Sunday, January 10, 2010

Getting Here is NONE of the Fun!

Timing, as they say, is everything! As circumstance would have it, I was starting my return flight schedule to Loreto last Saturday, one week after the “underwear bomber” had failed to blow up another American airliner – but had succeeded in creating a new level of panic, and a new series of security precautions on all US bound flights from Canada.

I had been following regular news reports all week, since the Nigerian would-be-bomber had been apprehended while trying to create an explosive chemical reaction in his shorts, to ascertain what the new restrictions would be affecting my travel plans. By the departure day I knew that the authorities were requiring US bound passengers to check in at least three hours before their scheduled flight time to allow for enhanced security screening. I also knew that they were limiting carry-on baggage to one item, and the list of acceptable items included a laptop and presumably a case to carry it in, although that was never specifically mentioned.

Therefore, I arrived at the airport by 10:00 am for my scheduled 1:30 departure, and I was the second person in line when I located the Alaskan/Horizon check-in podium. Other passengers arrived soon afterwards and the line-up looked suitably crowded by 10:30, when the check-in staff arrived. I was pleased to see that the airline personnel had adjusted their regular schedule and they were ready to begin the check-in process about an hour earlier than normal.

I had already planned to travel with two checked bags and so it wasn’t too difficult to find space for the other items that could no longer be carried on, like my camera bag and a small overnight bag with the things I needed for the layover in Los Angeles. With careful planning, and a set of fairly reliable bathroom scales, I managed to pack both checked bags so that they weighed just under the 50 lb. maximum. So I was feeling organized and confident when I presented myself for the check-in, but things started to awry right away!

When I said that I was checking two bags the attendant asked what was in my rather substantial briefcase, to which I replied “My laptop and a few books and papers”. She looked at me sternly and said “One book only and no other items other than computer cables etc.” So I proceeded to remove several books and two portfolios with papers and stow them in the outside pockets of the checked bags – knowing full well that this extra weight would put both bags into the dreaded (and expensive) “Heavy Bag” category. However, much to my surprise (and relief), she did not charge me for the overweight, or even the regular baggage charges of $15 for the first and $25 for the second – a rare gesture of leniency in today`s world of increasingly restricted airline policies.

After the check-in I proceeded to the US Immigration area and went through the usual procedures – where I`m sure even the most innocent among us feels somehow guilty, as we stand patiently waiting for the stern faced officer to return our documents and give us the OK to carry on, and, in effect, enter America, in spite of the fact that I was still physically, if not technically, in the Calgary Airport. I then joined a longer than normal line up to drop off the checked bags. The delay was caused by a pre-screening of all the carry-on bags, to determine that the contents complied with the new regulations, while there was still the opportunity to add any surplus items to the checked luggage. My now slimmed down briefcase passed this inspection and I dropped off the checked luggage and proceeded to the final phase – security screening.

The now familiar routine of removing the laptop from its bag and taking off shoes and emptying pockets was now enhanced with a detailed inspection by security personnel of everything before it entered the X-ray machine. I then proceeded through the metal detector after which I was directed to one of several uniformed Mounties who were conducting a thorough pat down frisking. After this once-over I then retrieved my possessions, but not before they were all re-inspected by a different security person and the laptop was swabbed for explosives. Finally, I was free to put my things back together again and make my way to the gate – surprisingly at this point, the entire procedure from check-in to the gate, had taken only 45 minutes and I had over two hours to wait for my departure.

We boarded the plane on schedule, but there was a delay while the flight crew tried to balance the passenger list with the manifest – eventually deciding that we were missing one passenger who had checked in with luggage, but they were not aboard the plane. This necessitated sorting through the entire stowed luggage to find and remove the orphan bags and then reload the cargo again. While I gather this is not all that unusual a circumstance, it had never happened to me before, and it brought home the sobering reality that all of this complicated security routine, that often seems unnecessary and designed to frustrate the general travelling public, is in fact there for a purpose. Given the fact that someone had checked baggage for the flight and then failed to board it, took on ominous overtones, in light of the heightened level of security we had all been through.

