The Thrill is Gone: An Airport Rant

by Gray Cargill on June 8, 2012

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As the old saying goes, there’s a thin line between love and hate. Congratulations, US airlines, TSA, and airports all across the US. You have pushed me over that line, you have turned my love for flying into hate. It’s been coming for awhile now, and mostly, I’ve blamed the airlines–what with costly flight cancellations and delays, add-on fees, and increasingly cramped seating space designed to make flying ever more miserable–but the scales finally tipped on my trip home from Italy, and now, I’m not feeling overly fond of airports, either.

First of all, that 9 hour flight from Rome to Dulles nearly did me in. I’d been ill off-and-on throughout my whole trip, and I was really, really nauseated on the plane. I was so sick that for 9 hours, I could do nothing except sit there trying (and failing) to sleep and focusing on not throwing up. No reading, no writing, no movies. Just 9 hours of nausea. Thanks to my kind seatmates who offered me aspirin and Tums, I managed to make it through the flight and started to feel a little better as we were disembarking.

Then came the cattle call of Customs.

Wait–let me backtrack for a moment. When I was booking my flight home, I had exactly two choices for layover times: One and a half hours or six hours. (Thanks for the crappy flight schedule, United.)

I knew I did not want to have to kill six godless hours at Dulles. Next to O’hare, it is my least favorite airport on Earth; it has the worst dining choices ever and absolutely nothing to do to keep entertained. But being the pragmatic person I am, I knew it was unlikely I’d make a one and a half hour connection if I had to go through Customs. Ding ding ding—boy was I ever right! It took the entire hour and a half to get through Customs, collect my suitcase, recheck my suitcase and go back through security again. I never would have made it to another terminal and gate.

I totally forgot about having to go back through security again. I got caught with a nearly full bottle of water on me that I of course had to throw away because God forbid, it might have contained nitroglycerin or something (which makes no sense at all, because if I were a terrorist who had smuggled nitroglycerin onto an airplane, wouldn’t I have used it before we landed for maximum effect???), and then I had to buy a whole new bottle of water once I got past security.

If there’s anything about the TSA that really burns me, that’s the one: The liquids ban. I don’t mind having to take my shoes off, and I thankfully have yet to be molested in a pat-down, but I hate having to throw away perfectly good water! There are people in this world who don’t have clean drinking water and are dying because of it, and every day, scores of travelers in the US are being made to throw it out as we pass through airport security lines. That wasn’t even the worst of it. No, the worst was to come. Because apparently, at Dulles, it doesn’t pay to follow the rules.

baggage cart

Goodbye, luggage! Will I ever see you again?

I was probably the 50th person to enter the long, snaking line at security after exiting Customs. Everyone who saw the line groaned, because we were all tired, cranky, and just wanted to get where we were going. But rules are rules, and we all got in line like good little sheep.

Then some smartasses coming up at the back of the pack saw the empty lane that’s reserved for flight crews to go through security. They decided they liked the looks of that empty lane much better than the long line the rest of us poor fools were standing in, so they took it. Guess what happened to them?

They got through security before the rest of us, that’s what!

None of the officials at security stopped them, or told them they were in the wrong lane, or  made them turn around and go to the back of the line where they belonged. They just cut ahead of us and got away with it. Naturally, that led to a flood of people coming up from behind who followed suit. Pretty soon, there was a long line of people who were suspiciously not wearing flight crew uniforms, but were using that lane to get through Security faster than the rest of us.

If there is one thing I despise, it’s a line cutter. Line cutters are narcissistic jerks who think the rules apply to everyone except them. I even saw three priests in the line cutter lane! (Way to lead by example, guys! I’m sure God would be proud.) But if you think I hate line cutters, you should have seen the guys ahead of me in our long, laboriously slow line. I thought a fistfight was going to break out.

These guys started confronting the people in the line-cutting lane, telling them what jerks they were for cutting the line. The line-cutters didn’t even have the decency to feel guilty. They basically passed the buck by blaming the airport personnel for not stopping them.

Can you believe that? I mean, really? Can you imagine using that defense in a court of law? “Hey, it’s not my fault I killed that guy. It’s his fault for not stopping me!” How do you think that would fly with a judge?

