Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Fear of Flying

Air travel in the twenty-first century has joined thumb screws and the rack as instruments of exquisite discomfort. Long lines, full body scans, luggage inspections, identity checks and a multitude of additional, minor indignities precede every departure. And full cabins, smaller seats, and travelers' increased use of carryon luggage-- to avoid baggage charges-- adds cramping and claustrophobia to the experience. I'll show you what I mean with an account of my trip to what shall be an unnamed island in the Caribbean.

I am blessed by living near Houston which has come to rival Miami as a gateway to Latin America. The recent merger of United and Continental airlines, despite inevitable growing pains, has enhanced Houston's south bound service. Now many travelers from Los Angeles visit the Caribbean via Houston. But given the fear and loathing that Latin America currently inspires in the US security community, anyone traveling to the region will likely endure special scrutiny. On this trip I passed three separate identity checks, at the airline counter, the TSA desk, and the gate. There was also a final, surprise check, conducted by a uniformed customs agent and a contraband-sniffing dog, in the tight space between the gate and the jetway. While the agent asked me a series of questions about my travel, his canine companion sniffed a little too close to my back pocket. Did they think I was carrying controlled substances OUT of the country? Both my ends passed inspection, apparently.

The plane, a 737, was completely full, of course, and I had drawn the middle seat. A note on personal anatomy: I am 6'2," all in the femurs, which makes sitting in a coach seat a feat of contortion in the best of circumstances, and these were not the best. To my right sat Lucio, a Brazilian history graduate student at UCLA. To my left was a 70-something, retired nurse, returning to her island birth place for the first time in 17 years. Lucio had somehow managed to come aboard with two very large carryons, one of which he positioned between his legs like a saddle. That bag, a backpack, actually, held his computer and research notes for a paper he was giving (turns out Lucio and I were headed for the same conference). The notes, the backpack and the computer were in perpetual motion as their owner put some finishing touches on his text. After discovering our mutual destination, Lucio explained the importance of his research on information transfer and paused briefly to ask what I do. "I work on information transfer, too; I'm a librarian," I offered. "Oh," he said. Librarians get that a lot.

The retired nurse, I never caught her name, turned out to be quite a talker. She was naturally excited about seeing her relatives after such a long separation, and she persistently released long streams of words that described memories of her youth and her long residence in the Eagle Rock suburb of Los Angeles. Her carryon, only one, was filled with food. How had the dog missed this? I was offered fruit and baked goods before I learned something else about my aisle seat mate. She was incontinent, and the fear of a discharge mandated hourly trips to the lavatory. I took advantage of her second departure to cut off our conversation with ear buds-- those things really send a message. We reached our destination in five hours, twenty minutes, an almost manageable duration. Now I was on Caribbean soil, but not home free. Between me and sleep lay customs.

 A 737, even one filled to capacity, holds no more than 150 souls. There were eight officers reviewing documents, and yet it took nearly 90 minutes for the last passenger to clear. That's over 12 minutes each. My experience was typical. The officer carefully reviewed the manifest I handed her, perusing the 8-digit passport number, the flight information and my "on business" selection as the reason for my visit. "What kind of business?" she wanted to know. Then we moved on to an item not on the form, an assurance that I would be leaving the island. The agent wanted a ticket but settled for a copy of my itinerary and copied the departure time, airline and flight number onto the margin of my declaration. One last item remained, my in-country contact. "I'm staying in a hotel, the Hilton," I offered up with a smile. But the form asked for a personal contact, and the agent seemed determined to have one. We were at an impasse, two English-speaking people, silently staring at each other through a pane of safety glass. Finally, she blinked, and with a grumbled "I'll just fill in Hilton," she stamped my passport and signaled me through to baggage claim.