The rest of the journey through Seattle and connecting on to Los Angeles was uneventful – being pre-cleared in Canada we are treated like a domestic flight arriving in Seattle and can stay in the secured area to the next departure gate. I picked up my bags in LAX and waited only a couple of minutes for the Hotel Shuttle and was settled in my room ordering room-service half an hour later. The next morning I repacked my carry-on with the books and things I had removed the day before, to reduce the weight of the checked bags again, and headed back to the Airport, a little more than two hours before my departure for Loreto.

After lining up for half an hour to get a boarding pass and check my bags I found that I was unable to use the computer kiosk to print a boarding pass – perhaps because it didn`t recognize my Canadian Passport – so I had to join a second line for Agent Assistance. The Agent had no problem checking me in and took both bags without comment – or baggage charges, again – and I was off on my way to clear security.

In my past experience security at LAX is definitely NOT lax! Understandable, I guess, as it is one of the busiest and highest profile Airports in the country. So I was not surprised to see a line-up of several hundred people winding their way through tape barriers before finally reaching the inspection lines. After going through the usual routine, again, I passed through the metal detector and then received another thorough pat-down like the one I had received the day before by the Mountie. As I collected my computer and shoes etc. after scanning, I realized, to my surprise, that I had somehow neglected to actually put my briefcase on the conveyor. This eventually necessitated one of the security staff to ``swim upstream`` through the people waiting to be passed through the metal detector, locate my missing briefcase, that I had left on the floor at the end of the conveyor, and pass it through the scanner. All of this was completed without me being arrested or put through the dreaded ``secondary inspection`` and I was soon on my way, entering the Alaskan gate areas.

But not so fast! I was less than 50 feet past the security area when I heard my name being paged to report to a gate for an urgent message. As I was just passing the indicated gate when I heard the announcement, I arrived just as the gate attendant was replacing her microphone. The cause for alarm was that they had located a 2``x 3`` box (in one of my 50 lb. checked bags) that contained 10 little Co2 charger cartridges for the whipped cream dispenser that was a Christmas gift I was carrying back with me. The gate attendant asked me if I wanted them to hold the cartridges for my return, or to dispose of them – I of course said to chuck them! But I was amazed and impressed that this tiny box of admittedly contraband items had been identified and located within the suitcase loaded with various and sundry Christmas gifts etc. and the system was so efficient that they had been able to contact me before I had even made it to the gate.

I later found out that they had also called my Canadian contact number and acquired my cell phone number and I received that call (as I was eating my breakfast) in addition to their paging me – all over a few dollars worth of disposable cartridges. I also admit that I was feeling a bit sheepish over blithely packing these compressed gas cylinders in contravention of the most basic baggage guidelines. I then got to thinking why these items had not been caught when my bags were screened back in Calgary the previous day – but I didn`t want to dwell on this minor breach of security in light of all the other measures I had been through on this trip.

The remainder of the trip was thankfully uneventful, and I arrived at the new Loreto terminal and saw the much improved new arrivals area with the new Immigration desk and the same old conveyor from the old airport. My bags were among the last to be unloaded and the line crawled through the arrived baggage scanning process before I pushed the green light – again – and was finally free to leave the Airport and all of its security and finally be able to appreciate the warm sunny weather that greeted me in Loreto.

And so ends my story about flying under the most recent enhanced security procedures. As I sat down to write this I was thinking I would come up with some scathing criticisms about frisking Grannies and ziplocked baggies of small doses of hand cleaner and the utter futility of preventing the previous threat to our security. However as the story unfolded and I reflected on how surprisingly smooth and efficient the process was, relatively speaking, my attitude has changed and I am now appreciative of the dozens (perhaps hundreds) of trained professionals in two countries and four airports that co-operated to get me safely to my destination, in spite of the increasingly dangerous and threatening world we live in, and my own lapses that contributed to the situation.

Being lucky enough to be able to travel across continents and arrive in this beautiful sanctuary of perfect weather and breathtaking surroundings is certainly well worth the minor inconveniences necessary to insure our safety – and that is one of the lessons I have learned ``Living Loreto``.