Sunday, May 22, 2011

Don't Touch My Coke!

I miss the golden age of air travel. For me it was probably more golden than for most because I can remember a time when there was no airport security. In the '60s, when I was a mere lad, passengers walked in the front door at the airport terminal, bought their tickets, checked their bags (as many as they wanted, for free!) and (in some cases) walked across the tarmac to get into the airplane. The passenger boarding bridge, which allowed people to walk onto the airplane directly from the holdroom without going outside was still a relatively new invention, and despite the introduction of the Boeing 707 (and later the 727), there were still plenty of piston-driven propeller aircraft around - Convair 440's, Douglas DC-6's and 7's, and Lockheed Constellations. For an airplane enthusiast (and I was one), it was a time when I could go to the airport on a Saturday afternoon, just to watch the airplanes take off and land. There were even observation decks - outdoor observation decks! - on the roofs of some terminals, so you could look out at the airplanes with only a chain link fence holding you back (for your protection, not to protect homeland security).

Then in 1968, the first American got on board an airplane and decided in mid-flight to change his travel itinerary to include Havana, Cuba. He would soon be joined by others, some of them fleeing conscription into the Vietnam War and others motivated by their solidarity with Fidel Castro. All were enabled by handguns they had toted onto the airplane with them (because happiness is a warm gun). In 1970, a quartet of American aircraft were hijacked in Europe and flown to the desert (I think it was Egypt). This time, the aircraft had been hijacked by Palestinians in what would be the first of many incidents that were intended to liberate their homeland. The airplanes were later incinerated.

After a sufficient number of these incidents, the US authorities, and those in other countries decided that perhaps they needed to restrict the carriage of weapons onto aircraft, and the first laws were enacted to prohibit persons from walking onto airplanes armed. They set up the security procedures that we all came to know and, if not love, then accept. Metal detectors were hastily developed, tested and installed at all airports, and everyone who wanted to go out to where passengers were boarding airplanes had to pass through one - to prove they were weapon free. The detectors were simple - they shone X-Rays through the person who was passing through them and emitted a loud warning beep if anything suspicious were detected. Crude, they were, but they were effective. And security screeners trained and employed by the FAA or hired by private contractors working for the airlines made sure that no contraband got through. It was easy, it was simple, it was no big deal. Then came 9-11.

The destruction of the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York was an unexpected shock that changed everything about air travel. Suddenly, we were all on hair-trigger alert. Airplanes that had previously been quarantined from us by a thin line of metal detectors were now suddenly more vulnerable than anyone had ever conceived, and their potential to be used as bombs had us all spooked. No one was more spooked than our government, which now fretted how to reliably keep us safe from terrorists bent on committing suicide by ramming an airplane into a building. Thus was born the Transportation Security Administration and the Department of Homeland Security, and the burdensome rigamarole of having your bags sniffed by explosives detectors and of taking off your shoes, your belt, your metal jewelry and all your other junk. The plain vanilla metal detector now takes pictures of you (and sells them to Penthouse), and if you don't like it, the security agents will play "I feel your fingers, touching my shoulder" (fans of Jekyll & Hyde: The Musical already know the tune). If you don't like getting your junk touched (and I have many friends in Hong Kong who are very possessive of their junks), it can be hard to find a seat on a flight. For the airlines, life has never been the same. As soon as they dug out of the hole caused by skittish passengers abandoning flights after 9-11, oil prices went through the roof, and it took a recession to bring prices down, which meant no one was flying airplanes. Now, flights are full and ticket prices are up, but so is fuel again. The airlines just can't catch a break. American Airlines, the one carrier that knew how to make money in the '80s and '90s, hasn't seen a profit in a decade. And every other airline except Southwest has gone bankrupt at least once (maybe that's what American has done wrong!).
We had other worries in 1980. For one thing, the Iron Curtain had not yet fallen. For another, oil prices had gone up to $40 a barrel, which pushed the pump price well over $1 a gallon. The cause of that was a third worry: Iran had seized Americans as hostages. And finally, the economy was in the doldrums. But the airlines had been deregulated, and we could be reasonably certain that flights were safe from the specter of hijacking. We just couldn't be confident of the ingredients in Coca-Cola.

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