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.

Transportation Shithole Assheads

As many of you know, I recently went on a trip to Hawaii.

But this post isn’t about Hawaii, per se.

This post is about to most wonderful part of any travel adventure: the Transportation Safety Administration.

This was the first “long haul” flight I’ve been on in a while, what with a three-year old and all. But I’ve had plenty of short and long trips throughout my life, both before and after 9/11, both with and without a small human in tow. I know the TSA and its procedures well enough. And they’re utter bullshit.

This time through the anal-probe carousel that is Security Clearance, the agent was nice enough to give my daughter a sticker. I have suspicions as to why this time, her eight or tenth time flying, she was gifted a sticker, but at this juncture, I’ll just mention the form of the sticker:

Hawaii TSA

How fitting. Of course she’s a junior TSA agent. Isn’t every toddler? She rifles through bags that don’t belong to her, not bothering to put back or refold any displaced items. She makes arbitrary, continuously-changing rules with little basis in reality or logic. The consequences for breaking said rules, however, are dire. She is also prone to some inappropriate tantrums and is entirely unaware of personal space.

One time I was flying on Christmas and the TSA unwrapped one of the presents in my checked luggage. It was a cookbook. They placed the torn-open wrapping paper inside the front cover of the book. Hopefully you sleep better at night knowing that pancake recipes aren’t falling into the hands of terrorists.

My biggest problem with the TSA is the lack of consistency from one airport to the next. In Sacramento, I have to remove my laptop and my kindle from my carry-on bag and put each in its own bin. In San Diego, laptops come out, but tablets stay in. On a recent trip out of Orange County, all of them could stay in the bag. Same airport, different time? No.

I take back my earlier comment. My three-year old is way more consistent. Her make-believe ice cream stand seems to have squid ice cream every time I ask for it.

I thought the whole point of federalizing airport security was for consistency. If what is allowed or not allowed is based on the whims of the high-school dropout hoping to see ladies’ boobs at the MRI machine, then we might as well return the process to local control.

On a recent trip out of Sacramento, I was asked if I had any food in my carry-on. Food? I know about liquids, but when did food become an issue? The agent said food was allowed, but they would have to take it out of my bag and open it or cut into it in order to make sure it’s legitimate food. My aunt in Southern California has an avocado tree and I was planning on returning with many avocados. If the jackasses cut into each one, that would greatly reduce the amount of time they would be of use to me.

Fortunately, the return trip was out of Ontario, so no mention was made of food. Also, this did not come up the next time I flew out of Sacramento. So terrorists, if there’s some new food-based plan of attack, don’t try to get it on a plane in Sacramento. They might or might not be onto you, depending on who’s working. The other 5,000 airports seem to have missed that memo, though.

Part of it might be personal. You see, I have an Irish last name and a relatively common first name. Which means there’s an IRA terrorist with the same name as me. Hooray!

For most of the 2000s, this meant I was often “randomly selected” for additional screening. Often at the gate. Nothing’s worse than being pulled out of the “first come, first seated” Southwest line and watching all of the window seats passing me down the tunnel.

It happened often enough that I started to wonder if it wasn’t all that “random.” Not that the government would lie to us or anything. But maybe I was being singled out because I was a twenty-something male, traveling alone, usually without any checked luggage. Or maybe it was because I had ordered a copy of “Triumph of the Will,” the Nazi propaganda film, for use in my classroom.

But it was really just fun and games until airlines started using those kiosks and online check-in. You see, Mister IRA-name can’t use either of those methods. Mister IRA-name needs to physically hand his ID to a real-life human being. How many of THOSE do you see at the airline desks these days?

Thankfully, a Southwest Agent (not a TSA agent, mind you) finally told me one time that it wasn’t my Nazi film or my demographics, but my name that was tagged. The Irish terrorist is thirty years older than me, so just seeing my birthdate was enough. I started booking with my middle name and have never had a problem since. Which is nice, because these days, if you can’t check in 23 hours, 50 minutes early, you’re going to being sitting in a middle seat.