At this point in my long, long day, I didn’t have the energy to get as upset as the other people in line. I was going to be stuck in this godforsaken hellhole of an airport for the next six hours anyway, what did I care? But oh my God, those guys ahead of me in line were fuming. They were on a tight timeline for catching connecting fights as it was, and it was made worse when all these other people cut ahead of us in line. When we finally got close enough to the airport personnel to say something, they got an earful. You know what their response was?

Shrug.

Seriously. They did not give a damn.

So, Dear Airport Manager at Dulles or whoever-the-hell was in charge of those apathetic zombies: Your staff sucks. I think it’s high time you send your employees to Disney University to learn a thing or two about customer service and crowd control.

By the time I got back to Vermont, all I could think of was: Thank God I don’t have any more trips until September. How sad is that?

airplane

The thrill is gone

I guess my travel innocence has been lost. Gone are the days when the airport was my “happy place.” Gone is that joyful little lift in my heart when I see a plane taking off for parts unknown and wonder what sorts of cool adventures those people are headed to. Now all I can think about is whether or not my flight will be canceled or delayed, whether my luggage will be lost–or stolen by someone who works at the airport–and how many new ways the TSA will come up with to violate our civil liberties and dignity. My excitement about flying has been squashed like a bug on a windshield.

I still love exploring new places, it’s the getting there that’s become unbearable. And because I have limited vacation time to travel, driving or taking the train isn’t usually an option for the places I want to go. So here’s a plea to all the scientists out there: Please for the love of all that is holy, invent those transporters from Star Trek already! I’d rather have my molecules scrambled like an egg to get me to my destination (as long as they’re put back together afterwards, thank you) than put up with airports any more.

Thanks for letting me get that off my chest. I feel so much better now.

How do you feel about the airport/flying experience? Have you managed to find a Zen place for those days when you’re traveling by plane–and if so, what the heck is it?

 

Marie October 13, 2013 at 9:42 pm

I feel your pain. The US Customs are the worst. As a Canadian, I have to go through them even if I’m just transiting through the US to another destination. Even when there is a choice, it’s usually cheaper to fly via the US than via Europe. I’m actually going through Dulles on my way to Bangkok next month! (Doesn’t Dulles have a sushi place?)
Fortunately, on the flight out we go through US customs before leaving Canada. It’s on the way back that it’s trickier. All I can do is make sure I give myself plenty of time, and think of all the money I’m saving!

Gray Cargill October 19, 2013 at 9:19 am

Marie – I never knew that about Canada doing customs before leaving Canada until I flew back from Toronto last spring. My God, is that convenient. I’d much rather get to the airport early and take care of it before I even get on the plane. I wish we’d do that here in the U.S. I don’t know about a sushi place in Dulles; I don’t eat sushi. Good luck with your trip!

James Townsend December 9, 2012 at 3:24 pm

Hi,

When I went to Calgary, AB Canada in 2009, I did so via Toronto. Before my initial flight to Toronto from Philadelphia, I went through security at PHL, and I was wanded. The wand kept going off even after I’d taken off my shirt (for the record, I do not have a navel ring); exasperated, I finally said, “Why is that STILL going off? There’s nothing but FAT!!” When I got to Toronto, I was wanded again as I boarded the flight to Calgary. TSA is a breadless PITA.

Jim

Gray December 9, 2012 at 3:41 pm

LOL, “breadless PITA”. Yes, that’s pretty much the best way of putting it, James.

Caryn July 28, 2012 at 3:21 pm

I just returned from a 2 week trip to Russia. Hands down the employees of the St. Petersburg and Moscow airports bring a whole new definition to the phrase “I truly don’t care”. I’m not saying we should tolerate crap “customer service” anywhere a person travels – by any stretch of the imagination – but my new perspective is “I’m glad it’s an option”, cause Russia doesn’t offer it. As a side note, outside of the whole traveling thing, Russians are some of the sweetest people I have ever met!

