The frustrating dance of flying domestically

Last updated 08:48 29/11/2011

Domestic American air travel is one domain of life where I think that a liberal use of the phrase "post-9/11" is still acceptable.

On my way west for Thanksgiving, I rose at 4.15am after three hours' sleep and over the next 12 hours made a voyage across America: Boston to Washington DC, Washington DC to Denver, Denver to Sacramento.

It wasn't so bad. I was worried about coming face to face with a gruelling run of holiday travel horrors. Instead it was the usual encounter with the odd pantomime of domestic American air travel.

Flying back I had the similar inconvenience of two layovers in a trip spread over 11 hours: Sacramento to Los Angeles, Los Angeles to Phoenix, Phoenix to Boston.

Layovers are a huge drag. They stretch the trip out painfully. They do, however, make you very engaged with the act of flying.

There are three lessons that flying across America and back several times has taught me.

Pre-flight security is never not a drag

Airport1

I first have to go to the first security guard, who makes sure I'm in the right line. The second guy runs a fluorescent light over my passport and scribbles some code on my boarding pass. I never know what this code means. Is it ominous? To prepare for security, I have to take off my shoes, belt, coat and hoodie. I take my laptop out of its case and empty my pockets. I put these all in the little plastic trays and get in line. When I'm through the other side of the scanner the trays are now coming out faster than I can process putting clothes back on and getting things away. As usual, there's some officious man in uniform hurrying the line along. This always ends the same way, with me in a fluster carrying my bags, coats, shoes, laptop and belt trying to keep my pants up as I try to find a place to keep it together.

Going through security in Washington DC I was stopped for having an oversized tube of toothpaste in my bag. The security man asked me if I wanted to send it back to myself, and looked at me suspiciously (like it was obviously a small, toothpaste sized bomb) when I told him I was in a hurry to make my connection and he could throw it out.

I did not have to go through the full body scanner while travelling this past week. I've been through it before, and I don't have a problem with it. I know that on the other side of the wall someone is scouring my naked frame for any sign of explosives, but I can't see that person and view them wince and laugh at me and can pretend that they're not there.

I also like to keep in mind that their job requires them having to involuntarily stare at me naked.

Lesson 2: American baggage fees have had ridiculous side effects

Airport2On almost every airline now, bar Southwest, you pay $25 or so for every bag you would like to check.

This was done so that airlines could squeeze a little more revenue in a difficult economic climate out of customers prepared to foot this cost, but it has created a monster. People take their full suitcases on the planes now. The one personal item and one piece carry-on baggage rule has been bent so far as to be completely broken. As we all entered the planes yesterday, we walked right past the carry on baggage guidelines and I'm not sure if one in 10 of the people would've been compliant with the rules. I had a full backpack and a duffel bag.

Hat tip: offer to have your bag checked in free when you're at the gate. Inevitably when you are waiting at the gate panicked air-hostesses will be making overhead announcements about how full the flight is and encouraging passengers to be thoughtful and conscientious with your bags.

So, you walk on the plane and people are now stuffing small-to-medium sized suitcases in the overhead bin. This creates a huge backlog as people board. And often when about two-thirds of the plane has boarded there's no space left in the bins anyway, and everyone who has been trying unsuccessfully to fit their bag into a space that never would have worked has to go to the front of the plane and have their bags checked in free anyway. This sluggish, redundant process continues when the plane lands. De-boarding slows to a crawl as everyone painstakingly tries to remove their coffins from the overhead bin and not decapitate their co-passengers.

All American airports are more or less replicas of each other

Airport3

On my trip, I was in Denver, Washington DC, Los Angeles and Phoenix. On previous layovers I've been through Chicago, Minneapolis and Dallas.

Airports, though, are divorced from the geography of the town they represent. Geography will show through in only two areas in the airport: the hoodies they sell in the gift shop will be emblazoned with the name of the city, and there will be a large range of city-specific knick-knacks. A stand selling "Don't Mess with Texas" lighters and T-shirts is about the only thing that really sets Dallas airport apart from Denver, which opts for small soft toys representing the mascots of each of its famous sports teams. Denver, however, was the first airport in America I've ever seen that did not have a Starbucks.

Airport decor and layouts in America are identical. They'll have the flat escalators that you can use instead of walking, with pockets of gates cut up by clusters of shops and fast food. There will be a recurring pattern of three or four fast-food chains (Pizza Hut Express is huge in airports), a magazine stand and an overpriced café selling bad food while trying too hard to set itself apart as "classier" than the rest.   

Did any of you American readers travel for the holidays? How did it go? 

And who's experienced the beast of American air travel? How do you find it?

