The Washington Post today reminds us that American airports are hell. Granted, anyone who's set foot in a terminal since last fall already knows that these days, clicking your heels and chanting is the more realistic way to travel.
Nevertheless, the Post article is a winner. Its point is to commiserate—a worthy public service. For today's frequent fliers, trading war stories is one of few comforts.
So here's mine.
Three weeks ago I was taking a Friday flight from Los Angeles to Austin, Texas. Just shy of two hours before my expected noon departure, my co-worker Brian Doherty's battered white hatchback shuddered to a near halt within sight of the airport. We hadn't broken down; we had just hit gridlock.
After covering the last tenth of a mile in fifteen minutes, we finally pulled up to the Southwest building. My jaw nearly dislocated as it dropped. The outdoor bag check line snaked the full length of the terminal and then wrapped around once.
But that hour-long line was a relaxed, full-service spa compared to the security wait. The line for security started at the foot of the stairs leading to the X-ray machines. I followed it, my expression going from amused, to disheartened, to flabbergasted as I tramped out the door, from Terminal One to Terminal Two. At that point, I peered down the line toward Terminal Three... Where did it end?
I now had 45 minutes until my noon flight. I did a quick interview of some of the folks in line; the earliest flight among them was 1 p.m. Not the line for me, I thought, and scampered off to find an airport employee.
"Be gone, mongoloid," telegraphed the eyes of the Southwest employee I approached. Undaunted, I explained my situation. He sent me inside, where apparently, there was a special indoor security line for people whose flights were at 12 or earlier. Go figure.
It was now 11:33. I was sweating and my spine was semi-permanently curved from my 30-pound carry-on.
Inside, the security "line" was more like an angry mob. The only airport chaos I've ever seen that comes close was in the customs line in Kiev, Ukraine, during the summer of 1994. There, a teeming polyglot crowd struggled to fill out customs forms in Spanish (the only language other than Ukrainian available) while jackhammers ripped up the linoleum nearby and threadbare cats wandered about apathetically.
At the Southwest terminal in Los Angeles, summer of 2002, we could have used a few cats. Instead, there were just a lot of anxious people pressed into a blob that jiggled and moaned but never, ever moved an inch. Occasionally someone up front with a megaphone tried to communicate with the crowd, but those of us in the back of the line—i.e., in another time zone—only heard muffled groans.
At 11:45, I decided to storm the front, along with a uniformed army colonel and a Midwestern ingénue. We arrived to find...more chaos. But suddenly, a miracle happened. A 6'2" blonde man spoke firmly and calmly into a megaphone, and something in his tone or his elocution actually made people listen.
"Alright people, quiet down and we'll all get through this. Everyone just needs to listen up," he commanded.
The crowd cheered, thrilled that someone had taken charge.
"If your flight is at or before 11:45, come to the front of the line," came his next booming instruction.