Letters

"Welcome to the dawning of a new age of air travel!" Readers respond to Andrew Leonard's "Five O'Clock Shadow? You're a Marked Man!"


Salon Staff
January 9, 2004 1:30AM (UTC)

[Read the story.]

While I found Andrew's tale entertaining (probably a lot more entertaining that he found it while enduring it), I wonder how his story would have been different if he wasn't a white middle-aged relatively harmless looking guy (judging only from his caricature on Salon).

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Imagine, if you will, the experience he would have enjoyed if he'd been "Middle Eastern" looking (which seems to include anyone from Morocco to Afghanistan and all points in between). Even worse if he carried a foreign passport, particularly from one of those "Middle Eastern" countries. Now, instead of just being thoroughly searched and made to stand in innumerable lines, he'd likely get to enjoy a more thorough screening in a back room, which may or may not include much deeper searches than just his pockets. He'd be fingerprinted and photographed, and likely treated to a lengthy interrogation about his past, any unusual destinations, and, if his name matches any of the 100,000 names on the terrorist watch list (or any number of misspellings and mistranslations, apparently), he wouldn't have been allowed to fly at all, and his fellow passengers might not have either.

I'm certain that this sort of treatment wouldn't cause any resentment of the United States, any unjustifiable anger that might well into a groundswell of anti-Americanism.

Oh, but wait. He could be someone like Maher Arar, who, in addition to the above treatment, was arrested, deported to a state known for routine torture like Syria, and allowed to rot in a cell "like a coffin" between torture sessions for a year.

Welcome to the dawning of a new age of air travel!

-- John Clarke

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Thank you, Andrew Leonard, for your funny and thoughtful article on airline travel today.

Since I am an American expat living in Europe, I have the luck to travel to the U.S. regularly on those very Air France flights believed to be targeted by terrorists. I agree with you that flying has become unbearable. If I were not obliged to get on an airplane to see my family, I'm not sure I would ever get on one again, even though I have always been passionate about travel.

I would also be willing to accept such unpleasant travel experiences as sleeping in a crummy airport hotel without running water and waiting in 48 hours' worth of lines to make sure that the plane I am on, or that hundreds of others are on, does not explode in midair. However, my experience has been that the security measures in place are entirely ineffective. We all know that anybody with the intention to do harm could manage to get whatever he needed onto an airplane, if not through unscreened baggage handlers and airplane servicers, then right past the security personnel who are so intent on examining my tweezers that they fail to notice the bomb or ceramic sword in the bags of the traveler behind me, or even to notice that the glass protecting the framed photograph in my own bag or the diamond engagement ring on my finger, would be used much more effectively as weapons than my tweezers. Since everyone in the world except me seems to agree that these security measures will protect us, I am willing to go along with them, even though the inconvenience (as you described) can sometimes be enormous.

What pushes me over the edge -- what makes me say I would never travel again if I did not live so far from my family -- is the unpleasantness with which security personnel (particularly in the U.S.) conduct these measures. I was taught to smile and say please and thank you and so I continue to do so, even as I take off my shoes and allow a stranger to sift through bags filled with very personal things like medication and underwear! However, I have very rarely received basic politeness in return. I understand that terrorism is serious business, but there is absolutely no reason that security agents need to act so accusatory and aggressive with people who are just trying to get from Point A to Point B. Instead, as I smile and allow agents to examine me, I have been yelled at and even been called unpatriotic for saying simple things like "That sharp-looking object is actually a pen" or "Could you please be a little more careful with that very expensive object you just dropped on the ground and didn't bother to apologize about?"

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I have been told I have no business standing nearby while my husband is being strip-searched. (My husband, who is French, is profiled for an extra security check every time we fly out of the U.S. -- and what kind of idiot consistently profiles a clean French guy with a very Jewish last name? Must be the same people who gave us freedom fries.) Umm, of course I am standing nearby. I'm not going to go get on an airplane while you are sending my husband off to Guantanamo for having the impudence to be French.

The rudeness and aggressiveness of security agents is unacceptable and fixable. In other countries all over Europe I have been much more kindly treated by the people searching my bags. I think that we all need to remember that al-Qaida and other terrorists have been around and trying to hurt us for a long time before Sept. 11 but planes were not exploding every day. While we need to be vigilant, we also need to exhibit basic respect for other human beings. The stress of flying today could be greatly reduced if security agents were just a little bit nicer.

If the airlines are not able to find a solution, I think that one day private airlines will become relics and air travel will be a public venture. So, let's look forward to even better customer service!

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-- Jenny

I too traveled over the holidays, and I am ready to say that I am willing to exchange some of this "safety" for a return to normalcy.

I am willing to give up the extra-low metal detector settings that require the removal of all types of shoes. I'm willing to forgo the hand-inspection of all luggage, checked or not. I'm willing to chance the possibility that somebody on my flight might be packing knitting needles or, god forbid, a Swiss Army corkscrew. And here's why: There is a statistically minuscule chance that even without all these "safeguards" I would ever be in danger at all. Frankly, and this may sound cavalier, I'm not worried about it. The numbers are on my side. I'm in much, much more danger when I get behind the wheel to drive. I think I'm actually in more danger of getting struck by lightning this year. The sooner everyone realizes the truly minuscule level of danger actually posed by terrorists, the sooner we can all get back to normal, and maybe try to put a stop to this administration's appalling assault on our liberties, and our intelligence.

