Airport Security [en]

[fr] Je déteste les procédures de sécurité dans les aéroports. Devoir enlever ses chaussures systématiquement, déjà, en signe d'humilité et de respect devant la "sécurité de la nation" (les responsables qui se couvrent en cas d'incident, plutôt), et maintenant, être en mesure de prouver durant 15 secondes que l'on ne prend à bord "qu'un seul sac". Encore un traumatisme de voyage pour moi, super.

I officially hate going through airport security.

It’s bad enough to have to submit to random searches, and go through metal detectors which will beep regularly depending on what jewellery or shoes you’re wearing. Actually, the shoes issue is solved now in many airports by demanding that passengers remove their shoes and walk through the detectors in socks or barefoot.

I personally find this rather degrading. Think of it. As far as I know, removing one’s shoes is a sign of submission, respect or humility before a figure of power, most of the time in some way religious or spiritual. Think temples, kings, and washing others’ feet.

So now, we are forced to walk “barefooted” through the holy ground of airport security, and submit to procedures which, if you think of it honestly, are probably there more to ensure that certain arses are covered in case of a security incident. When metal detectors beep and bags are searched day after day, and all these are “false alarms”, surely the efficiency of the security screening process suffers. Imagine an anti-virus program which generates many false alerts everyday — inevitably, you’re going to pay less attention to them.

Anyway. I’d more or less started to get used to removing my laptop from my bag, sealing my liquids in a transparent bag, taking off shoes and bracelet and patiently let people wave metal rods around me or open my bags.

I’m about to climb on my 11th plane since the end of September (lots of bad connections, I’ll admit, but still — I’ve been through security a bit). Here in London Heathrow, I have just discovered yet another feature of the security screening process: “one bag only”. As far as I can remember, cabin luggage has always been “one bag only”, and it meant that women could still carry their handbag in addition to that. Unfair, yeah, poor guys, but that’s how it was. And indeed, I’ve never had a problem with that before today.

So, freshly off my totally uneventful British Airways flight from San Francisco to Heathrow (thanks partly to melatonin-induced slumber), I was following the connecting flights signs when I was stopped by a first security barrier. As an aside, it always kind of amazes me that you have to go through security multiple times when you have connecting flights. I assume this means that airports do not trust security staff in other countries to conduct security screening properly.

Anyway, this was “one bag only” pre-screening. I had my new Hello Kitty laptop bag, crammed with stuff like clothes to sleep in on the plane (really worth it), and my (equally new and Hello Kitty) handbag with the usual random stuff I carry with me everywhere (including laptop, camera, sunglasses, notebook, purse, phone, etc… — I put all the cables in my check-in luggage, for those who were thinking about asking). The security guy stopped me, and rather harshly told me that it was one bag only, to which I pointed out that one of them was my handbag. The line was repeated, with a little extra information: “One bag only, so unless you can make them into one bag, you can’t come through.”

Great. I couldn’t make them into one bag, I told — and showed — him. “Then you have to go through passport control, find your airline, go through check-in.”

That sounded weird. My first thought was that this was some kind of express security passage, but I had a sneaking doubt the idea behind that option was to make me check in one of my bags. I queued at passport control, on the verge of tears (I’m starting to realise travelling is a perfectly dreadful and stressful experience, and really need to find a way to not end up in tears each time I travel at the point where obstacles start showing up.)

I told the immigration guy I wasn’t really sure why I had been sent this way and what I should do, and he told me that indeed, if I went out this way it would be to check one of my bags in. When I told him I couldn’t (neither of my bags were fit for it), he basically said it wasn’t his problem, that he could show me where to go to check one of my bags in, that he refused to argue with me, and that I could go back to argue with the security guys instead. Well, guess what, that was just what I needed to hear to take from fighting tears to giving in to them. I tried to tell him I didn’t want to argue, I just wanted to know who I could talk to. He stuck to his script, and told me to go and argue with security again.

I was stuck, and what I needed just there was somebody I could talk with to try to figure out a solution, and who wouldn’t just spew out script lines at me. Immigration on the left, security on the right, and they had both proved equally unfriendly and drone-like in that respect.

Back to security anyway, I picked another guy than the one I had dealt with to start with, and was lucky (or maybe I was just crying enough by that time). Anyway, this one was nice, stepped out of the line, listened to me, took matters into his own hands by throwing out my empty water bottles, removing my laptop from the bag (I could carry it by hand), and squashing my poor handbag into my bigger Hello Kitty bag, which almost needed to be sat on to be shut. Great, I had one bag.

I thanked him, walked straight through that first bit of pre-security without anybody even looking at me, got into the longer line for the proper security screening, and promptly separated my too bags again — I was afraid my laptop bag would explode and my more delicate stuff would be crushed.

Nobody asked me to “make them into one bag” to screen them. Basically, I went through all that to prove during 15 seconds that my two bags could pass for one.

I just feel totally disgusted by all this. Next time I’ll carry a strap so I can strap my two bags together to “make one bag” instead of squashing them.

Lausanne to Portland [en]

[fr] Récit de mon voyage de Lausanne à Portland, avec des hauts et des bas.

