Air Fair 3: Return to the Ticket Counter

How was flying again? In a word: AAAAUUUUGGGGHHHH!!!!!

That’s not a word? How about this word: motherfucker.

Technically two words, but Merriam Webster says it’s one, defining it as a “generalized term of abuse.”

To give you an idea, I started writing this before most of it happened. The more I typed, it seemed the worse it got.

Due to time constraints, I can’t be so free with the airline or price this time. There’s not a whole lot that doesn’t leave too early the day before (the latest was at 7, I was working until 10) or arrive too late in the day the next day. A lot of those not only left obscenely early – 6-7 am – but had up to 4(!) hour layovers. (Flying due east to Wisconsin? You won’t mind a 3-hour stop in Georgia – because it’s on the way. You can walk around outside, in your winter coat.)

Have you ever flown before? On a plane? Ever watch with irritated bemusement when they start boarding, calling first class and people with special needs (same thing, I know), and some twitchy fuckers with refrigerator dollies for luggage crowd around the gate, like it’s the Wyoming land rush and someone’s suddenly going to yell, “go!” and they can race for the best seat – a seat which was assigned before they go there. They crowd right up to the rope, with postures that scream, “me? me now? now? me?” because they might call the rows in alphabetical instead of numerical order.

This may actually be the case now. See, I figured I’d be smart this time (ha!) and not opt for the middle seat near the front, nor over the wing, next to the engine. No, I grabbed the completely empty (at the time) row at the back of the plane (a little ways from the lavatory, of course). I should be in the first group to board. I print out my boarding passes, which have a big number “4” on them.

Apparently United – whom I’ve now flown for the last time (or at least attempted to, read on) – shuffles everybody around, and boards by these numbers which, as far as I could tell, don’t correspond to anything. People who boarded with the 1’s were sitting near me, and some other 4’s were sitting near the front. If it works for them, so be it. Just bolloxes up my cunning plan.

I can still hear George Carlin voicing over my son’s Thomas the Tank Engine DVD’s: “Then, there was trouble.”

Seems there’s a hydraulic problem with one of the wings. (Don’t hydraulics have to do with water? If we’re flying in the air, why is this a problem?) By 6:30 (6 am departure, been there since 5, up since 3:30) I’m waiting in the (now) long line at the gate, trying to get rebooked so I can make it to Chez Cheese before my press runs, if not my connecting flight.

Verizon is connecting me to United customer (dis)service – or so they say, before hanging up on me. I manage to get through, and button mash my way to an agent. Let’s just say that my company’s java-laiden flight booker in my old browser on my older system works faster than this guy. Turns out there’s not so many flights – at least on United

He tells me the next flight out doesn’t leave until 8:30. The next connecting flight gets me in at 2:30 – which, accounting for time zones is really 3:30. There were other flights, direct or connecting through other cities that would have gotten me there earlier, but they all leave around 6, so they’re gone now. How terribly efficient.

When I tell him to book me a flight on another airline, he tells me, “that’s not possible.” Never mind that I can hear the gate agent booking people on Continental.

The pilot had said he didn’t expect the issue to be solved for at least another 45 minutes at the earliest, and that it didn’t look good. Chucklehead on the phone says, “it looks here like your flight is scheduled to depart at 7:15 (riiiight), so perhaps that’s your best bet.” I wouldn’t make my scheduled connection, but I’m booked on the flight after, which is still early enough.

Are there still seats available on the 8:30? Oh, yes, he says, plenty of seats. “Plenty” of seats? Or “a lot” of seats? “I’m showing a lot of seats still open.” I figure I can rebook if I have to if the plane isn’t fixed presently.

…which, of course, is as soon as I get off the phone. Everyone get your stuff, we’re deplaning now. (and now I have Hervé Villechaize in my head again.)

Oh, and that 8:30? Now sold out.

Don’t feel sorry for me. There were a lot of kids on this plane. The mere ordeal of flying was already causing some of them to melt down. This kind of stuff is torture to them. One child, who couldn’t have been more than a few weeks old, was managing to sleep through it all. Pity her parents, who have to lug around all the stuff that comes with traveling with children. If you think it’s hard to go through this, go through this with children who’re going through it, too.