Gray July 28, 2012 at 5:02 pm

You know, Caryn, that is true enough. There are certainly worse places in the world when it comes to customer service. I suppose our reactions to it depend on our expectations, too (whether or not we expect a place to offer customer service).

Gray June 15, 2012 at 4:51 pm

Suzanne – I know, right? You remember the story about the woman who had a cupcake confiscated by the TSA? I was thinking I’d have licked it before I handed it over–just in case they had any ideas. She may have. LOL.

Suzanne in VA June 15, 2012 at 3:03 pm

this is so spot on~ and I am sorry for your not feeling well and having to go through so much crud. The TSA Gestapo took my huckleberry jam in Billings Montana! For real?! Yes its my fault for packing it in my carry on but its just out of control. I wish I had opened it and swirled my finger around to make sure no one ate it. And why did there need to be 20 TSA officers standing around in Billings MT?? As a frequent flyer out of Dulles I feel your pain…..Reagan is much better but not always possible or easy to get in and out.
Then I take the train somewhere and am like this is the life!! I hope flying gets easier and more customber service oriented soon but in the meantime we just gotta Fly! 🙂

Gray June 13, 2012 at 7:23 pm

Kirstin – Sounds like he was bored and you were the only game in town, so to speak. Just your luck, huh?

Gray June 13, 2012 at 7:21 pm

Well of course my feeling ill influenced how I felt about things, Casey. But I can honestly say those things–bad flight schedules, line cutters, and inept government officials–would have annoyed me whether or not I felt ill. And I never said this was my “worst trip ever”–because it wasn’t. The trip home was unpleasant, though. And while I know very well that I’m blessed to be able to travel, I also believe in “telling it like it is.” I’m no Pollyanna. I refuse to be a cheerleader for travel all the time without also talking about the negatives. If you’re the type of person who only wants to read the positives and none of the negatives, then I suggest not reading my blog in the future.

Casey June 13, 2012 at 11:51 am

You mentioned you were sick during your trip, you don’t think this influenced the tenor of your rant. I understand delaying a return due to an illness is sometimes not an option, but the idea of you taking it out on your internal hatred of line cutters, govt officials and a lousy flight schedule are ludicrous. You never mention where your final destination lies, but the use of a commuter jet photo signifies a smaller market that does not merit a 100+ seat aircraft let alone hourly flights. Whine all you want, you at least are traveling to foreign destinations and experiencing cultures most Americans will never enjoy. Lighten up and think of all your advantages and stop moaning about it after the fact; speak up during and maybe you wouldn’t have experienced the WORST TRIP EVER!

Kirstin June 12, 2012 at 10:24 pm

I cleared customs in Vancouver on my way to San Francisco and the guy behind the counter spent a long time querying why on earth I would go to San Fran for shopping. Alas I had arrived early so there was nobody behind me in the queue and so he wasn’t in any rush.

Gray June 12, 2012 at 8:50 pm

Sounds like I hit a sore spot with you with this post, Kaylin. 🙂 I haven’t gone through customs at SFO, but I agree, it’s not a bad airport, as airports go. I like all the computer stations they have.

Kaylin June 12, 2012 at 8:09 pm

I like to fly but I HATE flying through most US airports. It’s so ridiculous sometimes, I agree. Having been through SE Asian and Korean airports over the past year, I can safely say it seems to be mostly US airports (and maybe Western Europe as well, like Heathrow; Heathrow freakin sucks) that are bad. In Asia, I didn’t have to take off my shoes, take out my liquids, or anything like that. I didn’t have a bottle of water with me out of habit, but I don’t think it would’ve been a huge deal if I did. Luckily overseas they don’t have a racket going to get your money, because water in the airport after security is much cheaper than back home ($1-2 rather than about $4 like some places).
The worst for me, is when I fly internationally through Atlanta (my nearest airport at home) because you have to go through security AGAIN just to leave the damn airport if you are coming in internationally, because of how their stupid terminals are set up. Fortunately coming home from Asia, I have a stop in SFO first which is one of the better airports in the US when it comes to security/customs, so when I get to Atlanta I can just get off the plane and go the f home.

