Happy Boxing Day! (A Christmas Travel Story)

Happy Boxing Day (still true on the West Coast, though I’m writing from North Carolina),

My departure to and from LAX couldn’t have been more hectic. I got up at 3:30am, because we really needed to leave by 4:30am if we wanted to be at the airport 1 1/2 hours before departure time. When my alarm went off, I started gathering together the last few things that I needed and putting them in the suitcase, but then I went to check my e-mail and found that my e-mail server, which runs in my house, had crashed for the second time in a day, and it should never crash. So, I lost vital minutes trying to figure out what was wrong there. I may have fixed it, because it hasn’t crashed since, but we’ll see.

Anyway, between that and everything else, we were really running late, and didn’t actually leave the house until after 5:00am, and didn’t arrive at the airport until 5:50am, and this for a 6:50am flight. But, I went into the airport, and the e-Ticket line was moving quickly — excellent! I said to the guy in front of me, “This doesn’t look too bad!” He swiveled around and pointed at another, much longer and slower line: “Yeah, but then we have to get our luggage checked in the security line.” Yikes.

I ran up to the e-Ticket dispenser. There were big signs: “If your flight leaves sooner than 40 minutes from now, you’ll have to get another flight — we won’t print out your boarding pass.” Quick, look at the watch: Ack, 45 minutes until my flight. I entered my information, “Checking two pieces of luggage,” got my boarding passes, and ran over to the security line, which miraculously was much shorter, now — excellent! But wait: where were my sticky suitcase routing labels? I’d forgotten to get them! They are printed out at the same time as when you print your boarding pass, but must be attached to your luggage by the airline personnel. I ran back to the e-Ticket machines, where they were calling my name. Two minutes later I was back in the security line, but much, much sadder, because the security line had nearly doubled in length since I was in it just a few minutes before. Rats!

I called Mom to let her know that I might not make the flight, and told her that I’d call her back with a status update. 30 minutes to go. What to do? There was a nice young Asian couple in front of me; the woman didn’t seem to speak very much English, but the man spoke good English. They were looking at their watches, and obviously discussing what to do. The guy went up to the federal marshals and asked them, pointing to his ticket, and a few seconds later he was running back to get his wife and their luggage. “Hey, when does your flight leave?” I asked him. “6:50am, to St. Louis.” He was on the same flight that I was! I figured if he could go up, then surely I could, too, so I followed them up to the head of the line. They were really looking at people’s luggage carefully, but the marshal just asked me, “Is your luggage locked? No? Ok, you can go on — we’ll check it out.”

20 minutes to go. I walked over to the stairs which would take me to gate 40, but another marshal was there, telling me to go to another stairway about a football field away, where a line was coming all the way down the stairs. I was behind the Asian couple again, and again he went off to ask a marshal about letting us go forward. He waved to us, and I cleared a way through the crowd for his wife. Up the stairs we ran. We’d probably cut out over 150 yards of this line, but now there was another lot of line curling around and around like Disney World. Again he checked with a marshal — sure, come ahead. 15 minutes to go. We’re going to make it! I was emptying my pockets for the scanner, but then I wondered — should I send my Apple iPod through the scanner, or not? It might hurt it, and it’s expensive. The guy at the scanner smiled and said, “Oh yeah, just put that on the conveyor belt — it won’t hurt it. And don’t worry about emptying your pockets, it’s OK.”

This last was bad, bad advice. The body scanner beeped when I walked through it (cell phone!), and I was immediately sent to a velvet-roped Penalty Box. This was Not Good. A marshal came over, grim-faced. “Sit down over there, Sir.” Worse, worse. I was thoroughly scanned, and then, “Stand there, with your feet on the pictures of feet. Where are you from, Sir? Los Angeles, you say? That’s funny, you don’t sound like you — oh, you grew up in the South? I see…” He turned away for a moment.

Meanwhile, my iPod is just sitting over there, unattended, and did I mention that it’s expensive? But wait, I’m tall! I reeeeach over to pick it up — see I didn’t even have to move my feet! He turns back, sees the iPod in my hand; I’m not trying to hide it or anything. “Was that scanned? You’re not supposed to pick anything up until I’m through with you. Now I’ve got to go scan it super-thoroughly. Wait there.” Ack, ack, ack.

My iPod and I are given the green light. We run to the gate; less than 10 minutes to go. All of the passengers are already in the little tunnel that connects to the plane, and at the end of the line, there is my Asian couple again. They smile when they see me: “You made it!” But the woman points at a bag that both of them are holding, and the man says, “Oh, go back and get your Bistro bag.” Apparently, airlines are now weaseling out of meals wherever they can, and instead there is just a goody bag in a big cooler. You’re meant to just pick it up as you walk by. I went and got mine; I had been helped by the Asian couple 4 times in one flight! A woman arrived in line, even later than myself. “Oh, hey, don’t forget your Bistro bag,” I was able to say. She smiled at me as if to say, “Thanks, Super-Competent Person!” and went and got hers.

Perhaps you saw on the news, it turned out that there was what the U.S. felt was a credible threat of an attack on a flight from Paris to LAX, though some French officials thought that it was all overblown. As I understand it, they had intercepted a lot of chatter about this Flight 68 from Paris to LAX, and then on the flight manifest they found 3 passenger names matching known Al Queda or Taliban, one of whom was in pilot training). I guess they made some arrests, but most of those guys didn’t show up for the flight. I don’t know much about any upshot. But that’s why security was so tight at LAX.

I suppose that next time I’ll be sure to arrive many hours in advance, but in the case of the other night, all that I think would have happened would be that I would have stood in line a lot longer before being sent to the head of the line. Still would have been less stressful, though. I guess the real thing to do is to arrive way, way, early, maybe three hours early, and just go get some food and so forth after getting past security.

Hope that everybody had a good holiday.

-Tom