I’m spread eagled up against a wall and Hank is snapping on a pair of blue rubber gloves. The look on his face tells me that this will hurt me a lot more than him and I was hoping that he hadn’t read 50 Shades of Grey. I wondered whether it was something I said.
The incident had begun a few seconds earlier: “You can’t take this through son. You should know better.” Drawls Hank, who is as broad as he is long. The blue uniform and pitch black sunglasses Hank is wearing announces that he is an important security man and I have been caught red handed with a half consumed bottle of water.
“Sorry officer. Of course I am aware that water is the bomb makers explosive of choice.”
Anyone could be forgiven for imagining that I have been caught up in a curfew imposed by a new fascist Junta and that Hank is an Enforcer for the Revolution but, the truth is, I’m in an airport.
I hadn’t planned a close up inspection of the somewhat off white walls in the security area of LAX, Los Angeles International Airport, but, having been through 72 airports in the past 15months, I have learnt that it is best not to expect everything to run smoothly. My mistake this time was to try to lighten the mood with a little joke that gave authority the green light for an assault that won’t be quickly forgotten. It was a schoolboy error; I should have learnt by now that all security staff have undergone a sense of humour lobotomy. However, after profuse apologies and a lot of groveling all I got was an intimate rub down and a lecture that security is a joke free zone. Welcome to the revolution comrade!
Commercial air traffic. Now there’s a revolution for you! During 2011, commercial airlines carried 2.75 billion passengers, a 30% growth since 2006. The numbers demonstrate that the world wants to fly and, indeed, needs to fly. Air transport is now critical to the fabric of the world economy, playing a pivotal role in wealth generation and poverty reduction. In the last 100 years we have reduced the time taken to get to the wondrous delights of Southern Italy from 3 days to 3 hours. Like all good revolutions, the one that is commercial air travel is now so embedded in everyday life that we simply take it for granted. Or rather, it now takes us for granted. As in all revolutions, those that thought they were set free are once again enslaved.
It didn’t used to be like this. I can remember when air travel was glamorous; an era when being part of the ‘jet set’ was an exclusive club to which we all aspired. As a boy, I used to lie awake at night, too excited to sleep, thinking about the wonders of air travel, of seeing a jet plane, of staring at airgirls, of seeing famous people wearing sunglasses, striding purposefully into an airport trailing behind them a line of porters bent double under the weight of numerous suitcases. I remember being able to tell my jealous mates how wonderful it was and how I got close enough to smell the perfume of Bridget Bardot or Raquel Welch. In the three hours it took us to go from London to Reading, the Jet Set would be in Barcelona. Air travel was exciting, exclusive and took you to exotic places in faraway lands that were a world away from Skegness or Torquay.
But there’s nothing exciting about it now.
Undoubtedly the worst experience is passing through security. The only relief from the dreaded expectation that I will be caught with something embarrassing is to hope that the teenybopper in front of me has innumerable body piercings in sensitive places that will set off all the alarms in the scanner thus letting me through unnoticed. But the reality is that after I have waited in an interminable queue and half undressed myself, I am confronted by the security staff. These are people who don’t have the intelligence to become prison officers.
Should I question why it is not possible to take my packet of Spangles on to a plane they will reply “It’s for your own security.” Should I feel bold enough to question this dubious statement (thereby risking arrest), I get told “its Civil/Federal Aviation rules.” If I ask to see the rules (thereby risking a full personal cavity search after arrest), and I will be told to go to the back of the queue and wait for Customer Services to speak to me whilst I miss my plane.
It’s not as if there is any consistency in the rules anyway. Different airports have different ‘rules’. In Ecuador it’s OK to travel with bottles of alcohol and water. In Peru, water is allowed but Gin was confiscated. In Australia water was allowed everywhere except Perth where we also had our Marmite stolen. This provoked one of those conversations that cannot be won:
“You can’t take this through,” says Matilda, holding aloft a small jar of Marmite like a trophy.
“It’s over 100ml.”
“How do you know that?”
“It says so on the jar.”
“No, it does not. It says 125gm.”
“Grammes and milliliters, they’re all the same thing.”
“No they are not. One is a measure of volume and the other a measure of weight. 100ml of Mercury would weigh more than 100gms.”
“Don’t get technical with me sonny, its going in the bin.” And with that, she tossed the Marmite into the garbage whereupon it broke, thereby rendering any further conversation pointless. The triumphant look on her face told how much she had enjoyed our short debate.
Having escaped the dreaded security, it is imperative to hurry up and wait at the departure gate. This is usually a fairly civilized affair unless I happen to be travelling on a budget airline that doesn’t allocate seats (yup, even I have embraced ‘shabby chic’). Everyone wants to be one of the first on the plane and able to grab a seat of choice. At the slightest movement of one of the airline staff, everyone jumps up, pushing and jostling like a bunch of Chinese. Etiquette and social niceties are thrown aside as I become intimately acquainted with the personal perfume of those pressing against me on all sides. On one occasion, an Easyjet person stood up and said “Right. We are going to start boarding in a minute and I want you all to come forward slowly and calmly. I don’t want to get killed in the rush!”
Idiot! It is his own airline’s policy that has created the problem and we all ran over the top of him in protest.
At last I am on the plane and, if I am lucky enough to be in Business Class, able to tuck into an indifferent meal using metal knives and forks and cut glass tableware. But a word of warning: never take rows one and two because the overhead lockers are full of staff bags that are more important than your own. You will find that some helpful airgurl will, with a smile, place your hand baggage in an overhead locker some 15 rows behind you. Then, when you land, you will have to wait whilst 400 people move past you before it is possible to retrieve your bags. I have found that the answer to this problem is to remove the staff bags from my overhead locker and place them on the floor whilst I stow away my stuff. It’s an excellent way to witness several trolley-dolleys moving faster than Usain Bolt! It’s also a guarantee of dreadful service but, hey, what’s new there?
The revolution in air travel has shrunk the world, reduced our prejudices, diminished the barriers between all of us and no one would seriously argue that it hasn’t enriched our lives. As air travel has become more affordable, what was once the preserve of the wealthy has now embraced the Proletariat allowing the likes of myself the freedom to roam the planet and upset the locals (or in some cases, infect the locals). But like all revolutions, once the hype and the excitement dies down, living with the everyday consequences can feel like we’ve jumped from one prison to another, enslaved by different rules enthusiastically enforced by the newly ‘enlightened’ workers who have more rights than us customers. What was once a pleasure is now a burden.