It’s time to slip on my grumpy old man hat. I don’t wear it often, but sometimes events happen that warrant dusting it off and seeing if it still fits.
Late this past December, my wife and I were at the Greater Rochester International Airport, which, if I’m being kind, plays a little fast and loose with the term “international.” Sure, flights leave from here and in a roundabout manner, do fly to Europe, but this isn’t one of those sprawling hub airports. There isn’t a Brooks Brothers store or a Jamba Juice kiosk on the atrium, but I’m pretty sure there is a Dunkin Donuts and a cart that sells white hot dogs in a freezer bag. On most days, the place is quieter than a library. Still, it’s a perfectly lovely airport and it’s not that far from my house, so for that, I’m grateful.
We checked in at the touchscreen kiosk, which was directly in front of an airline employee who lurched over our transaction. My thoughts on this are fairly basic and I think logical: If the airline is going to hire a person to hover and critique my printing of boarding passes, why not step back in time five years and check me in? How much, exactly, am I saving by using a touchscreen when there is an airport representative standing right there and wishing me a nice flight?
OK, so there’s that.
The security line was fairly long, even at 4:45 in the morning, so while we snaked our way to the front, my wife and I chatted about how we should have gotten there three hours earlier instead of two. This was for a domestic flight to Florida, not an international flight to Beijing, which I hear requires an overnight stay in a berth in the airport wall.
When we reached the security desk, they asked the standard questions, then handed my wife a colored card and told her that she could go to a special TSA line, which exempted her from the rigmarole of more extensive scrutiny. I didn’t get the pass.
As I stood in line at the second tier of security, after removing my shoes and my jacket and piling my stuff in the last bin they had, I asked the TSA agent why my wife got a pass and I didn’t.
I thought about the randomness of this, having observed the man behind me with his young son (who got a pass, while the dad did not) and said the first thing that came to my mind at 5:00 am.
“That’s bullshirt,” I said.
I know, I know, but it just came out. The whole no water bottle, no shoes, scan me, feel me up, strip search, treat me like a criminal had hit its peak. I was tired, hungry and fed up. This is when she responded.
“Well, we can take away your wife’s pass,” she said snarkily.
OK, so I get it, sort of, but the overall ridiculousness of it coupled with the schadenfreude of the TSA agents got to me. It really did, and I’m a patient old guy with arthritis and sensible shoes.
I was directed to the full body scanner, instructed to place my shoeless feet on the marks and to raise my arms over my head while they scanned me. Lights and beepers went off.
“Do you have anything in your pockets?” the TSA agent asked.
“Yup. My wallet, my passport, some paper and a pen,” I said.
“Those have to come out, plus your belt, untuck your shirt and remove your watch.” I had no idea where my wallet and passport was going, and apparently, there has been a precedent set that pieces of paper are now considered deadly weapons.
I was fuming. They scanned me again, and as if this wasn’t enough, a guy had me step aside and hold my arms out while he slid his hands up my sides, under my arms and felt under my shirt collar and waistband. He then ran his hands inside and outside my legs clear up to where it’s none of his business. What’s the point of the full body scan if somebody is going to pet me as if I’m a Labrador retriever?
By the time I had gotten my stuff together, almost fifteen minutes had passed. My wife was calling my phone (which was in a security bin) to see where I was, unaware that I was undergoing an airport colonoscopy.
“Never again,” I said. I Googled what it takes to get a TSA pre-check pass and made a note to do that the instant I got home. (Side note: On the TSA website, right after the explanation on how you’d be interviewed and fingerprinted and charged eighty-five dollars for a five-year pass, it says: “Next time you’re at the airport, you’ll wish you signed up for TSA Pre✓® today.” Sounds super-friendly to me.)
We walked from the security area immediately to the boarding area and got on the plane. The whole process from parking the car to sitting down on the jetliner took a little over two hours, with none of that time spent lounging around the airport.
The flight back home started out flawlessly. We had a Lyft ridesharing service pick us up, which was awesome. I highly recommend it, if it is available in your area. The system worked perfectly and is eminently more affordable than a cab ride in an old Crown Victoria with a dozen pine tree air fresheners dangling from the mirror. The thirty-five-mile trek to the airport cost twenty-two dollars, with tip. I paid for it via my phone with my thumbprint. Very cool.
We checked in at the curb (with a real person!) and were both handed our boarding passes, which included a TSA pre-approval check-in. I have no idea why, but after the groping I received in Rochester, it was a welcomed treat.
As we made our way to the boarding area, there was a special line for TSA pre-approval people, which made us both feel as if we were royalty. We zipped to the front, greeted our TSA agent cheerily, and waited in a short line for a minimal screening of our carry on items.
That’s when the light went off. Not in my head, an actual light went off.
“You’ve been randomly selected for additional screening,” the TSA agent told me. What the heck? With that said, I only had to walk through the scanner, fully dressed. I shouted to my wife, who was merrily past the scanners and picking up her purse, “I’ve been selected. At random!” She was laughing hysterically.
I recognize that we live in an age when terrible things happen, but I miss the civility of the past. I miss the trust that used to be in place that made us feel as if most people were good and kind and that while there were a few bad apples, the rest of the population wasn’t treated as if they were part of the bad apple bushel basket. Today we view everybody as a potential suspect. This is done so everybody is treated the same and nobody is offended, but in doing so, everybody is offended.
Most people have lived their entire lives honorably and honestly, and have played by the rules, but the rules have gotten a little lopsided, and with that, little pieces of our dignity and our rights have been chipped away. Politely refusing to submit to extensive screening at a security checkpoint in an airport is class C disorderly conduct and is punishable by a fine of up to five-hundred dollars, complete with booking, fingerprinting, a mug shot and a comfy stay in jail. At the very least, there’s a missed flight and a ton of inconvenience, so we stand there quietly and we take it.
The irony and ineffectiveness of this process was driven home when a friend of ours was held with the rest of the passengers on his flight at the Fort Lauderdale airport, in the plane, with no water and overflowing toilets for seven hours—long after they had apprehended a mentally disturbed lunatic who murdered and injured innocent people, using a gun and ammunition that he had legally transported in his suitcase. It should be noted that this individual had previously walked into an FBI field office and told them that he heard voices in his head that told him to commit acts of violence. He had also been previously arrested for strangling his girlfriend, but hey, bring your gun and ammo on the plane. We’ll search everyone else who is carrying a pen.
The TSA has been given a blank check in regards to the Fourth Amendment, but enough time has gone by and enough people have been inconvenienced, embarrassed and annoyed to question this blanket policy without the threat of jail. I’m not a lawyer, but I’m not a criminal either. If the TSA needs proof of that, all they have to do is check to see if I’ve ever been arrested when I hand them my passport. Isn’t that why we show them identification in the first place? I can Google myself from my phone and find out if I’m dangerous (I’m not), so I’d like to believe that the TSA has access to slightly more information than that.
What has happened to us?