Sunday, August 17, 2008

Threat Advisory: Red (Severe)

Today's travel advisory level is at "Red" or the severe level.

Before you hurry to the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) web site and see what terrorist threat caused the elevation, calm down because this is my threat advisory and it measures how severely the government has impacted my ability to travel.

It took me over an hour to understand - not completely - what I could and could not bring on my upcoming airplane trip, how I needed to dress, what clothing I would be required to take off at the so-called security checkpoint, even what kind of laptop battery I could bring and by what means I could bring it with me. If you're planning an upcoming trip by airplane, please do check out the US Transportation Security Administration's (TSA) web site first. Seriously, if you don't you may be either abruptly finding yourself unable to travel or discarding a valuable possession. It is absolutely insane.

The DHS/TSA is a horrific example of paranoia resulting from real threats to US security. While every security precaution (and that is a truly conservative description) has its basis in real, factual security issues during air travel, the response is excessive. The fact is that any kind of transportation is not 100% safe at any time. There is no way to prevent someone with the intent on causing harm through the transportation system from doing so. The methodology employed by the TSA causes every citizen in the United States to be treated as though they are a criminal. While this may cause some people to have a feeling of safety during air travel, in reality it is only causing the people who really wish to do harm an inconvenience. The TSA's rules also encourage people who are less-than-stable to accept the dare that they cannot bring something aboard an airplane to cause harm. These procedures make people feel that it is OK to be searched, restricted, and otherwise inconvenienced in the name of some governmentally-conceived paranoid delusion. If a citizen were to act like the government in this regard, they would be considered mentally ill.

So what was it that caused me to get as irritated and frustrated as I am? (Glad you asked) Here's a partial list of things I would like to bring with me when I visit my parents:
  1. My laptop & an extra battery -- My laptop keeps me connected to the world, and gives me something to do on the 6+ hours I'll be spending in an airplane or in the airport.
  2. Nasal spray, pseudoephedrine-based decongestant, lemon drops -- If it isn't already obvious from the description, my sinuses tend to get congested and that can be painful (or worse) when the pressure in the airplane changes. These over-the-counter medications are what helps prevent problems for me.
  3. Nasal CPAP -- This is an air pump and mask that is needed for people with sleep apnea, like myself. It's a small box about 2/3rds the size of a shoe box with a hose and mask.
  4. USB TV Tuner and antenna -- My parents and I have been talking about this and I want to show them what it is.
  5. Daily medicine -- A prescription to address a chronic condition
Here are the lessons I learned during my trip to the TSA's web site:
  1. You can bring knitting needles on the airplane, scissors with sharp points and blades shorter than 4 inches, corkscrews, and a screwdriver 7 inches or less. An antenna for a USB TV tuner? Who knows? Probably not.
  2. In carry-on luggage: Two fueled common lighters, but not a tube of toothpaste if it is more than 3 oz..
  3. I'm supposed to keep all my valuables in carry-on baggage, but trying to bring a CPAP, laptop, camera, etc. with me in carry-on baggage would prevent me from boarding (too large).
  4. I can take a spare laptop battery on board the airplane (as long as it's capacity is 100 WH or less), but I cannot put it in my checked baggage.
  5. What liquids I can take on-board (like my nasal spray - it is less than 3 oz.), I must be able to fit in a single 1 quart zip-top bag. Not a gallon bag. Not a sandwich bag. A 1 quart bag...and only one 1 quart bag. I suspect that they will, indeed, allow a zip-top sandwich bag (hopefully, anyway) because I simply don't have more than that much liquid stuff to bring on board and can't see buying a box of 1 quart bags for the single bag for this trip.
  6. If I refuse to take off my shoes during the required interrogation and search process, I will be denied boarding on the airplane. Also, it seems that shoes with laces cause undue delay at the security checkpoint. Why not just require us to walk around the airport in our socks and pack our shoes?
  7. I'm not even sure what they'll do with the pseudoephedrine-based decongestant, given the panic about it being used to create meth.
I struggle with taking an airplane every time I decide to travel. On the one hand, air travel is far faster and generally more convenient than trying to drive everywhere. On the other hand, trying to make my relatively simple belongings acceptable to the fascist government inspectors and hoping my stuff will get there and in one piece is nerve-wracking. I know there are a lot of people who fly every day, and who have accepted this as normal. There are also people who accept prison life as normal. This isn't normal.

If there's any positive spin I can put on this experience it's this: To put up with the crap necessary to fly on an airplane to visit my parents (and for them to visit me) it does mean that my parents and I get along pretty darn well, and we do care about each other. I know far too many adults who dread any contact with their parents.

To the federal agencies who are responsible for our safety: I understand you are trying to protect me and make air travel safe. I not only know because you tell me on the airport loudspeaker every 10 minutes, but I know because you are people who probably do care about other people. Please, though, realize that like everything in life, getting on an airplane to travel is not without risks. There are simple things that can be done to reasonably reduce risk, but going to extremes isn't the answer to make it even less risky. At one point you need to just trust that everything will be OK. I'm sure you can think of ways of making the most innocent of items that are currently allowed on an airplane into a deadly weapon. Do you really think that our adversaries haven't thought of the same thing? How far do we need to go -- how many freedoms do we need to surrender -- to feel safe when going to visit our parents?

1 comment:

JC said...

Welcome to my world! I fly between 2 - 6 times a week sometimes, and if I didn't already hate most of humanity when I show up at the airport, I certainly do by the time I leave it.

It is incredibly frustrating, and for those of us who are professional travelers, it puts a serious dent in me getting my job done. Having to make sure my tiny little perfume, lipstick, and other liquid samples are in The One Quart Bag, having to take my laptop out of it's case and put it in a bin (which bangs it up), remove my shoes, jacket, and anything else that makes me an instant suspect, then jamming the whole mess back from whence it came at the other end of the belt (after the inevitable re-inspection of at least one of my bags) just WEARS ME OUT.

I get it, safety blah blah, but it's like saying prohibition worked. It just made those bent on drinking more serious about it.