My trip was “interesting”. I got up at 5am, said bye to the cat, and took the bus. I had a really lucky connection (reminded me of the Knight Bus in Harry Potter). Then, another nice surprise at check-in: the longest leg of my journey (London to Seattle) was upgraded to business class. (Don’t ask me how I did it — I didn’t do anything. The flight was full, and then by a combination of a lottery and maybe other things like being a woman travelling alone, I was the lucky one.) Unfortunately, my flight from Seattle to Portland couldn’t be checked in there, as I was flying with a different carrier (Alaska Airlines) which was not associated to British Airways in any way.

There was no queue at passport control. I was in so early that there was no gate indicated for my flight. I did a bit of duty-free window shopping and worked hard at drinking down the huge bottle of water I had bought at the station.

I was copying down my hotel addresses when I discovered that I had left my flight itinerary (with hotel reservation details) at the check-in desk. The guy at the customer desk was incapable of reaching them, so I had little choice but to go back out and come back in again. There were two hours to my flight, so I had plenty of time.

I got my papers back without any trouble, and headed back to passport control. Gasp! the queue was stretching all the way through the shopping area, nearly to the top of the escalator. I queued patiently, calmed down after an initial panicky reaction by the fact the queue was moving along quite fast. I even got back inside shortly before the gate for my flight appeared on the board and I could start queuing for security.

I’m starting to find the way security checks are managed in various airports interesting. For example, I wasn’t asked to remove my boots in Geneva, but I was in London and Seattle. (In Geneva, however, I learnt that my solid silver bracelet was a beeper — now I know to take it off.) I’ve also learnt (after having to empty half my bag in Lisbon) to remove my laptop from my bag straight away (camera and hard drive can stay inside, though).

I had liquids with me this time, but there was no problem at all with them. I had made certain the bottles were 100ml or less, and had packed them neatly into one of the transparent plastic bags provided by the airport. I also had medicines packed separately in my bag, also in a plastic bag, just to be safe. In Seattle, however, this small “medicine-bag” triggered a minor security alert. “Is this your bag? I’m going to have to open it — don’t touch it!” But it was quickly behind.

Upon arriving in Seattle, I was surprised that they X-rayed (and sometimes dug through) incoming luggage.

But I digress. Back to the flight. I made a rather painful mistake on the Geneva-Heathrow leg of my journey. After sitting down in the plane and getting organised (book, iPod, starting to know the drill) I realised I needed to go to the loo. Remember that big bottle I had bought at the station? Well, I managed to finish it (with difficulty) before going through security. 1.5 litres. And twice 500ml of lassi-yoghurty stuff which was part of my breakfast.

The other passengers had more or less settled down, but the whole take-off process hadn’t started. As is always the case, the fasten seat-belts sign was on, and I decided I could wait until after take-off and the light went off.

That was the big mistake.

It took a while for us to take off, first. And then, the weather was pretty rough, and it took the pilot and excruciatingly long time to decide it was safe for us to get up and walk around. I think this was one of the worst “gotta pee” episodes in my whole life. I mean, it was really really bad before taking off. So imagine: plane take-off, bumpy ride, and rather quick worsening (if it could get any worse) of the situation, given how fast I had forced myself to drink all that water.

I really thought I was going to have to get up despite the seat-belt light. However, I held on, and the moment the light went off (I’d been staring at it for about 20 minutes) I was out of my seat and trying to negotiate getting past the trolley without having to squeeze between it and a seat (no squeezing, no).

The rest of the flight was uneventful, as was the transfer in Heathrow (I tried going to the Business Class lounge, as the connecting flights lady had pointed me there, but then learnt that I wasn’t entitled to ground goodies as I had been upgraded — just on-flight goodies.)

Ah, business class. I got a seat facing backwards, straight on the wing, by a window. The seats are huge! You can actually make them go so far back that they lie flat — and there is a footrest for the feet. I had barely arrived on board that I was served a glass of fresh orange juice. Yum!

Food was extraordinary. Smoked salmon, warm bread rolls, excellent salad, delicious fish pie (I chose that over the meat, knowing what the British tend to do with steak). Real butter and real cutlery. This is where I regretted not appreciating wine, as it was included.

I also got noodles, a sandwich, and fruit salad when I popped into the kitchen later on as I was hungry. All very nice. The flight attendant who had to put up with me and my appetite (both for food and water) was really very nice.

Sitting as I was with a view on the wing, I got to see exactly how flexible an aeroplane wing is. It really bends up and down quite a bit, particularly during take-off and if the weather is a bit rough. When flying, it curves upwards quite a bit — it really makes you feel the wing is holding the plane up in the air.

After we took off (late), I asked the flight attendant what our new estimated time of arrival in Seattle would be. I had 1h50 to catch my flight to Portland, and I was a bit concerned that I would miss it. She checked, and told me that I’d probably miss it, but that I shouldn’t run into much trouble over there if I explained what had happened — they would transfer me to a later flight.

I prepared to catch a few hours of sleep, and was just about dozing off when the flight attendant gently woke me up to ask for my Seattle-Portland flight number. She told me they would try and send a message to Seattle that I was going to miss my connection and see if anything could be arranged before my arrival. How thoughtful!