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-- Laina Worth

I enjoyed your piece about TSA and airport conditions. I flew four times over the holiday week. It makes me feel better to know someone else had a similar yet far worse experience than mine. One thing is for sure, sell that airline stock!

You cut the federales way more slack than I do. I think that in spite of their paranoiac pursuit of the perfect search, they are and will always be woefully inadequate. I saw TSA agents wearing their little blue gloves while eating sandwiches in their break room. I stood in line for 1 1/2 hours waiting to put my luggage in the bomb sniffer, only to be waived around with 250 other people at the last minute. I could go on and on. The point is that airline security is still a grand charade; it is just spin for the masses.

Maybe a terrorist act was prevented by all of our collective inconvenience, maybe not. We will never know but personally I don't believe them anyway. It's all a bunch of ivory tower paranoia in my book. The airline industry is being strangled to death as the result of our jingoistic American foreign policy. I blame Dubya and his gang of hawks: Wolfowitz, Perle, Ashcroft and Ridge et al. We are living their fear. It causes me great concern to think of what can now happen since PATRIOT Act II has silently become the law of the land.

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-- Scott Smith

I can truly empathize with Mr. Leonard, having suffered a similar fate in August at the Sea-Tac Airport in Washington. There was no particular alert, simply the usual Sunday crush, but I was still thankful I'd arrived 4 1/2 hours before my flight as I heard the check-in clerk explain to the woman ahead that she'd never get through security for her flight leaving in 2 1/2 hours. I ended up on the 6 p.m. news along with the thousands of others winding their way through the lines within lines that twisted through the length and breadth of the airport.

And I'd be much more sanguine about the experience, except that it obviously was so pointless as I watched people given conflicting directions on how to put their carry-on bags through the scanner and listened to security agents sullenly discuss break schedules while listlessly pushing everything through the scanner without a glance and looking at the people only long enough to snap an order designed more to prove their power than their awareness. One of the security people didn't even speak more than minimal English and was having all responses to her questions translated by a co-worker.

But as bad as this was, I was 4 1/2 hours early because my last trip through DFW only weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks was a 3 1/2-hour endurance test that had me vowing to never fly within North America after I returned home. And I wouldn't have flown again except for the death of my best friend over 2,000 miles away.

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The DFW encounter taught me that security is only for people without connections (and I don't mean the flight kind) or class, and women over 45 are apparently suspicious if they carry a fully loaded notebook computer complete with digital camera and cables.

After having all of my check-in luggage hand-inspected (including the thrill of seeing my dirty underwear pulled out of my bag and dumped on the counter), I had my attaché, purse, computer, camera, CD case, and datebook hand-checked five times before finally getting my boarding ticket at the counter next to my gateway just as they began boarding. Forget something to drink or eat or even hitting the rest room. I was thankful I'd made it through the security checks to make my flight to Houston!

So imagine my schadenfreude in getting in a line behind a well-to-do, late middle-aged couple discussing the fact that the woman had no I.D. Apparently, the woman had left her purse behind while visiting someone on her way to the airport. I couldn't figure how she'd managed to get this far through the airport, but I knew she would certainly get stopped before actually boarding the plane, especially since they were still pulling people aside for security checks as they handed in their boarding cards.

The husband was talking to someone on his cellphone and stepped aside to finish his call so I moved on ahead -- and found myself going through yet another hand-search of my attaché and purse!

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Now before you assume I look something like a potential terrorist, let me clarify that I'm a 45+, slightly overweight, blue-eyed, progressive bifocals-wearing, graying blond woman of Scottish and English extraction who was wearing a light gray Land's End sweatsuit with a blue Patagonia Synchilla jacket and carrying only my Land's End attaché with computer gear, some file folders, pens, and paperback books plus a small Eagle Creek bag large enough to hold a datebook, wallet, tissues, key case and a Powerbar. No terrorist, heck not even an airline hijacker from the '60s, ever looked like me!

So imagine my surprise, which quickly turned to fury, when I finally straggled onto the plane and saw the woman without I.D. ensconced in a front seat, blanket and pillow in place, chatting with a flight attendant. This woman who had absolutely no photo identification, no identification of any sort, was not only seated before me but had been for some time apparently. But she was wearing cashmere and had a Neiman-Marcus shopping bag.

After that experience I'd vowed to avoid flying and had done so -- even doing a 10,000 mile cross-country and Canada trip to escape the aggravation of flying. And then my friend died and her funeral was arranged less than three days away and I ended up at Sea-Tac barely making my flight despite arriving at the check-in 4 1/2 hours early. After that experience, I informed my husband that he would get me on a plane only if the trip required crossing an ocean, and even then I'd like to see if a cruise ship wasn't viable.

Are the airlines in trouble? Oh, yes, but the only people who'll pay will be the folks who don't get a parachute, golden or otherwise, i.e., the line employees, the patrons, and the airport business owners. Rest assured no executive compensation will be sacrificed in the name of homeland security.

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-- Carolyn Cooper


Salon Staff

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