Drop Your Pants for America
(Wardrobe malfunctions whilst traveling by air in the USA)
 
 
 


I had the opportunity to travel to the USA in October for two weeks, visiting San Francisco, Chicago, New York City and Washington DC. I was traveling with a group of colleagues and we managed to do some good business and even have some fun. There are however some serious issues to consider when traveling to the USA post 9/11. Air travel is not easy at the best of times with the sheer volume of passengers, the size of the airports and weather issues, but the enhanced security procedures add a significant amount of drama to this otherwise cheap and convenient way to get around.

I had a rather interesting experience when departing from Dulles airport near Washington DC. It does highlight what you are faced with these days, and why taking the train is almost always a better option.

General Travel Issues
:

Traveling by air in the US is still a major drama, those of us who travel in Asia or Australia have no idea what its like. Trust me once you have been through two sets of security check-ins in the US you will never complain about having to remove your laptop at any airport in the world.

The US is probably the only place in the world where you might have to take your pants off to get on a plane. Shoes ok, Jewelry ok, Mobile phone ok, Belts maybe, and here is where the problems begin. I saw it many times over the two weeks, elegantly dressed business travelers in expensive suits holding onto their pants lest they fall like a flag with the evening sun and expose their even more elegantly colored boxer shorts, would be interesting to see if they would make you remove the sporran from your kilt.


Now these obviously very important people never said a word, never complained, never whispered under their breath at the indignity of having to parade in front of thousands of people, all anxiously wondering if they put on clean underwear and socks with no holes that morning.

 
There is a sense of fear generated by these checks that is understandable but not helped by the lack of explanation from the attending security people, most of whom are very pleasant and obviously trained to never answer a question. Instructions are barked in a variety of accents, mostly incomprehensible, to a variety of foreign ears, and thats only people from the South let alone the rest of us from overseas.

 

I was frisked, scanned, searched, patted (didn’t mind that, but he was a bit rough), questioned, scrutinized, searched again, patted again, scrutinized many more times, and then I was allowed to order a double tall cafe latte from the Airport Starbucks, getting through Security was much tougher.

Seriously though if you can possibly avoid flying in the US do so, drive, take the train, video conference, or just resign yourself to an additional two hours each time you want to take a domestic flight, leave at least three hours for an international flight in peak times. The queue (line for you Americans) at Dulles in DC had to be 5 kilometers long, and not a single complaint the whole time. Indeed a German guy in his 60’s laughed and said he felt it was only fair that the Americans got something back on the Germans, he was a real card.

 
I was traveling on a full economy ticket and got put in the elite line, great, first security check guy looked at ticket, looked at passport, grunted, put a red stamp on my boarding pass and said to stay where I was, another dude (his words) will come to collect me. Five minutes later I had four fellow travelers all waiting for the dude. Eventually the dude, who turned out to be a dude’ette turned up, took all out passports and boarding passes, put another red stamp on them all, told us to follow her, which we pliantly did, to another holding area (feeling like cattle now), told to wait until another person would come to collect us for preferential processing.

 

Half an hour later I am thinking I should have taken that toilet break when I first thought of it (kids I will never hound you again) when another dude’ette turns up and takes the only woman in our group, now numbering about 20. She disappears, never to be seen again. Another half hour passes, as had the urge to relieve myself, when two dudes turn up, mutter something incomprehensible and take myself and my nearest traveling buddy over to the worlds largest x-ray machine, shoes, belt, cellphone, jewelry (none), loose change (none), keys (none), anything else, nope didn’t have an artificial leg, hip, knee or anything. Follow me Sir. Bags xrayed, me xrayed, over to bench. Sir, he says, you have been selected (me thinking I was about to win a prize for being the one billionth passenger in Dulles) (no) for additional security screening. Oh great, just what I always wanted.

 
Being a stupid Aussie I asked why. This question, as with all others was deliberately ignored. This was where the patting (not petting of course) and screening and scrutinizing started. Me, my shoes, my belt, my jacket, under my collar, my bag, laptop, it all came out and went back in again. I had decided to sit quietly and acquiesce like all the other very important people who had been selected with me. Eventually something was muttered like “you’re good to go”, well I waited until I got to the departure gates, but I did go, with a great sense of relief.

 

Was it unpleasant, no. Was it intrusive, no. Was it necessary, who knows. What profile did I fit or is it as has been reported that the effort to not ethnically profile means that middle aged business travelers on Australian passports are a convenient opportunity to dismiss any such allegations. Most of the people who were corralled with me were on Australian, South African and New Zealand passports, all going to different places on different airlines and not a US citizen among us. Interesting, nothing sinister, just interesting.

And at no time did my trousers pretend they were autumn leaves and reveal my best kept secrets.