One thing did manage to brighten my morning. A cute little tyke, jumping up and down and squealing a happy squeal in the carrier her mom wore over her chest. I smiled. I caught her mother’s eye and said, “I love kids.”

Surprised, she said, “you do?”

“Yes,” I said, “they’re delicious.”

Waiting in line again, I get on the phone with my corporate travel office – which is only open during business hours (it’s 7 am on Saturday). Still, I get through to someone. They rebook me on a Midwest flight (official airline of the Milwaukee Brewers, thank you very much, and that cookie they serve during the flight – mmm…), leaving around 11:30, but still getting in just under the wire. I’m told to have the United gate agent print me a ticket. The agent, after waving his hands that he didn’t rebook it so he can’t verify that I have a seat, blah, blah, he prints out what looks like a ticket and a receipt. He then tears up my original boarding passes, so now this is the only proof I have that I’ve paid for any flight at all.

It was not a boarding pass, which I thought, but which the TSA agent kindly informed me. I need to check in at the ticket counter. (This is why I check in online and print my boarding passes.)

Only there’s no one at the ticket counter. First, the Midwest counter is at the complete, opposite end of the terminal – the very last one, in fact. And it’s closed. (Why would it be open? They don’t have any planes leaving for hours yet.) And while even AirTran has dozens of self-serv kiosks, Midwest has one, sad, unattended counter. So I get to start writing this post, for an hour, before it’s staffed again.

“Then, there was trouble.”

Turns out the paper I have isn’t a boarding pass, nor is it a ticket. It’s got a whole bunch of numbers and codes on it that say, “he was ours, he’s your problem now.” The agent tells me I need a ticket to check in. So she sends me over to the United counter – at the other end of the terminal – to get a ticket.

This counter is staffed – though the staff insist I can use the self-serv kiosk. I’m belligerent enough that they take a look at my stuff, and they can’t understand why the gate agent didn’t print the ticket out. Here you go, no problem.

Back to the Midwest counter.

“Then, there was trouble.”

The agent says she can’t give me a boarding pass, because she needs to attach it to a ticket. Now, I just handed her what looked and felt like an airline ticket, and it was stapled to my other paperwork, so I’m befuddled.

See, there’s a ticket number, but at the top it says, “e-ticket.” Apparently this means it ceases to be made of paper. And, being electronic, you can’t actually staple a boarding pass… to the paper… with “e-ticket” written on it.

I consider suggesting writing “put me on a friggin’ plane, you dolt” across the top, but deign to listen to her tell me it’s the system that won’t allow her to do it.

So she sends me back to the United counter.

At the other end of the terminal.

Still carrying my bags.

The United staff share my “are you a freakin’ idiot?” moment and write me a “do this” note to take back.

Now I can has barding pasz. One with “SSSS” written all over it. It apparently stands for “Super Secret Special Screening.” Because, before, when I booked my flight myself, I was OK. But now that they’ve canceled my flight and I’ve been standing around the airport for hours, now I’m a security risk. I’ve been through security once already, and I haven’t left the airport, but now I might be carrying a bomb.

Which, come to think of it, doesn’t seem that far fetched. Though I’d be more inclined to bomb the useless plane I kicked off than the one that might actually take me where I’m going. I just hope they don’t put the toddlers through this.

(I should note that the very polite gentleman who checked all my stuff, explaining that it’s common to be “selected” in cases of canceled flights, who was using his high tech gadgets to detect microscopic traces of explosive components on my laptop, was a bit awestruck at the discovery of my Bluetooth headset. He hadn’t seen anything like it before. Way to keep up with technology.)

It’s OK. I’ve got nothing on me that would warrant a FBCS (figure it out). And I’ve got hours before my plane leaves. Take your time. I should be able to get to the press just in time.

(I’ll point out that I got to the press, went to my hotel, finished writing most of this, watched a movie, went to bed… and then went to approve the color on press, 11 hours later. Again, don’t feel bad for me. I keep thinking about my 2-yr-old son, who woke up looking for daddy. When he told me on the phone, “I want to go to the airport, too,” he still could have.)

The Midwest ticket agent asked me if I would be willing to accept sitting in an exit row (“sorry, that’s all I have available”) – oh, hell yeah. “Willing to accept” extra legroom? Are you kidding?