Gray June 12, 2012 at 5:26 pm

Thanks, JoAnna. It’s true, there are limited choices here. I mean, heck, even for me to go across country, I don’t have time to take a train there and back. It’s fly or nothing.

JoAnna June 12, 2012 at 1:10 pm

I *think* I still like to fly, but I don’t know if I really do or if I’ve just convinced myself that I do. I do know, however, that I’d much rather take another form of transportation (especially the train) if I can, but it’s just not that easy to hop the ocean on anything but a plane.

Sorry you had such a crappy experience. No fun.

Gray June 11, 2012 at 5:30 pm

Oh, yeah, I’ve had flights like that too, Arianwen. I’ve had to get up and go ask the flight attendants for more water.

Arianwen June 11, 2012 at 5:22 pm

The water thing really bugs me too! It’s bad enough that they confiscate your bottle and waste it. But then the air on aeroplanes always makes my tongue go fuzzy and I usually have a glass of wine pre-flight to calm my nerves. The result is that I’m gagging for a good few litres of water during the course of a 15-hour flight, and what do they provide? A tiny little cup with a yoghurt-style lid that lasts two gulps!

Kirstin June 10, 2012 at 6:32 pm

Sometimes I am horrified by the amount of time I have spent in awful airports but apart from Heathrow (pure hell!) LAX takes the cake for awfulness.

Best airport = Singapore, barely noticed customs and thought I must’ve made a wrong turn when I found myself outside the airport 10 minutes after landing.

I think the next time I travel in europe I am going to use the train. None of that ‘Must be checked in AT LEAST two hours before international flight’ and very little security at the other end. Mind you, you have to watch out for the dodgy conductors who demand extra money else they threaten to throw you off the train. Last time it cost each of us $US50!!!

Gray June 9, 2012 at 7:41 pm

I’m not retired yet, Bill, so taking a boat overseas is definitely not going to work for me. By the time I arrived, my vacation would be over. 🙂 I may look into train travel for next year, though it would have to be somewhere east of the Mississippi, in order for me to get there in a timely fashion.

Bill Eames June 9, 2012 at 7:08 pm

Try AMTRAK. Or a boat for overseas. Or bring back dirigables (helium filled). AMTRAK is OK if nothing goes wrong. 88% of people takes cars. Cars are OK except the driving part. Dont get tired and dont text. There is always 1st class at 4 times the price.

Bill

Gray June 9, 2012 at 2:00 pm

Hi, Ted – I’ve been all over New England during my lifetime, and so at this point, New England holds little allure for me. When I travel, I want to go to places that are very different from home (especially during winter!). I’m not a fan of long, solo car trips, either. They bore me and make me very tired–which is why I’ve always chosen to fly to my destination. And yes, I most certainly have made my feelings about the TSA known to my elected representatives. Not that it’s made a difference, though I suspect at least some of them feel the same way.

Ted June 8, 2012 at 9:12 pm

Have you fully explored the places accessible to you by car, train, bus, bicycle, or foot? At least consider doing some research to discover the exciting nearby places you overlooked in the days when flying was fun and convenient (though very very insecure, if you believe the TSA). You may find you truly enjoy travel without the stress that flying inflicts, on yourself as well as on our much-abused Mother Earth.

That’s obviously not a permanent solution. But it is an alternative to consider, at least until your desire to visit further-flung places overcomes your very understandable aversion to the “new reality” of flying.

(Also, have you written to your elected representatives to express your feelings about the TSA’s very dubious “security theatre”? Congress has consistently abrogated their responsibility to ensure that the TSA provides actual security rather than wasting billions of dollars on dubious intrusive hassles. That’s because their fear of being branded “soft on terrorism” by opponents in the next election prevents them from doing anything other than handing the TSA a check every year. But if enough people complain and express doubt about the value and effectiveness of the TSA, Congress might finally overcome their fear and take much-needed action. That’s unlikely to produce any immediate results. But it’s the only real action we can take, other than staying home.)

Gray June 8, 2012 at 8:54 pm

Exactly, Lisa. If ever there were an industry in desperate need of an overhaul, it’s the airline industry.

