The conversation went something like this:
“I am checking in all the way to Los Angeles.”
“Well, you will have to collect your luggage in London.”
“Why on earth would I do that? I only have one hour in between flights and that doesn’t give me enough time to clear customs and check in again. Besides, you can always check your luggage all the way through.”
“Let me see.”
Twenty minutes later, more explanations on my part and my friend Sue hopping from desk to desk trying to find some Short Haul tags for my suitcase (apparently not available at the BA desks in Cape Town) I am holding a boarding pass.
“I can’t issue you a boarding pass from London to LA though”
I am tired of arguing and figure I can sort this out at my next stop, with someone more competent.
“I don’t seem able to issue you the London to LA boarding pass” the competent BA employee in Johannesburg says with a frown on her forehead. She calls over her supervisor and they both huddle over a screen I can’t see.
“I am afraid you have been selected for some additional security checks which is why we can’t issue you a boarding pass”
“Yes, the US government randomly picks a couple of passengers on every flight to the States. It’s not about you – it’s random. Just go to a BA desk when you get to London and they will tell you what to do”
I am not feeling terribly reassured and I am picturing latex gloves and cubicles and orifices better left untouched. Is it really random? Is it my foreign sounding name? Is it my non citizen status? As a woman who has travelled alone for many years, I am very aware of profiling in airports – there was a time when women travelling alone, with too many stamps on their passports, were deemed suspicious – possible drug couriers – and I was pulled over a million times.
As it turned out, in London the whole thing was quickly cleared up and I was on my merry way. But today I felt a little bit vindicated when Willie Walsh, British Airway’s Chairman, publicly spoke out on the US ridiculous security standards that degrade passengers, lengthen lines and are utterly useless. And every airport with flights to the US must abide by them.
These days, going through security inside an airport requires careful planning and extreme dexterity. Also paying attention to exactly what needs to be done, what can and cannot be carried as spelled out on boards and posters calls for good memory. Shoes and belts off, jacket in the bin, laptop out of the case, cellphone in the bag, no liquids exceeding a cup – somehow I still trigger the alarm and then body patting becomes necessary. Then everything needs to be repacked, re-worn, laced up in record time before the next fellow’s bag and laptop and shoes push you aside.
People who don’t travel often are recognizable by a lost look on their faces, impractical shoes and bare feet. That elderly people need to bend over and unlace their boots seem highly unneccessary.That families with small children, strollers and all manners of diaper bags have to unpack while keeping the whole thing together seems unfair. All in an effort to pretend that racial profiling is not happening. The Muslim family in line behind me took much longer to get through security than the Scandinavian one in front of me. A coincidence? Doubt it.
Since 9/11 instruments to detect explosives have become more sophisticated, making some of the required routines redundant. In the meantime, standing in line at security in Cape Town, the guard in charge of checking the x-ray monitor sat unperturbed playing a game with his cellphone while all kinds of carry on luggage was passing through.
For the first time in many years, I felt as BA was my friend and my oh-so-difficult-to-redeem air miles became suddenly more attractive.