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Doing the Airport Shuffle

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).