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Air Farce

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I have been a frequent air traveler since I was a few months shy of my sixth birthday, when my parents packed me off to boarding school two plane rides away from home. Those days of being willingly handed from air hostess to air hostess as an "unaccompanied minor" made me blasé about the rigors of air travel. Going abroad to study as a teenager, and joining the United Nations at 22, confirmed my ease with the world of the frequent flyer. I saw the average airport terminal as a familiar haven, like a friend's sitting room.

But 9/11 changed all that. Of course we had lived with airport security checks before the World Trade Center was hit. But 9/11 and every airline security threat thereafter have made the checks so much more stringent. The assorted divestments, the enthusiastic frisking, the suspicious prying open of your bag, that bleeping wand pushed into awkward spots, have all combined to make flying less fun than ever. Passengers at airports now look so chronically morose that a passing vulture flying overhead would sense a business opportunity.

The episode of the "shoe bomber", Richard Reid, has suddenly meant more feet being bared at airports than at the average Hindu temple. My solution has been to replace my customary lace-up Oxfords with a pair of slip-on loafers when I fly. Generals are always fighting the last war, and security screeners are the same. I'm just grateful it was a shoe bomber they were reacting to. What on earth would they do if the next Richard Reid tried to ignite his underwear?

Then came the terrorists who planned to explode liquid chemicals on board. Since the plot didn't work the first time and no one has tried it since, the only beneficiaries of this are the recyclers, who receive a truck-load of discarded water and shampoo bottles from airports every day, and the concessionaires on the other side of security, who charge exorbitant prices to quench the thirst of parched passengers suddenly deprived of their drinks.

But that's not all that's changed. As security procedures intensified, I had thought it wise to travel light and check in everything I needed for my journey. I had always packed a sturdy suitcase with a combination lock to ensure I arrived with what I had packed. But the best laid plans of mice and men are vetoed by airport security. First the security people wanted you to leave the suitcase open when you checked it in, so they could screen it and examine the contents. In the US, the Transportation Security Administration now lets you keep your suitcase locked, provided it's of an approved brand whose combo locks they can open.

I promptly purchased a TSA-compliant Samsonite. I take several dozen flights a year in or from the US, and on every single one of them, without exception, I've arrived to find a TSA inspection notice nestling among my crumpled shirts. One would think that after the 40th attempt they might conclude that I was simply one of those people who didn't like to carry explosives in his suitcase.

It doesn't help, of course, that I bear a name and a countenance of sufficient swarthiness to increase the odds of my suitcase being "randomly" picked for a TSA inspection. Indians such as myself whose features might pass for Middle Eastern have learnt to put up with the misadventures of flying. "There was a time during the 1970s oil boom," a fellow Indian told me, "that I rather enjoyed being mistaken for Arab. People assumed I was richer than I was and treated me with respect. Now, after 9/11, I'm anxious to demonstrate I'm Indian. If I were a woman I'd wear a sari all the time, just to show I'm not that kind of brown."

If you're the wrong shade, you often face "random" secondary security screening and your hand luggage is subject to the most thorough check of all. What's worse is when individual items are held up to dubious inspection, amid loud calls for supervisors to rule on them. My tongue-cleaner, an Indian hygienic device since Vedic times that involves a U-shaped loop and is made of stainless steel, attracts particular attention. I can't imagine how it could be repurposed for use in a hijacking but I'm braced for the day I'm asked to demonstrate it. "Just say Aah . . ."

But you don't need exotica to interest the guardians of our collective safety, who all look at you with expressions that might have been filmed by Ingmar Bergman in one of his less frivolous moments. The challenge of finding a pair of nail-clippers that security won't confiscate is one that has defeated most travellers, as the heaps in front of each security officer testify. And yet you can usually go through security and buy yourself, from an airport store, a nail-clipper just like the one they confiscated, which you will then, of course, have to give to the security staff on your way home.

If that's all you have to go through at security, consider yourself lucky. In all fairness, you don't have to be brown to be selected for extra-special attention, though it helps. In their desire to prove the randomness of their biases, I've also seen security people pick passengers in inverse relation to the likelihood of their being a terrorist - elderly women making their way through security using a walker, say, or a certain white-haired senator from Massachusetts. (It is normally not difficult to tell the difference between Ted Kennedy and a terrorist fanatic bent on mass murder but I guess the TSA wanted to prove their even-handedness - or their bloodymindedness.)

I also know of people whose experiences were considerably more embarrassing than mine. (Heard about the mother carrying breast milk in a bottle for her baby who was ordered to drink it to prove it wasn't a lethal toxin? A friend tells me about his handicapped young son who flies with an oxygen tank. How do we know it's not a deadly poison gas, the TSA wanted to know.)

But every time you think you've got the formula down pat - slip-off shoes, no nailclippers or other sharp objects, no bottles of water, nothing you can't explain or bear to see displayed to the attentive public in line behind you - some new complication crops up. It's bad enough that you have to take out your laptop, empty your pockets, slip off your shoes, loosen your belt and shed your jacket to facilitate the inspections - they'll still ask you to spread your arms and legs. Worse, you have to smile through the whole ordeal. Because if you dare to complain, they really come down on you.

A witticism in an airport security line is like a Swiss tap - turn it on, and you instantly find yourself in hot water. "Jokes or inappropriate remarks regarding security could lead to your arrest," signs humourlessly warn you at strategic points. And until they actually close Guantánamo, I'm taking no chances . . . I have watched in mounting incredulity as one of my own books, which I was carrying as a gift, was taken away to be inserted into a special device after it had already passed security to make sure, no doubt, that my words wouldn't explode mid-flight.

So what's next? I don't know. But it's a measure of how much we have come to accept in today's world that we take those long lines at security in stride and don't even complain too loudly about the intrusiveness of those inspections. I feel sorry for the next six-year-old who needs to fly alone. The innocence with which I first embraced air travel is simply inconceivable today.

(Originally published in the Financial Times, December 27, 2008)