Lisa @chickybus June 8, 2012 at 8:45 pm

What a shame that things have gotten so bad. I still get excited when I drive by an airport and see the planes taking off and anticipate my next trip, but over the past few years, I’ve felt less of that.

The reasons: the general decline of the airlines, especially in the U.S., and the fact that I’ve been reading so many horror stories lately (and of course, recently shared my own).

Gray June 8, 2012 at 6:38 pm

C – You know what’s really terrible? I actually have a couple of passes for United’s Lounge that I got when I signed up for their credit card. I totally forgot to use them. In my defense, I was sick and not thinking clearly. But when I think about it, man, what a wasted opportunity. First class, business class…when I walk past that section on the plane and the seats look like my living room recliner, all I really want to call it is Rockstar Class. 🙂

C June 8, 2012 at 6:21 pm

There are little things you can do to upgrade the experience without spending a fortune. Maybe I should compile those…like most lounges will let you in for $25-50. If I had many hours to kill, being able to go to a lounge, take a shower, get online, have some food and drink, and kick back…that’s worth it without paying a first class fare. The cramped seat is bad enough, but all the little stressors before add up. And usually the stress of a connecting international flight can be the straw that breaks the camel’s back…like your story.

Note that first class is really business class on international flights — the term “first class” is still used for the front of the cabin in domestic flights, but is basically a dentist chair. And sometimes food isn’t served on certain flights, which can suck when you do have a choice to purchase in economy. But that’s only happened once.

Gray June 8, 2012 at 5:52 pm

@C – I often think how much more pleasant travel would be if I could afford first class all the time…or ever. Sigh. (That’s going on my bucket list: Fly first class sometime!) East Coast is bad, I agree–and even worse when you’re traveling from Vermont. Not enough airlines fly from here, and we’re not a hub, so it’s very expensive and I rarely have a direct flight to where I’m going. West Coast sounds nice…

C June 8, 2012 at 5:37 pm

I have flown over 600K miles in 15 years, combining business and vacation, often solo. If I hadn’t bit the bullet in 2008 and limited myself to 2-3 international business class upgrade flights/year, I would have spontaneously combusted by now. I didn’t realize how much easy checkin, faster security, quiet lounges, decent food, and space to stretch makes a *huge* difference in how ya feel when hopping off a plane. The first time I switched from finding the cheapest ticket to one of the most expensive (you have to buy a full-fare economy tix to upgrade), I nearly had a heart attack…which was promptly reversed by the complete 180 in terms of a…tolerable, even relaxing, experience.

Your other major problem is one you can’t help: entering the US via the East Coast. I live in California and refuse to connect in JFK or Dulles nowadays. Much easier to get a direct flight from Europe or Asia (with the exception of Paris); immigration and security are a lot better here (SFO and SEA. LAX? Not so much.)

Gray June 8, 2012 at 5:36 pm

@Candice – The only foreign airport I’ve been in that was close to as bad as US airports was Madrid. But then, most of my travel is domestic, so take that for what it’s worth.

Gray June 8, 2012 at 5:34 pm

@Marsha – Aha! So that’s how you achieve Zen at the airport! I should really try that.

Candice June 8, 2012 at 5:31 pm

Do you think it’s just US airports in general, or do you find the same thing in airports abroad? I’ve had nothing but AWFUL experiences in US airports…

Cannot believe those guys were allowed to cut line! WTF!

Marsha June 8, 2012 at 5:25 pm

I’m trying not to laugh, but this is precisely why I do my best to be as drowsy as possible through the pre-flight torture, and then fast asleep in the air. I feel nothing. I regret nothing.

Gray June 8, 2012 at 5:10 pm

Yes, Jeff–Madrid was the one exception for me, too. Coming into the airport didn’t seem to bad, but I had to go through security twice while leaving. I was like “What?”

Jeff B @ GoTravelzing June 8, 2012 at 4:57 pm

It is actually a better system going through customs at the foreign airport because there is no waiting in customs lines when you get back to the U.S. The different security measures made no sense but that is the government for you.

I guess my view of Europe security is skewed since three out of the last four trips have been leaving from Madrid and they have many levels of security.

