Special Report

Air Travel: Truce With Irrationality

London to Boston isn't what it used to be.

By 4.30.09

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When you travel from London to Boston by air, as I did recently -- during which ordeal I was forced to dump my precious, unopened bottle of wine in a trash bin, and engaged in a childish confrontation in midflight with a middle-aged woman flying with a brood of unruly kids -- you expect to find relief at your destination and a chance to begin to recover from one of the least enjoyable experiences progress has imposed on humanity.

Not a chance in hell -- the customs regime at Logan has other plans for you. In the name of "homeland security," the well-fed customs agents ensure that the humiliation and discomfort you've endured the last seven hours last a little bit longer. You stand aside, hands clutching your travel papers, as you watch the contrived drama of your bags being ransacked by bulky, uniformed men and women in gloves looking for things you know very well they'll never find.

This ritual can take forever, depending on what the customs agents read on your face as you leave the luggage carousel. The process would be comical it weren't so painful. To cope, travelers must adopt a certain posture suited to their personality. If you're a wimp, you pretend to enjoy the show -- you put on fake smiles and answer all those inane questions from these overworked peons, for whom the cost of your plane ticket amounts to more than their monthly salary, hoping to hasten along the pointless process.

For the rest of us, we create our own show: I try to imagine how the agents would look if they lived in a country without cars and fast-food restaurants; I rearrange the women's hair, adorn them with ear rings or remove them, scrape their makeup, trim their hips. While the agents search through my dirty underwear, my mind is elsewhere creating its own fantasies and keeping my focus off all those useless souvenirs I bought for other people at exorbitant prices on another continent.

After going through customs in Boston several times, I've begun to take the agents' treatment as a personal affront. How could you not? In my most recent encounter, every piece of paper and mail in my bags was examined. Mysterious notes in my electronic travel record were perused and added to. While other travelers seemed to breeze through customs, I was kept waiting for an eternity. No question seemed out of bounds. In what's supposed to be a free society, shouldn't certain inquiries about a person's travels be illegal? Has air travel come to mean relinquishing one's privacy?

Having rummaged through my bags and found nothing illegal, the exhausted woman had one last prurient inquiry to get out of her system. Before releasing the bags to me -- with the mess inside left to my companion and me to put in order -- she affected a friendly tone, picked up a souvenir given to me as a gift by my mother, and asked, "What's this?" In no mood to chat, I said, "It's a decorative gourd," and set about to repack my bags.

I'm not an anarchist. I have never participated in street political protests. I don't give money to radical groups. I'm not affiliated with any political party. I'm as ordinary an air traveler as you would expect to find in the economy cabin of an intercontinental flight. I'm the last person you would expect to find on a government's travel-watch list. But some of the questions and comments from the Boston customs agents have made me wonder whether my name is on any such list. This scrutiny has also now made me more curious about what's in my travel dossier.

Maybe I shouldn't bother to ask to see a copy. Some members of my family think my troubles might have something to do with things as mundane as my attitude (unable to take abuse lying down); the way I look (tall, dark-skinned and bearded); the way I sound (a pedantic inclination to speak in long, complete, grammatically correct English sentences); and the region I frequently visit abroad (the Horn of Africa). They suggest that my confrontational nature may spark in law enforcers a gratuitous urge to punish me. 

Anybody with enough courage to fly these days must reach a truce with such irrationality. Common sense is on an indefinite leave. Almost every traveler is a suspect, and every traveler is tense. Men and women with the misfortune of being burdened with the responsibility of providing security find themselves enforcing rules that even they themselves find absurd. My wine posed no threat to anyone, and yet there it went, into a garbage can at Heathrow.

With those long lines, the silly rules about what not to carry on board an airplane and the claustrophobia in jets with leg room that makes the traveler pine for the ample space in a metro bus, no wonder everyone is on edge. In ordinary times, the British man in the seat next to mine watching DVDs of "Yes, Prime Minister" might have thought twice before stepping on the arm rest of my seat to pass over me on his way to the lavatory. And the woman with her unruly brood might have been more considerate and forgiven my minor indiscretion with my blanket, which had fallen onto the aisle, becoming a safety hazard. But these are not ordinary times.

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About the Author

Henry Gekonde is a writer living in New Hampshire.