I’ve just returned from a meeting of the free-market Mont Pelerin Society in Morocco, the first time this laissez-faire group has met in the Arab world. The meeting itself was fascinating, and I’ll have more to say about that. But for the moment, a comment on the trip home, which left me yearning — not for the first time — for more private sector ingenuity not only in foreign lands, but at American airports.
I can remember a time when going to the airport was enjoyable. Incredible as it now seems, I used to look forward to it. Arriving at the airport was a prelude to adventure, or a welcoming portal for returning home. You often had to wait in lines, but you were not required to surrender an inordinate measure of human dignity. There wasn’t all that much reason to wonder if someone had mistaken you and your fellow travelers for a herd of cattle. These days, it’s all too common to exit the airport feeling like you’ve just escaped from the chain gang.
The specific airport I went through on this trip was New York’s JFK, though it would be unfair to focus solely on JFK when much the same goes on at every major U.S. airport I’m familiar with. In this instance, I got lucky on the immigration line, which for U.S. citizens, though not for hapless foreigners, was mercifully short. But I was foolish enough to require a connecting flight. For that, in the perpetual hodge-podge-cum-construction-site that is Kennedy Airport, it is necessary to exit one terminal and go through security clearance in another. Apparently it is a matter of continuing surprise to the Transportation Security Administration that airplane passengers turn up in the numbers they do; either that, or the TSA calculates cost-efficiency with a lot more regard for its own convenience than that of the folks who spend millions of man hours every year juggling their carry-on luggage in its lines.
Note — I’m not protesting the wholesale imposition of security checks, though many good articles have been written by now on how the TSA might better spend its resources zeroing in on the likeliest threats, and less on frisking pre-teens and great-grandmothers. I’m simply wondering if, given the TSA’s general approach to security, there might be ways to make it less absurdly onerous for the passengers the federal government is presumably trying to serve.
Clearing security in this instance meant joining a queue that stretched the length of the terminal’s main hall, and then inching along to the place where tickets and identification were checked. There, the real line began — with the preliminary line feeding into one of those zig-zag rope corrals in which you become part of a big rectangle packed solidly with humanity, shuffling first one direction, then reversing course, winding toward the actual security check.
After 45 minutes of that, you finally arrive at the tubs. Those would be the grimy plastic tubs, stacked in somewhat random locations near the x-ray machine conveyor belt, which you are expected to pry loose, align on the belt, fill with your belongings and steer into the x-ray machine — while moving along at a reasonable clip (on this occasion, someone’s carry-on bag jammed at the entrance to the x-ray; the passenger had already walked through the checkpoint, and it took a while for the nearest, yawning security official to notice and stroll over to clear the conveyor belt).
Somehow, in a country whose creative geniuses produced the airplane, the computer, the iPad, text-messaging and the ergonomic miracle of the Nike sneaker, the federal transportation authorities have yet to come up with anything better than those stacks of tubs. There is no provision for the rapid striptease acts which passengers are required to perform upon reaching the tubs. No chairs on which to sit while removing your shoes, no good place to unzip your bag and remove a laptop (having been required to consolidate all carry-on in order to enter the security line in the first place). One after another, with the queue bearing down from behind, the passengers hop around, pulling off shoes, unbuckling belts, emptying pockets, unzipping bags, re-zipping bags, diving across each other to procure yet another tub, while trying simultaneously to hang onto the ticket (for which most airlines have stopped providing ticket jackets) and identification that must be hand-carried through.
Is there really no better way? I’m no ergonomic expert. But every time I go through this routine, I wonder if the authorities couldn’t actually speed up these lines, and allow for a trace of dignity as well, by making some routine provision for the entirely predictable, awkard and time-consuming hopping, unzipping and fumbling with tubs and tickets. Where DO our authorities expect you to put your ticket while you are using both hands to pack your accessories into plastic tubs? Amid all the motion experts of America, versed in developing ever sleeker bicycles, phones and tennis rackets, can no one be found to improve on the hop-and-tub routines of the TSA? As for the queues, if there isn’t the manpower to handle peak hours without a wait, would it not be possible to knock out at least the initial half hour of Soviet-style shuffling by letting people simply take a number — and approach the altar of the actual security check a mere 10 or 15 minutes before their turn, rather than waiting in line for 45 minutes? That approach works awfully well in private-sector delicatessens (where there tends to be a lot more concern for the convenience of the customer).
Small stuff, perhaps, compared to the larger questions of how best to actually provide security. Were there genuinely good reasons for shuffling and hopping through these interminable airport lines, or even some sign that federal authorities are trying hard to provide the kind of courtesy routine among deli owners selling salami, it might be ungrateful to protest. But it is a dismal feeling to arrive home in America, land of the free, and, as required offering for onward domestic passage, be shunted straight into the world of the sheep.