Near the end of the flight, she came to tell me that they had indeed managed to get the message through to Seattle, and that I had been booked on later flight. I had just to approach the British Airways attendant who would be in the customs area and she would give me the details. That’s what I call customer service…

I was one of the first out of the plane, as I figured it wouldn’t do for me to get held up in a long queue at immigration if I was to get my new flight. Immigration was a breeze (and seeing the queues that had built up, I was really glad I’d rushed out of the plane).

Luggage was much longer to arrive, though. I watched two airport employees energetically dump excess luggage off the conveyer belt into rather unorderly piles on the floor. I can assure you that this scene of luggage handling will remain engraved in my mind for all packing sessions to come. You do not want fragile or delicate stuff in your check-in luggage. Ever.

When my case arrived, I grabbed it and headed for the connecting luggage area (with a little detour through luggage-x-ray-and-do-you-have-plants-or-seeds-in-your-bags security check), as per instructions from the BA ground staff. There were roughly 45 minutes left before my flight (6.30pm local time = 3.30am internal-clock time). And this is where — luckily — the baggage handler noted that my luggage had only been checked in up to Seattle. Well, of course! He went to fetch the attendant while I waited, and she tagged it manually before they put it on the conveyor belt and I ran to catch the three different trains which would take me to the correct terminal.

I got there on time, slept all the way through the bumpy flight on a tiny and very empty plane with propellers (woken up by landing — bump!), and walked zombie-like to the baggage claim area. Long, long walk. Astonishingly, the baggage claim area is outside the secured area (so you follow the one-way streets almost all the way out of the airport before getting to your luggage).

Then, I waited. And waited. And waited. And tried not to fall asleep standing up.

And finally, my flight number disappeared from the belt, and my bag still hadn’t turned up. This journey was becoming increasingly challenging, and I was becoming less and less functional as time went by (8.30pm = 5.30am internal-clock time — over 24 hours since I got up, with 2-3 hours of solid sleep and a bit of dozing off in between).

I headed for the lost baggage desk. The lady there was very nice. Very. She filed a report, and before she had finished told me that my luggage was located, and would be coming over later that evening. She took my details to have it delivered to my hotel, and even offered me a toothbrush if I needed it (this is where I was glad I had packed my essentials in my maximum-size cabin luggage).

I managed to ask her how to get to the place I was staying at (my brain was almost at a standstill, and I was starting to have trouble formulating questions and recording answers by that time) and she gave me some indications. On the way to the cab/bus/whatever stand, I walked past the information desk, and asked again. Another very nice lady. She called the hotel for directions, and told me I could take the light train ($2, quite a bit cheaper than the cab).

By then, I’d realised that I’d forgotten all my dollars at home (sorry, Grandma — I’ll go back to the States, promised). Not to worry, the ticket machine takes credit cards, doesn’t it? Well, in theory — but not mine.

I went back to the desk to ask for a cash machine or a place to change money. Uh-oh. Not to be found around here, and particularly not at this time of day. The lady (very nice, remember?) gave me a five-dollar bill to get my ticket.

Unfortunately, the machine refused that too, so I was back at the desk for the third time. She told me the machines were often uncooperative, and I should just take my train and explain if there was a ticket check. Now, all this took a long time, because I was starting to be thicker and thicker and slower and slower. Anyway, I thanked her again, and got on my train. Managed to change at the right station (froze a bit in the cold and rain between trains). More or less slept at times on the second train (not easy with the permanent announcements on the loudspeaker). Half-dazed, explained to the guy who wanted my pass why I didn’t have one. He was quite nice, had a look at my ID (“Sweden!”), asked for some details about how I got here (“How long have you been in the country? 7 hours?!”), didn’t write me a ticket (“Next time… Do get a pass…”). Interesting, these guys looked like policemen, not train employees. Cried a bit once that was over (sheer exhaustion). Got off at the right stop.

No, not over yet! I had instructions: cross this street, and when you reach that street, there it is, and this is what it looks like. Straightforward enough. But when I got off the train, my first concern was: which way do I need to start walking? I walked through the rain to the nearest road, and it wasn’t any of the roads included in my directions. I went off in another direction. No luck either. I must have walked around in the dark and cold for about 20 minutes (even rang a doorbell in desperation, but nobody answered) when I saw the next train coming in. I headed back to the station, hoping maybe somebody would be there (I seemed to have really landed in the middle of nowhere).

Oh joy! two human beings were standing at the bus stop. I walked up to them and asked if they could help me. They couldn’t directly, but the girl’s father was arriving with the car to pick them up, and she asked him. He invited me to climb on board with my stuff, and we drove around for a while until we found the place. It was much nicer to be in a car with nice people who were taking upon themselves to find the place rather than be walking around in circles along with my rolling-bag in the rain.

Finally — finally! — I had reached my destination, checked in, got some food (frozen muffins with stuff inside them to stick in the microwave), free wifi, and a bed. Good thing I flew in a day early to have a chance to settle down a bit!

*Note: my luggage was there the next morning when I woke up. I’ll add links to relevant twitters later on.