Gray June 8, 2012 at 4:48 pm

That sounds a bit complicated and confusing, Jeff–exactly like what an airport would do! 🙂 I’ve actually had the opposite experience at foreign airports. I’ve found a surprising lack of security at their airports. Sometimes they don’t even pretend to glance at my passport before stamping it.

Jeff B @ GoTravelzing June 8, 2012 at 4:30 pm

I feel your pain. If I did not love to travel so much than I would definitely not fly. Between the airlines, the TSA and the crazy passengers I think their goal is to make it as unpleasant as possible.

I agree that going to security more than once is stupid. Why do you have to go through security again while flying from Europe? They have at least 3 or 4 layers of security at their airports.

I recently had an interesting experience returning from Dublin. You actually go through U.S Customs at that airport and do not have to go through it in the US. They have this feature at 6 foreign airports but I do not know what the other ones are. The stupid thing about this is that after going through the 3 layers of the regular airport security you then have to go through the U.S. Customs security where you have to take your shoes off but do not have to take out your liquids. Besides the redundant security this is a much better system since you can land at a regular gate at the U.S. airport.

Gray June 8, 2012 at 2:34 pm

Harvin – Oh my God! That is even worse than throwing away water–throwing away an unopened bottle of vodka! that’s sacrilege. That’s another pet peeve of mine: Once you’ve gone through the security process once, you should not have to go through it again.

Gray June 8, 2012 at 2:30 pm

I agree, Jeremy. It’s really demoralizing knowing how dependent we are on them, and they know it. That’s why they have no motivation to make our experience any better than it is. They’ve got us over a barrel. I hate to suggest government interference in the industry, since they’ve mucked up the TSA so badly, but there need to be more laws that protect the consumer.

Gray June 8, 2012 at 2:28 pm

Good point, Tracy. There really are no appealing travel options right now, especially for those of us with limited time and long distances to travel. I’m not a fan of long car trips, either. Transporters! I’m telling you! It’s the salvation of the future! 😉

Harvin June 8, 2012 at 1:50 pm

My love of flying is also waning. And I am with you on the annoyance of having to throw out the water. I understand the rules and reasoning, so I don’t bring liquids TO the airport, but I get so annoyed when I purchase a liquid AT the airport and then have to toss it because the airport’s design requires me to go through security again. Case in point:

A few years ago, my friend and I had a 4-hour layover at LaGuardia (I think that was the one). When we got off our flight, we liked the restaurants and shops in our current terminal, so we killed a lot of time there. He bought a huge bottle of duty-free vodka there, but since the store was short-staffed, they gave it to us to carry to the flight instead of delivering it to the gate for us (they usually offer that service). We then discovered that we had to take a shuttle to a different terminal. Thanks to the shuttle ride, we had to go through security AGAIN. They wouldn’t allow the vodka, despite the fact that it was in their airport’s shopping bag and he had a receipt showing we’d purchased it in the airport. Security’s suggestion: “Go ahead and drink it.” Are you serious? Suggesting we get wasted before getting on a flight?

My friend ended up giving it away, and now I ALWAYS go to my gate first before I explore an airport.

Jeremy Branham June 8, 2012 at 12:34 pm

Flying is just a necessary evil these days. On Wednesday, I aired my grievances against the airlines complaining about how much things had changed. I covered some of the positives but the negatives far outweigh the good right now. Poor customer service, fees, delays, lies, and more. I am not sure things are going to get better.

Tracy Antonioli June 8, 2012 at 11:54 am

I hate flying too. Hate it. I’m not afraid of it, I just don’t like the total utter lack of control one has over one’s own self during the entire process. And the cramped seats. And the lines, and the frisking, and the full body scans. I actually had an airport security person put his little metal detector wand UP my skirt one time (I mean come on!) But on my most recent trip, I found my ‘zen place’ by considering the alternative. Yes, it was painful and inconvenient. But it was better than driving! Perhaps I was just still scarred from my terrible driving-on-California-highways experience, but all I could think on my long flight home was ‘at least I can close my eyes and ignore what’s going on around me’. Which I could not do while attempting to drive over the Bay Bridge in Saturday traffic! 😉

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