For the second time in a week I’ve had the lovely experience of the full body scan at Reagan National Airport. Shoeless feet on the yellow, then on the green, arms up, arms out, do the hokie pokie and turn yourself around…. well, ok, not that. Serves ’em right what they see, supposedly everything, security trumps shame.
The airport security line on a Friday afternoon is full of well-dressed businesspeople standing shoeless and suspect until such times as the machines declare us innocent enough to fly the friendly skies. Everyone wears their best Game Face at the airport, accepting the utterly degrading process of pre-flight screening as a ritual offering against the horrors the evildoers might try to wreak upon our once-most-civilized form of human freedom, the joy of flight. There’s no more joy in flying anywhere.
Once through security, the terminal is full or people walking around talking to themselves. They have what look like giant cockroaches clinging to their ears. They are sharing the most intimate details of their personal and professional lives for all the world to hear — except everyone else is also yakking into space, as if the Marquis de Sade had taken over the airport and everyone is really part of the asylum. Some people even manage to do this while rolling overstuffed bags AND ordering burgers and sodas to carry onto the planes to torture seatmates. Guy next to me is talking some trash about people he met with earlier in the day. Woman over there is relaying details of her doctor’s visit. I feel so inadequate; I have nothing I want to discuss loudly on the phone in the airport.
TSA has nothing on USAirways when it comes to making flying miserable. The only way to relieve a small bit of the misery is to play the caste-system game for boarding the flight and getting preferred seats. There are the brahmins rich enough to fly first class — they get to board the plane whenever they want to, and manage to jam up the aisle for the rest of us heading toward steerage. There are the usual elite/gold/bronze/platinum/olympic/superbowl/worldseries flyers who get to board next.
Then there’s the dreaded ZONE 4 — those of us who have paid hundreds of dollars for the privilege of sharing this flight with the more fortunate. But we’re nothing special. We get to board last, by which time there’s no room left in the overhead compartments and the earlier boarders have already stuffed their stuff everywhere. USAir gives us a “major freebie” by forcing us to check our carry-on bags WITH NO FEES! We are grateful. We surrender our little roll-ons, knowing that this small gesture will cost us another hour or so at baggage claim — IF the bags arrive. We shuffle onward to squeeze into anatomically impossible positions in middle seats at the back.
We used to joke about airplane food. No longer! There’s no food! Okay, well, if you want to pay seven bucks for a previously-frozen approximation of a turkey sandwich, go right ahead! But given how crowded the seating has become, it’s almost impossible to eat anyway — and certainly no sane person would take a drink in flight for fear of —horrors! — having to use those airplane restrooms. No worries there, the guy at the end of my row looks so fearsome the two of us on the inside wouldn’t dare ask to get out. Five hours to Phoenix; no food, no water. I wonder if this counts for Lent?
Between the necessary indignities of airport security and the offensive disregard for passengers perpetrated by many airlines, it’s a wonder anyone flies any more. But we all have to get to places that are too far to drive. Our need for speed makes us willing participants in a process that has become, increasingly, the antithesis of advanced civilization. We all feel helpless to reverse this particular course — complain about airport security and you’re labeled unpatriotic; complain about airline service and you’re told to take a number. For this we pay considerable sums of money. Somehow, someday, we have to restore a sense of balance, basic respect, and at least a modicum of comfort in air travel.