Friday, 25 April 2008

Travel Trauma - Flying (Part Two)

My last post on the subject was about the trauma of checking in at an airport. Some people may think that I am being over dramatic when I say that the supposedly simple act of checking in is disturbing, but I would disagree. I am unlucky in this area – very unlucky. If something can go wrong, it will go wrong. If there is a delay of any kind you can guarantee that the delay will affect me.

So after the suffering involved in checking in, things start to get worse because the next stage in the tortuous process of getting from A to B in an aeroplane is of course, the dreaded security check.

Passing security for me has always been difficult. I’m not a naturally paranoid person but when confronted with an overbearing security person at an airport, that part of my mind that says “Relax. Take it easy. No problems here.” simply ceases to function. I am filled with paranoia. I know that I have done nothing wrong. I know that there are no firearms or explosive devices in my hand luggage. I know that the electronic devices I do possess are benign and that the majority of passengers will also be carrying similar items through to the departure lounge. So why do I feel so threatened?

Now the situation is worse. Security has been heightened in recent years because of the threat of terrorism and made the process even more harrowing for me. Now you cannot even take more than a millilitre of liquid through security.

Of course, with the increased security, every single passenger has to be checked more thoroughly than before, slowing down the process even more, leading to another pet hate of mine; queuing.

A typical security scenario is as follows:

Armed with my passport and boarding card, I walk up to the sign that says “Flight Departures” and see that there is no queue at the entrance. However, when I pass the entrance, I see the first two officials staring at me.

“Boarding card” says the first one with a scowl, looking at me as if I am a dung beetle that has just marched through a particularly nasty looking cow pat. I dutifully hand over my card, trying to appear relaxed. He scans it with his barcode reader and hands it back. My worst fears are realised as I stare past the man into the security room. There is a huge queue for the X-ray machines.

As I stand in the queue, I scan the room observing the passengers and security staff. Most of the passengers look worried. Most of the security staff look angry and belligerent. The queue spirals round to a single point at the end where a mean looking security person points to the next free X-ray machines.

Another security person asks each person in the queue if they have any liquids. Signs appear everywhere stating what each passenger should do before he reaches the end of the queue.

As I shuffle along, I notice that other passengers, some of whom are terrified of flying and extremely jittery as a result, are asking what they need to take off. “Should we take off our shoes?” asks one. “What about my belt?” asks another. The truth is we don’t actually know until it’s too late.

Finally, after what seems like hours, I reach the first security official who’s job it is to direct me to the X-ray machine. He stares at me as if I am a rotting piece of meat and points to the next available machine.

Waiting for me is another security guard armed with several plastic trays. “Take your coat off”, he orders. I obey and hand it to him. “Is there a laptop in that bag?” he asks. “Yes,” I reply taking it out. “What have you got in your pockets?” “Have you got a mobile phone?”

By this time I’m slightly flustered. I have nothing to worry about at all but I am sure that there is something that is going to get me into trouble. He puts my coat, laptop and bag onto the conveyor belt through the machine and waves me through the metal detector.

I stand there waiting to be ushered through and I immediately worry. Will it go off?

And the answer is: of course it will go off. Waiting for me on the other side is a huge unpleasant looking man with his arms folded. He looks like a night club bouncer and stands with his arms folded clutching a manual metal detector. Next to him is a fierce woman with the same stance.

When I walk through the metal detector I close my eyes and duck slightly. I don’t know why. It is an involuntary reaction from a part of my brain that I have no control over. Why do I do it? Do I think that something is going to shoot out of the metal doorway and impale me to the floor with a message “HE’S GOT SOMETHING METAL ON HIM. TAKE HIM AWAY FOR TORTURE!” It’s crazy and I have no idea why. It is a primeval instinct that I can’t fathom. And invariably it gets me into trouble whether or not I set off the alarm. The night club bouncer sees my reaction and probably thinks I have something to hide. So I always end up being searched.

Now these guys can be rough. “Empty your pockets” snarls the bouncer as he frisks me. “What’s this?” he yells pointing at my credit card case. I honestly have to resist the urge to say “It’s a letter bomb that’s about to go off.”

There have been occasions when the female bouncer has been quite attractive. I would love to have the courage to say “Excuse me. Can the lady search me instead?” Thankfully I haven’t because I know that these guys have no sense of humour.

Having been searched, it is now time to pick up my coat, laptop and bag. I usually carry two mobile phones, an mp3 player, a camera and a PSP as well as cables, batteries etc. especially if I am on a business trip. This means that my hand baggage is tightly packed. What usually happens is that the person checking the X-ray machine is pointing at the image on their monitor, an image of my bag to be precise.

When the conveyor belt resumes, my bag comes out and is immediately grabbed by another burly bouncer who growls “Who’s bag is this?”

“Mine,” I squeak.

“Over here,” he snarls.

I have spent hours methodically packing my bag and now this brute is going to empty it, giving me the third degree in the process. He empties the contents of my bag in front of other relieved and amused passengers, asking me what each device is even though it is perfectly obvious. When he holds up what is clearly a digital camera and asks me what it is I have to resist the suicidal urge to say “It’s a lost Picasso masterpiece”.

He asks what every single item is and then dumps them all unceremoniously into a plastic tray and feeds them back through the X-ray machine. Call me paranoid if you like but this happens to me all the time.

On one or two occasions, mainly because of my failing memory, I have forgotten that I have a large canister of deodorant in my hand luggage. The last time this happened was actually two days ago in Johannesburg. I had been working all day and was about to catch the night flight. Naturally after a hard day in a hot office I wanted to freshen up but completely forgot that deodorant was now outlawed. The X-ray man saw this and when my bag emerged, he grabbed it and pointed to the bouncer gesticulating at my bag as if there was a bomb about to go off. I have no clue what he had said but when the bouncer took the bag, he yelled “Who’s bag is this?” in an extremely belligerent tone. Part of me wanted to just leave it. I had no clue why it had been singled out, having forgotten about the deodorant, and my paranoid mind began to work overtime. Had somebody planted something in my bag? Was I innocently carrying something highly illegal or dangerous? I somehow found my courage and meekly squeaked “It’s mine”

The South African bouncer was just like every other one I had encountered and dumped everything out of my bag. He then picked up the can of deodorant and shouted at me as if I were a very naughty child. “YOU CANNOT TAKE THIS.” He bawled, speaking very slowly and very deliberatley, holding the offending item up for everyone to see. I expected more but mercifully he left me to humbly repack my bag.

It is always a blessed relief to finally arrive in the departure lounge. I don’t know why but, like many people, I feel guilty when confronted by officialdom, even if there is nothing to feel guilty about. The sternness of the security people is purposely intimidating and I always feel that they are trying to provoke a sarcastic response out of me just to add some excitement to their day.

Not all security people are the same though. I have encountered some with a little bit of a sense of humour. At Liverpool airport, I walked through the metal detector and set it off. The security man stopped me, made me empty my pockets, frisked me and scanned me with his portable detector. When he had finished, he said “Let me look at the sole of you left foot.” I was still worried so I obliged. “Now the right one” he said. I lifted up my right foot and showed him the bottom. “Now both together” he said. My mind wasn’t working straight so I lifted up my left foot again before realising what he’d said. “Only kidding mate,” he said with a huge grin and patted me on the shoulder.

That was a nice gesture and made me and my mates laugh. I know it’s a serious job but sometimes a little humour breaks the tension somehow. It certainly would for me. I just wish more security people followed that example.

No comments: