Pre-Check for Some, Flights for None

I flew visited an airport the day after Christmas. 

Something I used to do every year, up until 2019. This was the first attempt since. Guess it’ll end up being a four-year hiatus now. 

Even under the best of circumstances, it’s a harrowing trip. Busy airports, tired travelers. Delayed flights, canceled trips. 

This year, it was anything but the best of circumstances.

The plane is here, but the crew is delayed? That’s a new one. Someone just pay up their tab and let’s get the fuck outta here.

It was one of the weirdest cancellations I’ve ever been a part of. Oh yeah, spoiler alert, my flight got canceled. Then again, if you’ve seen anything about Southwest Airlines this week, you probably already knew that.

Not that I have much experience with canceled flights. That happens in places like Denver or Chicago, not California. We get occasional spillover effects, like our plane still being on the tarmac in Pittsburgh, but that usually only amounts to a couple-hour delay as one of the other myriad airplanes on the West Coast can be used. 

My normal jaunt, from one of the three northern California airports (technically four, but it’s almost impossible for San Jose to be cheaper than Oakland) to one of the five Southern California airports (technically six, but ditto San Diego), might as well be in their own world, apart from the vagaries of weather and delays. Usually, the airplane that’s heading to Burbank will turn right back around and head back to Oakland. Last time I checked, it doesn’t snow in Burbank, Oakland, or anywhere in between. 

No, Grapevine, you don’t count. A few hours of snow once every five years. Fancy.

So when we smug California-to-California travelers saw our plane already sitting at the gate an hour before takeoff, we figured we were golden. We were one of literally only two green “On Time” designations on the  “Departures” board covering the next three hours. If it’s showing on time and the plane is already here, there’s really nothing that can delay us, right?

As opposed to those times the board says “on time” a half-hour from now but the airplane isn’t here yet. Then you check online and the inbound ninety-minute flight hasn’t left its airport yet. I’d love for someone to explain to me how there’s any way my flight will be on time.

Around a half-hour before our flight, we did what all good Southwest customers do, those of us with A boarding passes mingled toward our appointed place in line. About ten minutes before our flight was scheduled to leave, an attendant came on the speaker. “The good news is your plane is here. The bad news is your crew is not. Your flight is still showing ‘on time,’ so I don’t know how long the delay will be, but we for sure will not be leaving on time.”

I tried to explain to Daughter how all this might happen. Crews often land with one plane, then transfer to another plane. We found an arrivals board that showed a delayed flight from Burbank was just landing. See, Daughter? That’s probably our crew.

Except it wasn’t.

Why the hell do they have arrivals boards past security, anyway? Pretty sure everyone getting off a plane knows where they came from. It usually only serves assholes like me who want to see if the incoming plane already left its airport.

For the next 20-30 minutes, the Southwest App still showed my flight was on time, despite us all still sitting around. By the time it finally showed up as delayed, the “new departure” time was the current time. Every five minutes or so, the delayed time would extend to the current time. As with the plane that hasn’t taken off from its last airport, if the alleged crew isn’t at this airport right now, is it safe to assume it’ll be longer than right now before we start loading the plane, much less take off?  

Even worse, the flight had been taken off the departures board, because HAL thinks we’re somewhere over Yosemite right now. So I can’t keep apprised of the status if I wander around the airport. I’d hate to lose my vaunted “A” boarding group status because I miss the boarding announcement while scarfing down a triangle of grease that the kiosk refers to as pizza.

I finally felt safe venturing away around the two-hour mark, when someone nearby commented, “Y’know, I’ve heard a lot of canceled and missing crew announcements. I don’t think I’ve heard a single boarding announcement.” 

Finally time to take a leak.

After my flight showed up as canceled on my app, it still took them forty minutes to announce it. I had to be the asshole who jumped the two-hour long line of rebooking people with an “I’m sorry, are we supposed to wait for an announcement to get our bags back?” Oops, were we not supposed to bother the overworked employees? Do I have to wait in line to find out my flight was canceled, then return to the back of the line to get my bags? Southwest seems to be making the DMV look effective this week.

By the way, this is what the baggage claim area looked like when we got back there:

At first, I assumed these were the bags taken off all the canceled flights. But no, ours came the usual baggage claim route. These bags were at their final destination, but the people who owned them weren’t. Don’t ask me how the hell your luggage makes it when the flight doesn’t. Don’t ask Southwest, either. Their Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheet doesn’t have enough cells to explain it.

Ironically, the whole cancellation fiasco wasn’t the thing that pissed me off the most that day. Frustrating, sure, but canceled flights are the closest thing I’ll ever get to a White Christmas. Maybe I can make a snowman out of the complimentary brownie brittle packets they gave us.

