Near Yellow Mountain

Saturday, October 8, 2011

How things have changed - my travel experience

I started to write this post a few days before the 10th Anniversary of Sept 11, 2001 but got side tracked before leaving the US on a three trip that took me to Buenos Aires and Salta in Argentina, Los Angeles, Shanghai and Tokyo. From the Atlantic to the Pacific and back with a sojourn to 13,000 feet in the Andes in the middle. I flew from Charlotte NC to Buenos Aires on anniversary of 9/11. It was hard not to reflect on how life has changed............ now to finish my original post.

Labor Day has always been a transition holiday. As a kid, it marked the end of summer vacation and the beginning of school. As an adult it marked the end of the slowest part of the business year and the beginning of the push to finish the year stronger than the prior year.

Ten years ago I was living in Japan and did not celebrate Labor Day but my colleagues in the US did. That week I was preparing for my boss to arrive in Japan on September 11. By that time, I had been in Japan 18 months and was beginning to forget about American holidays. My "new normal: was taking the train to work rather than driving, bowing instead of shaking hands and trying to explain to our American HQ why things were different in Japan. Life had changed but my travel life was about to change more than I could imagine.

Before I moved to Japan, I was traveling about 100 days a year. I lived 20 minutes from the airport and on days that I needed to fly, would leave the house about 60 minutes before my departure time, park at the $6/day lot just a few steps from the terminal, check-in, go through security, get something to drink in the lounge and board the plane. That, for me as a frequent flyer, was a normal flying day in the US before September 11, 2001.

Before I write further I am very aware that the real tragedy of 9/11 is that many families lost loved ones in the terror attacks and the ensuing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Of course, that is the real tragedy of 9/11.

However in addition to the real tragedy is second order impact - all the "over the top" and mostly useless "security" that has been added to the travel experience. Any commercial traveler in the US is required to have a part in the security "Kabuki" that takes place in airports all over the US.

I remember my first domestic flights when I returned to the US for the first time after 9/11. My one hour departure from my front door to take off became a three hour ordeal. Despite being an American, my travel in the US set off all the alarms set up by the newly formed airport security apparatus. My tickets were for first class and issued in Japanese Yen rather than US dollars. Although Japan was not known as a hotbed for terrorists, the simple test in the fall of 2001 for a potential terrorist was "any ticket written in a foreign currency". The 9/11 terrorists flew in first class so that combined with foreign currency got me "randomly" selected for "enhanced" security 100% of the time for almost two years. Fortunately the "shoe bomber" had yet to appear so while my carry-on bags were being dumped out in front of me and my three cells were being scrutinized, at least I got to keep my shoes on. My US, Japan and China based cell phones always brought on additional questions: "why all the phones?" My simple answer that I traveled regularly to the US and China and lived in Japan (global phones were outrageously expensive and not common in 2001) always brought more "why? why? why? questions. Meanwhile, as my patience wore thin and boarding continued I was losing overhead bin space - as someone who doesn't check bags this was a constant frustration as was the attitude of most of the security people who had yet been organized into TSA.

My recollection is that flying remained extremely inconvenient for almost five years. I remember being in Australia with my family on vacation and watching the report about the "shoe bomber" on a flight to the US. My first thought was "here we go again" and sure enough a few weeks later in the US I was padding barefoot through the X-ray machine. Once in Hawaii, my entire family was told each of us was "randomly" selected to a search - we were taken to a tented area and all our bags, even those my wife and kids had checked, were dumped out on a  tarp and checked. "What are the odds of 4 people with the same last name being randomly selected on a flight with less than 150 people?" I asked the person in charge. The only response was that we do what we are told......

Each new wrinkle in the TSA policy seemed like a bad joke to me - especially after the "no more than 3 ounces of liquid in a single container and all liquids  in one small plastic bag" requirement was added. I quickly learned that as long as I produced a bag with small liquid containers on the belt through the x-ray machine, I could leave other liquids in my briefcase and not get questioned - that made the plastic bag rule seem even more foolish. I still do this every flight and can say that after literally more than 200 trips through security I have only been stopped once for the hand moisturizer and contact lens solution I always leave in my briefcase.

Recently the TSA has added body scanners at many airports - no belts or anything in your pockets now. The lines get slower and it is highly doubtful any real measure of security is being added.

Osama is gone now but his legacy of causing travel inconvenience will live on. I am all for better security when it is more than a show for the masses. As someone that travels the world on a regular basis, I still wonder why the US cannot seem to put a system that is efficient and no evasive like they have in Japan, other parts of Asia and many places in Europe.