Except when you’re sitting next to someone who’s booked the exit row because they need the extra room. The shoulders of the linebacker sitting next to me extended into my headrest. I spent the trip leaning out into the aisle.

Still, I managed to sleep. Except for when I kept getting hit by the drink trolly.

That cookie was pretty good.

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Published in: on November 25, 2008 at 12:22 pm  Leave a Comment  

Air Fair 2: Dyspeptic Bugaboo – TSA rules hard to swallow

I’m a fan of BoingBoing.net. They have several ongoing threads regarding the current state of the Security Theater™ under the oppression of which we now live. Among the heart-rending stories of children being forcibly removed from planes and grandmothers being accused of paedophilia for taking pictures of empty playgrounds, are numerous stories about the malfeasance that is the TSA. One of the more recent is the TSA employee who managed to walk out of Newark “Liberty” (ha!) International with a couple hundred thousand dollars of high-end electronics (cameras, laptops, GPS’s) from passengers’ bags over the course of (at least) several months, with not even the TSA noticing.

So, I’m flying out of Newark this trip. Didn’t have any issues this time (unlike others, see below). I even went through with the Swiss Army nail clipper that I had meant to take out of my bag. (it doesn’t have a knife, but the nail file is rather pointy. and then there’s that miniature screw driver…) After reading all the stories of people having things like nail clippers confiscated, I was surprised to find it there later. Either they’re allowing people to trim their nails on planes now, or they just didn’t notice. Past experience would suggest the later, but since they did find the two 1 oz. bottles of shampoo and conditioner I saved from the hotel’s refuse on the return trip, I have to assume they saw it and let it go.

Do you know what else they’re apparently allowing on planes now? Knitting needles.

Knitting fucking needles.

Yeah, I know, you can’t really see them in the shot, but trust me, that old lady was pearling two while I was trying to surreptitiously snap a pic with my phone. I was wary of being frog marched off the plane for the “suspicious act” of taking a picture. Because only terrorists use cameras and only little old ladies use 8-inch metal spikes. On planes.

They’re apparently also exempt from the “please put all carry-on items under the seat in front of you” rule. You put the loose stuff that’s not tied down under the seat so that it doesn’t fly across the plane in an accident. The damage you’d take from the “rapid deceleration trauma” of the plane suddenly meeting concrete isn’t made any better by metal spikes suddenly meeting the back of your head.

(I probably would have let it go in this case, too, as where she was sitting they would likely only fly through first class.)

Bruce Schneier [Schneier.com] is my hero. I’ve read many articles and blog posts written by him in the realm of computer security. His expertise is not limited to mere computers but encompasses Security in general. He should be granted sainthood. He contributed to an Atlantic Monthly article recently [“The Things He Carried”] which showed just how easily airport security [theater] can be circumvented. If you think a bunch of near minimum wage, marginally educated, authority abusing, blue-shirted baggage [mis]handlers are keeping you safer, you need to read this article.

And if you think it the height of irresponsibility to show just how easy it is to create a fake boarding pass, walk right around things like no-fly lists, with prohibited items in your pockets, consider this: I used to share your opinion.

I once considered it morally and ethically reprehensible that someone would publish ways of circumventing the things that keep us safer. A number of things changed my mind. One, of course, was Mr. Schneier. Another was the book Little Brother by BoingBoing contributer Cory Doctorow. They caused me to see the instructions on how to defeat most padlocks with a soda can in a new light.

You buy locks to keep your things yours. You now know that a great many people know how to walk right through that lock like it’s not there. After you get over the initial fear that nothing is safe anymore, you go out and buy a new, functional lock. And that makes you safer.

My mother lives in a “gated” community. I say that in quotes because the “gate” is operated by people who are not working for the TSA, for what ever reason, and can be walked right around – and frequently is. When you pull up and say, “hi, I’m here to see my mom,” they ask, “do you have the number?” being too lazy to look it up. (I’m only assuming laziness – there could be other reasons they might not be willing or able to discern the numbers and their order in a book.)

“Sure,” I say, “it’s [my wife’s cell phone number].” My wife, sitting next to me, answers the ringing phone in her hand when the “guard” calls and says, “OK, let them in.”