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23 comments
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Rick   #1   09:18 am Nov 29 2011

I have simply written off the USA as a destination since the post 9/11 security was introduced.

No other country finds it necessary to have such offensively invasive measures and I am simply not prepared to tolerate them.

This is a shame as I have family in California, but we get around it by meeting in NZ or Canada. I also have family in Canada and they won't even visit NYC anymore - something they used to do quite often.

My brother in California actually drove to Miami last year because he finds flying in the USA such a PITA!

bjammin   #2   09:24 am Nov 29 2011

I've travelled domestically throught the states in 2001 (just before 9/11) and in 2005. Both times it wasn't actually too bad: considering the volumes of often grumpy and stressed people, and the number of procedures and regulations they have to follow, the US government and airport staff actually do a pretty good job. The simple fact is, America aircraft have been, and will be, targets for terrorism, and they simply have to do what they do, even though it may not be enough one day. Just do what you are told, keep moving, and don't aggravate the people in uniforms. The US Immigration system is NOT something you want to disappear into.

But James is right about the carry-on luggage situation. Even before the $25 charge, Americans habitually tried to skirt the check-in rules, and bring HUGE amounts of stuff with them on the flight. If those bins popped open in utrbulence, there'd be a bag avalanche.

AdamR   #3   09:28 am Nov 29 2011

I'm from Wellington but I've done lots of domestic travel in the USA for business - am up there 3 or 4 times a year - and contrary to the bad rep the TSA have, I've always found them courteous, friendly and efficient. As for the security dance and struggling to get everything back together afterwards - at least in USA airports there are little benches/tables straight after the security station where you can dump your stuff and re-assemble everything... in Auckland they don't even have that!

MJ   #4   09:36 am Nov 29 2011

I travelled from Auckland - LA - Chicago - Indianapolis 3 months after 9/11 - as a 16 year old girl travelling alone.

And it was just after the guy with the bomb in his shoes...

My ticket beeped a warning for extra security checks at EVERY check in counter. My shoes were swabbed, my bags were swabbed...

By the time I got on the flight to Indianapolis I had been travelling for 30 hours, had barely spoken a word to anyone, and was almost hysterical.

Yuk!!!

S   #5   09:47 am Nov 29 2011

My first US domestic travel experience (pre 9/11) involved chewing gum on my seat, inedible food on a 5 hour flight, lost luggage, and a lot of people begging in and around the airport. I can only assume it's gotten worse since then.

kiwi in cal   #6   09:47 am Nov 29 2011

dude, you crisscrossed the country on 6 separate legs on the busiest travel period of the year, and you did not miss a flight, nothing was cancelled...and the only grief you encountered was the typical problems of domestic airtravel. and no shortage of people watching. plus the weather in cal was excellent.

i'd call that a successful trip.

Jesse   #7   09:53 am Nov 29 2011

I spent most of last year in the States, and despite it supposedly being the land of the free, I have never felt more like cattle than when traversing its airports, railways, major tourist attractions. American people are fantastic - friendly and engaging, but american officialdom in my experience is petty, paranoid and totally uninterested in the dignity of the person. The disconnect (to use the american use of the word) between the culture at large and the governmental culture seems a bit inexplicable.

For example it is quite a bracing contrast to be in an incredibly strong culture of the individual one moment, to then be marshaled into a strict and tortuous queuing pattern where one momentary step out of line earns you a scolding reprimand from the official who's fiefdom you have so insolently compromised.

Making fun of surreal airport security signs is also not encouraged.

Kate   #8   10:03 am Nov 29 2011

The scanner checks would be easy if the other passengers thought about it in advance - how hard is it to wear slip on shoes, pants without belts & keep all your miscellaneous junk in your briefcase/bag/purse? And you KNOW they're going to ask you to take off your jacket, why not do it before you get to them?? The queues can be ridiculously long in US airports - Atlanta had a good system earlier this year where they had a sign indicating which gate had the shortest wait time - which of course means they all even out; in Seattle we were in a 30 minute line & our travelling companions were in a 2 minute line.

Joanna   #9   10:21 am Nov 29 2011

Yep, that about sums up my domestic American flying over the last four years (I live in New Zealand but go over every year). The description of the airports and merchandise had me smiling (I've been to both Denver and Dallas - I love the little inter-terminal tram in Dallas). Always, always gate check if there's a crowd. I have to go over again next month, and all internal flights will be with Southwest. Their boarding arrangements are somewhat unorthodox, but two free bags and comfy seats? Yes please.

ChicagoanInWelly   #10   10:56 am Nov 29 2011

HA! Flying is one of the few things I do NOT miss about America...

But even the pit of despair known as LAX doesn't come close to matching the sheer wretchedness of the seventh level of hell known as Heathrow.


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