous security checks of passengers just prior to boarding -- resulted in a cascade of missed flights, missed connections, overbooked airplanes and bumped passengers. On the morning of Jan. 4, passengers and airline personnel alike stumbled around with looks of exhaustion and despair. As a passenger, all one had to do was mention the words "Los Angeles" and everyone around you shied away in horror (even more than they usually do).

If we take on faith that the TSA had reasonably good reasons for targeting Aeromexico Flight 490 as a legitimate al-Qaida terrorist risk, then of course no amount of security is too much, and a missed flight here or there is little price to pay for averting thousands of deaths. I have no quarrel with that. But if scenes like last weekend's keep recurring, the consequences for airlines and the travel industry in general will be dire.

I like to travel. But I'm not looking forward to a future in which I need to get to the airport five hours ahead of departure to be sure I won't miss a flight, one in which I'm patted down from head to toe several times every time I try to board a plane, one in which I am constantly explaining every item in my luggage and every twist in my itinerary to hostile agents. I've had the chance to think about airline security a great deal over the past few days, and I'll tell you this: After being asked by one security guard to drink from a water bottle in my carry-on to prove that it wasn't acid or poison; after being interrogated by a U.S. customs agent who was suspicious at the number of books I had in my luggage; after the long lines, the hand inspections, the X-ray screenings, the near riots by enraged passengers, the uncertainty and the anxiety -- after all that, traveling to a foreign land, or even just across the state of California, doesn't seem quite so exotic or alluring anymore.

If I were the CEO of an airline, I'd be worried.

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Just for the record, I will note that standing seven hours in line at an airport, missing a couple of flights, spending a night (or two) at a hotel, and having one's belongings pawed do not constitute some kind of tragedy worthy of overmuch sympathy. Since I had a lot of time to think about the experience of standing in lines over the weekend, I was able to cheer myself up by noting that at least I wasn't some Soviet citizen of the 1970s waiting half the day -- every day -- just to get a lump of stale bread or a bottle of rotgut vodka.

Still, for Aeromexico, this week couldn't have been a good one for the balance sheet. By at least one estimate, a canceled flight costs an airline $250,000. But the cascading effect from so many passengers missing connections because of the long delays had to make the red ink flow far beyond a single flight's cancellation. I saw hundreds of people being offered hotel rooms, food vouchers, first-class upgrades, free tickets to other destinations -- all in a desperate attempt to prevent increasingly unruly and angry mobs from completely losing control.

And those immediate costs pale against what is probably much more significant: a rise in the general unwillingness of passengers to deal with the hassle, period. Mexico City wasn't the only airport resembling an anthill poked with a stick this past weekend. At Los Angeles International, on Sunday, the scene was also out of control, even at normally super-efficient terminals such as Southwest's. According to press reports, security levels around the world were at their highest ever.

And maybe rightfully so. Maybe all that security prevented attacks that would otherwise have happened. Looked at optimistically, maybe this past weekend might have marked the high-water point for security concerns at airports, and life will gradually transition back to something roughly approaching normal.

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But what if it doesn't? What if there is another terrorist attack involving airlines, and the security measures in place this past weekend become the norm? If they do, it's going to be pretty hard for airlines to make a decent buck, and plenty of travelers may decide there are better ways to spend the weekend than admiring airline decor and contemplating the Rashomonic aspects of how six different airline personnel can tell six different stories about why your flight is being delayed.

I could go on -- I could describe the paranoia that begins to seep in, once you've been informed by another passenger that undercover TSA agents are standing in line with you with the authority to cancel your flight if they deem the security insufficient. Suddenly, a personality disorder akin to that suffered by prisoners who fall in love with their torturers sweeps over you. Please, search my bag more carefully, you start to think. No -- don't skip that pocket -- someone might see you and cancel the flight!

But instead, as a public service to future travelers, I'll offer some tips from my personal experience on ways to avoid setting off alarms at airports.

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1) Do not have a ticket that has you originally leaving a given airport on a Sunday, which you have changed mid-trip to leave on Saturday, but which then became further altered when you missed your Saturday flight and now have to catch a Sunday flight. This kind of ticket is considered something of a red flag to airline personnel. It is not helpful. Especially when you are demanding a first-class upgrade, unless you can somehow give the impression that you are a TSA agent, in which case you can get very nice treatment.

2) Do not stay overnight in a Marriott hotel that for unexplained reasons has no water flowing in its shower or sink at 3 a.m. Not being able to take a shower after spending a whole day waiting in lines at an airport makes you look like a terrorist. People who look like terrorists wait in longer lines, and have their toiletries examined with closer attention. Having your toiletries examined with overly close attention makes you want to be a terrorist. This is also not helpful.

3) Do not be traveling with a cardboard box sealed closed with layers of packing tape and stuffed with Mexican handicrafts wrapped in multiple layers of newspaper. Security agents find such boxes to be presumptive indications of guilt for something, and they tend to lose their sense of humor when unwrapping the sixth little ceramic statue of a Zapotec warrior king. Also, it is not helpful to inform said security agent that they are opening up a box that has been opened up and searched three times already in the past 36 hours.

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4) Do not somehow end up responsible for a traveling companion's luggage in addition to yours. For reasons too complicated to explain here, I became separated from my companion in the Mexico City airport, and she ended up flying out of the country (possibly with a fighter jet escort, and only five hours after the originally scheduled departure) without even realizing that I was still standing in line with all the bags in the bowels of the airport. When the security guard has already decided that the person standing in front of him with a screwed-up itinerary, unshaven cheeks and greasy hair is clearly up to no good, the last thing they want to hear is that you are carrying someone else's luggage with you, and no, you are not exactly sure what is in the fucking box. (Although by the end of the weekend, I did have a pretty good idea what was in the box, as I cheekily informed the U.S. customs agent. Who then proceeded to cast suspicion on my books.)

5) Do not have a Chinese dictionary in your carry-on. Only terrorists take Chinese dictionaries to Mexico with them for a New Year's vacation.

As readers have probably figured out by now, by the end of the weekend I was pretty much convinced that I was in fact a terrorist, and all the delays and flight cancellations were a result of computers choking on my personal profile. I'd like to apologize to everyone who was in the Mexico City International Airport last weekend, because it might all have been my fault. I'm sorry.

But if you think my jocularity is out of place in discussing security measures designed to prevent attacks such as those on the World Trade Center, then think again. In the world we're now living in, we are all being treated as if each and every one of us is a terrorist until proven innocent. This is hard enough for the travel industry to handle financially. How are the rest of us going to cope with it psychologically, as the century winds on?

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Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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