Did I harm anyone (besides the gate operator’s feelings)? Did I point out a flaw in the system? If you live there, do you feel safer knowing this? Do you really think no one of criminal intent has already found – and possibly already exploited – this flaw? Should you chastise me for pointing it out to everyone (put the keyboard down, mom) or should you find a way to fix it?

Not only are the TSA’s rules seemingly arbitrary, they’re capriciously enforced. (big “DUH!” if you’ve flown recently.)

  • My wife and I are waiting on the security line to board a plane. I take from her hand, by mistake (because I would never purposefully try to create a stir that could get me arrested), her ticket and passport. Handing them to the agent who took enough time from talking his buddy to hold out his hands, he looks them up and down, determines they’re valid, and hands them back to me all without looking at my face. Many men have feminine-sounding first names, and it’s possible dye one’s hair from blond (in the photo) to brown (mine) or vice-versa, but the scruffy, unshaven man holding the boarding pass is decidedly not female.
  • I’m flying out of Newark, not long after one guy tries (and fails) to light the shoelace fuse on his shoe bombs. Everyone now has to take of their shoes. On the return trip from a, shall we say, less urban airport, I ask, “do I have to take my [boots that lace all the way up past my ankles] off?” “Nah, g’head.” So, is rural America safe from us big city folk, but not the other way around? Wait…
  • Coming back again from said not-so-urban-but-then-I’m-an-east-coast-elitist airport, Sheriff J.W. Pepper pulls my bag aside. “Is this your bag, sir?” I’m expecting a world of crap for the rat’s nest of cables and wires for all of the electronics I’m carrying. Pulling items from my bag, he takes the time to remind me that all liquids must be carried in a sealable, zippered, clear plastic bag. He then proceeds to take my toiletries from the zippered, clear plastic bag that came with my luggage, and so doesn’t say “Ziploc” on it.
         When I foolishly attempted to argue with the double-digit IQ that was detaining me, saying, “I flew out of New York with everything like that,” he says, “New York is a very busy area; they don’t take security as seriously as we do here.” Truth be told, no one’s crashed a plane into anything near there recently. (And then there’s those knitting needles…)
         After my dangerous toothpaste was secured in a provided baggie, we all became safer and could fly again. I proceeded down the end of the corridor to put my shoes back on, and my deodorant et al. back into my toiletry bag, in full view of TSA personel. (because real terrorists are not able to get into plastic bags, once they’re sealed.)
         In case you were wondering, the only thing this policy keeps safe is your shirt, when the change in cabin pressure makes things like shampoo bottles pop open and drip down out of the overhead. But then perhaps you should be threatened with arrest for being inconsiderate and careless.

As Schneier points out in the Atlantic Monthly article, even when it works, it only keeps you safe from the stupid terrorists.

  • On another trip, I headed to the automated check in kiosk, instead of the attended but otherwise vacant ticket counter. Attempting to get my boarding pass, I was asked for the credit card on which it was purchased – a corporate card, which I don’t have. Next choice was scanning my passport, which I didn’t bring for a domestic flight, then my driver’s license, which didn’t cooperate. Typing in the confirmation number manually produced no results, so it was off to the ticket counter. They were very friendly (really) helping check in the man with only basic ID, without the card under which the ticket was purchased, who attempted to get a boarding pass with no human interaction and failed. It was when I was going through the security check that I noticed the “OOO” on my boarding pass (when the person checking my ID highlighted it).
         Singled out for “additional screening,” I waited for someone to go through my bag and wipe my laptop with one of those papers that turns blue or something when you’re pregnant or there’s explosives inside. Unfortunately it was lunch time, so no one was available, except the supervisor (I think) who x-rayed my bag. He said, since he’s the one who x-rayed it, he’s not supposed to be the one to check manually. This makes perfect sense. He was very apologetic, admitting how silly it was that he had to be the one to look through everything, since he just looked through it on a screen.

The bomb only needs to get through once. If anyone really meant us harm, how many times would they attempt to get truly hazardous things like beer past security, when the worst that happens is they get turned away? 100? 1000? At how many different airports? No amount of Dramamine® can help the sick feeling in your stomach that should cause.

Published in: on October 24, 2008 at 1:05 pm  Leave a Comment  
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