Has air travel gotten better? Or did it simply get so bad after 9/11 that any improvement feels like a reprieve, sort of the way someone being interrogated by a dark ops team feels when the water boarding stops?
I confess I got very cranky in airports in those dismal days when TSA screening was new and the fear level was high. Every time I languished in an interminable security line having to strip down, open up bags and watch grannies and little kids get groped in random, idiotic searches, I seethed inside – angry that a gaggle of lunatic, homicidal religious zealots had forced Americans to enter these rights-free zones where one poorly conceived joke could get a person kicked off a flight and put into detention for questioning.
The whole enterprise seemed so un-American and unnecessarily uncomfortable. On one trip, my wife was pulled aside for a thorough search, apparently because of her soccer-mom similarity to a grim-hearted jihadist. Waiting, I sat down next to a TSA security officer who was on a break. He was an ex-military guy. Sweeping his arm to take in the entire scene of bedraggled travelers and harried screeners, he said, “You know what? This is doing nothing. I could tell you a dozen ways to get bad stuff through this, undetected. This is all just for show.”
A show? That confirmed my suspicions and made me even crankier. But, in recent years, the show has gotten better. Putting enough TSA staff on the job has made security lines move fairly quickly. The addition of a pre-screened line where people don’t have to pull out laptops or take off shoes, belts and jackets is a definite plus. I’m not entirely clear how I get chosen for that line, but I usually do (Thanks, NSA, for surveilling me!)
The better airports, too, have gotten less utilitarian over the past decade (time to get with the program, LAX!). Once past streamlined security, travelers often find themselves launched into a food court and shopping mall. The airlines may have gotten skimpy with meals, but that matters less when a person can prepare for the flight sitting in a airport sports bar eating curly fries with a craft beer or picking up some chopsticks and bourbon-basted chicken with Chinese noodles at an Asian eatery or finding a fix at Starbucks.
Sure, the glory days of flying that a few of us still remember are long gone. No more free meals on the plane, except in first class. No more free baggage checking and no more gobs of fluids in our carry-on bags. No more running through airports to catch a flight without a security line barring your way. No more flights that aren’t jammed like cattle cars. And, of course, no more cute jokes about bombs while the guys and gals in blue have you in their sights.
It’s OK, though. We have adapted and compromised and cut a deal with the new regime. We have agreed to remain stoic and calm when our privacy is violated. We have learned to plan better, pack our own lunch, pay a little more for this and that and keep our lotions in 3-ounce containers. In return, the TSA has gotten smarter about screening, the airports have invited us to shop, eat and drink and the airlines have given back the opportunity to keep our iPads in operation during takeoff and landing so that we can keep ourselves distracted from the kid kicking the back of our seat.
Maybe it’s not the friendly skies of old, but at least it’s no longer the infernal skies we flew 10 years ago.