If you are an expat, you travel internationally by definition. I get back to the US a few times a year, both for work and for play, and I also go to other interesting places (Australia, Singapore last year and China in a few short months) again for a combination of work and play. So nothing makes my heart drop into my gut like a new round of “increased security measures” for international air travel, especially to the US. There has been plenty written on the subject, both before and since the most recent triggering event. Most of what happens in reality is nothing more than “security theater” and manages to punish innocent travelers without catching the bad guys. On my last trip into the US I was selected for random screening of the sort that they are now doing for everyone leaving the UK for the US–pat down, shoes removed a second time, carry-on bag hand-searched. At the time, I muttered an off-hand comment about how this was worse than in the US, where I have never had to remove and replace my shoes twice in two different locations prior to boarding a plane. The defensive BA employee noted that it was the “US requiring these random searches” and of course that is the case currently. Of course, I’ve had particularly bad timing in the past and been right in the midst of strange new rules. Back in the aftermath of the 2006 liquid bomb plot, when I was returning to the US after my UK job interview I almost lost my shoes: as in, the airline nearly confiscated them. They were sandals with heavy bottoms (I can’t recall if they were Doc Martens or Chacos but it was one of the two) and the airline employee kept lifting them a foot off the ground and then dropping them, over and over. To this day I don’t know what she thought, but my barefoot self learned an important lesson standing there, and I have never again flown in sandals. On that same trip I had to check my DSLR camera and laptop, which was an altogether uncomfortable experience as well.
The frustrating thing is that this latest event should have looked suspicious and been queried for reasons that had nothing to do with the new “security measures”–buying a plane ticket with cash for a two week trip abroad with no luggage? Seriously, people, that didn’t raise any red flags at all? Scary. Of course, having just passed through the Orlando, Florida airport I spotted all sorts of amazing and crazy things, mostly in the form of excessive and bulky carry-on luggage, shopping bags, and people who clearly never travel and had no idea how to comply with current security requirements. The Orlando airport did not have the new expert traveler lines working due to overcrowding, but eventually that might help those of us who know the drill and never travel with more than one carry-on and one suitcase, no matter what the trip.
I did not travel internationally prior to 9/11, so I don’t know how different it was back in the golden age before security theater increased in prominence. And my good friend Kat posted a scary premonition of where we might end up. It does feel that way–oddly naked in public, when you are stumbling through the magnetometer stocking footed, with no jacket or sweater and holding up your trousers because the belt is on the x-ray line. I try to roll my eyes and get on with it, accepting this as just another pain in the arse that comes with the many positive adventures of a life spent far from the place of my birth. And I am fully aware of the overall risks of air travel, and how they compare to other modes of transport. And I do willingly take on those risks by flying much more than the average person. But it is entirely true that when I have a bad day, and I’m drawing up my list of pros and cons of living in the UK, you can bet the security theater of flying from Heathrow back to the US ranks fairly high on the list of cons. And it just got a whole lot worse this week.