With my curiosity piqued, I googled my name and learned more about the OTHER guy. He killed a cop in Belfast while escaping from jail. Yikes. Except it also appears that his whereabouts are fully known. You know, the whole Good Friday Agreement and “What’s a little car bomb amongst friends?” He still lives in Belfast. Meaning it probably ain’t him boarding a flight to Burbank.

But whatever, TSA, good job protecting us from British separatists. Wait, did the IRA want to leave or stay in Britain? I don’t remember. I’m American, and we try to ignore white terrorists. But the 3/8 Irish in me says, “Go Catholics! (or Protestants) Get rid of those rat-bastard Protestants! (Or Catholics) Semper fi, motherfuckers!”

Semper fi is gaelic, right?

All of this talk of “random screenings” and excessive scrutiny brings me back to my recent trip to Hawaii. We got the magical TSA Pre-Check designation. I had assumed I was ineligible, but it turns out that, as long as I’m not the first name on the reservation, it’s all good. “Right this way, Mrs. Smith and your husband, Mr. Bin Laden.”

The reason I could pre-check on this flight was because my in-laws, who booked the reservation, have paid for the privilege of pre-check. And if you’re willing to give money to the government, then you are clearly one of the “good guys.”

So I was prepared for an expedited security process with the TSA Pre-Check. But I figured it would be faster because there were fewer people in front of us. And that was part of it. But wait, there’s more! If you order in the next fifteen minutes, you get…

I was allowed to leave my laptop in my bag. No questions about food. No standing spread-eagle and holding my breath while the perv behind the screen checks out my junk. And, are you sitting down for this last one? I was able to keep my shoes on.

What the fuck? Aren’t shoes non-negotiable? Isn’t the shoe the single most-used weapon in the entire history of hijacking?

No? It was only one attempt made by one dude one time? And it failed? Hmm. Does the TSA know that?

Regardless, how the hell does the purchasing of a security clearance mean I don’t have explosives in my shoe? Wouldn’t someone with the resources to turn a shoe into a bomb also have the resources to pay for pre-check? And, to repeat, we only had to go through the metal detector, not the MRI, and I don’t think C-4 triggers a metal detector.

And maybe my in-laws had to go through some additional screening to get a pre-check validation. But I sure as hell did not. And I don’t even think you have to be a citizen in good standing, because my brother-in-law is British and I’m pretty sure he gets pre-check.

And I know, there is really nothing more American than”money = good.” It is a practice going back over a century, when first- and second-class passengers were able to go through quick look-overs on the ship, while the steerage (human cattle) class had to endure hours of lines and inspections and possible quarantine at Ellis Island.

Not at Angel Island, mind you. Those immigrants were not white, so they ALL had to go through the lines and inspections and quarantine. Wasn’t it Chester A. Arthur that wondered aloud why we have to let in immigrants from a bunch of shithole countries? No? Was it a more recent president?

I hate to go all populist, Occupy loser here, but seriously, what is it about poor people’s shoes and laptops that make them more likely to be used as weapons?

It’s either that, or the TSA would still be able to detect weapons with laptops in bags and shoes on feet. But if that’s the case, why do the riff-raff still have to do the whole rigmarole?

It has to be a marketing ploy. I assume fewer people would buy the pre-check if they still had to do the shoes and the computer thing. And of course, the only thing the government cares more about than curtailing our liberties protecting us is money. So if a terrorist hijacks a plane but there’s a new park in Tulsa, everyone’s cool with that trade-off, right?

All I know is that, if the government treated everyone the way they treat the rich, we’d all be making it through security in a matter of minutes. But would we feel safe if we went through security too fast? Because the TSA’s job is only to make us feel safer, not actually protect us.

If I have to take off my shoes, then cure up the Louis Armstrong, because it’s a wonderful world.

Unless I paid a lot for those shoes. Those shoes stay on. Membership has its privileges, and everybody’s happy.

Including my daughter. She got a fucking sticker!

We never got that kind of kickback in steerage class.