Far more egregious was in the TSA line, where we were informed that American Express customers got complimentary Pre-Check clearance.

Instead, having only my lowly visa in my wallet, I had to scuttle my ass in the slow-moving cattle-prod line. 

Boy, I feel safer now.

In actuality, the line wasn’t too terrible. Probably because all those snooty “I pay an annual fee for the privilege of having to pay off my entire balance each month” types were hoity-toitying over in the Pre-Check line.

Then I remembered that they got to keep their shoes on, and I got pissed again.

You know all those stories you’ve heard of Ellis Island? Long lines, fronted by uncaring bureaucrats who changed your name from Andolini to Corleone before diagnosing you with Covid or glaucoma or something and placing you in the special Statue of Liberty jail for a few months. 

Well, it turns out that experience only pertained to the steerage-class passengers. First and second class got their less-stringent inspection on the ship and, with a merry little tap on the ass, got to bypass the whole Ellis Island experience and could be halfway to Baltimore by the time the peons were done with their anal probe.

Good news! No tuberculosis in your colon!

The idea was that people able to pay extra money must obviously be safe. Good, upstanding individuals instead of huddled, unwashed masses. In their defense, I suppose TB and cholera were more likely among the poor, especially after you jammed them all in a floating sardine can for the last two weeks. Not that they used “statistical likelihood” as the justification for their policy. I think the official jurisprudence was. “Fuck you, peasants!”

This whole Pre-Check thing has stunk with that mentality since the get-go. Sure, sure, there’s some sort of “background check” involved with it, but as far as I can tell, the only thing the process really controls for is people who are able to take a day off to fill out questionnaires. And pay fees. 

If anything, aren’t the rich and idle more likely to put a bomb in their shoe? They certainly have the resources. Those of us who can’t take a day off and drive into San Francisco for a federal pap smear don’t have time to look up complicated shoe bombs. The kid’s got to be at soccer practice by 5:00.

I might not know the mentality of a suicide bomber, but I highly doubt the 9/11 terrorists would’ve been unwilling to splurge for first class. It’s not like they had to worry about the cost of the return flight or any credit card interest they’d be accruing for big purchases. With the years of preparation and test runs, they certainly would’ve taken a day off to pay the Pre-Check fees if those were available at the time.

Who would’ve guessed that all they needed was an American Express?

I can’t even determine the rationale that was used for this decision. That “bad guys” won’t have an AmEx because it as America in the title? Because it’s not like 90% of mass shootings are carried out by Americans or anything. Guessing the Buffalo shooter and the Colorado Springs shooter both considered themselves upstanding Americans. Ditto the guys who shot up the Congressional softball practice and tried to kill the Supreme Court Justice. 

Let’s not forget that the whole shoe thing happens because one guy threatened one airplane twenty years ago. Oh, and his shoe bomb failed to explode. Because shoe bombs aren’t a fucking thing outside of James Bond movies. If James Bond technology worked, I wouldn’t even be in this damned line because I’d be jetpacking myself to Southern California.

I wonder if the original shoe bomber had an AmEx card. He seemed like a “can’t handle the interest” kinda guy.

Of course, we know the real rationale for letting some people on our planes with less scrutiny than others. The government cares much more about getting our money than saving our lives. The city I live in now makes me pay a fee because I have a doorbell camera and alarm. One would think they’d want to encourage these items, which make the neighborhood safer, but nah. More porch pirates means more petty crimes that either get solved, creating bails and fees, or don’t get solved, causing citizens to demand more police.

But they’re not supposed to be so obvious about these cash grabs. My city says my $40 covers “potential false alarms” caused by my alarm, even though there’s about five steps between the alarm going off and the cops being called out.

It’s not like Pre-Check gets that much more privilege. Mainly just the shoes stay on and the electronics stay in the bag. Then again, what two things slow down the general TSA line so much? 

So is it that they can detect “evil” technology and shoes in the pre-check line, but we have outdated shit in the general line? Or is it that they could totally tell the laptop in my backpack is a laptop but that I haven’t paid for that privilege? 

Unless, of course, we do need to take off those shoes and take out those laptops. In which case, they’ve clearly just shown they don’t give two shits about our security, because with the right credit card, you can walk those things right onto the plane.

Then again, terrorists could just bring kids with them, because kids can’t go through the x-ray machine. And the adult with them goes through the old metal detector instead. The metal detector that… wasn’t good enough for keeping us safe…

It’s not like it could be an entire charade. Like, “Hey, there’s no way we can keep you safe, but the more awkward and obstructionist we make this, the more you’ll assume we’re doing something worthwhile. And you’ll keep traveling. And keep paying that 9/11 Security Fee.”

All for the privilege of sitting at a gate for five hours waiting for mythical crew to fall out of the sky.