After reading Kate Harding’s post today on the, um… interesting experiences that await us when we travel by air, I thought that I might relate some of my experiences as a valued passenger of several different airlines. Admittedly, most of my negative experiences have been at airports, and so were not the fault of a particular airline. I do wish I had some positive experiences to discuss, but, well… let’s just say airports and planes are not my favourite places.
My first time travelling overseas by plane was also my first time I ever travelled alone. I was flying from Sydney to Los Angeles to attend Blizzcon, and while I was excited about the trip, I was also amazingly nervous. Ten days in a country I had never been in before, talking to people I hadn’t actually physically met, about (of all things) video games and blogging. So, I was an amusing combination of bouncy, nervous, and outright sleepy when I got to Sydney Airport.
Well, I checked my luggage, wandered around like an idiot trying to figure out just where I was supposed to go (having just flown in from tiny Dubbo Airport with its two gates), and finally found the security gate. The people there were fairly gruff and humourless, as I suppose most customs agents (or whoever the heck they were) are, but I chucked my bag through the scanner, walked through the metal detector, and put my iPod back in and started to walk towards Customs and Immigration. Suddenly, there was a tap on my shoulder.
“You need to step over here please,” said some rather imposing fellow in a Customs uniform.
Of course, I had no idea what was going on, so I just followed him. Turned out I had been selected for a check to make sure I didn’t have a bomb strapped to me or something. He was fairly good about it all, chatting away as he swabbed my hands, my shoes, and every compartment of my backpack for explosives. The woman who had to pat me down was not so polite, ordering me rudely to lift arms and move legs and all sorts of things while she checked to make sure I wasn’t a homicidal maniac or something.
Of course, I didn’t have anything, so it didn’t really matter. I still suspect I got chosen because I made the mistake of wearing a zip up hoodie and carrying a backpack. Not that it was a menacing hoodie!
Look out, that jumper CLEARLY indicates
she is going to blow something up!
I don’t recall my landing in LAX being too painful, so I think US Customs must’ve given me an easy time. That was nice of them. Unlike my second trip…
Last Christmas holidays, I did a short backpacking trip to Japan, Canada and the United States. I only had a month, so my stay in each country was very short. The plan was to visit my sister in Japan for a little over a week, then to go to Canada for a couple of weeks, then to work my way down to the US. When I travel, I don’t much like doing the whole ‘plans fixed in stone’ thing – I just work out what I want to do as I go.
Well, Japanese Customs was absolutely cruisey both in and out. I was probably chatting to the Immigration officer at Narita for 10 minutes maximum, and it was quite a pleasant conversation (except for when he started speaking to me in Japanese, because he thought I must be Japanese or at least speak it since my middle name, Naomi, is apparently a Japanese name. That was confusing).
Canadian customs was a bit less fun, and overall I was quite unimpressed with what I saw. While I was waiting in line to go through with my forms and my passport, I watched one Customs officer interrogate an older couple quite fiercely. Neither of them had a very good grasp of English, and they were having difficulty understanding what they were being asked. The Customs officer was getting more irate, which was causing the couple to panic. I am sure that his concerns were well founded (he thought it was suspicious that they lived together, but purchased their tickets separately), but the manner in which he was interrogating them was totally inappropriate – not to mention a very poor way to welcome people to your country.
Well, when it was my turn, the official wasn’t much better. He repeated the same questions over and over, and he just did not seem to grasp that what I was doing was perfectly normal.
What is the purpose of your stay in Canada?
How long are you staying for?
Are you travelling alone?
Yes, I am
Why are you travelling alone?
Well, gee, what am I supposed to respond to this one… “I’m backpacking through Japan, Canada and the US. I don’t have a family, so I am travelling alone”
Your passport says you’re Australian. Why are you flying from Japan if you are Australian?
I was just visiting my sister in Japan. I flew straight from there to here for the next part of my trip.
But you are Australian. You should be flying in from Australia.
”I just finished a stay in Japan. Now I am visiting here”
… Really, is it so hard to comprehend that I am visiting more than one country?
Do you live in Japan?
No, I live in Australia. I was just visiting my sister in Japan.
Then why are you flying from Japan?
Because I was just there! It didn’t make any sense to fly back to Australia, and then to Canada!
Why are you travelling alone?
Thankfully, at this moment he was interrupted by another officer who wanted to ask him a question. He got caught up trying to solve this other person’s problem and waved me through. What should have been a five minute process took over half an hour.
When I left Canada to fly to Las Vegas, things weren’t much better. My handbag was slightly too large and they wanted me to check it (it was my only carry on luggage, and it was a tote sized handbag). I of course argued that one until they let me take it on board. Then I spent another half an hour getting grilled by a US Customs agent, because, can you believe it… my backpack was suspiciously heavy. How odd that a backpacker, in winter, might have a 18 kilogram backpack (which was checked of course). What could they be carrying in there? Clearly not enough winter clothes for a month – that would make too much sense!
And fancy happening to be travelling to the US when you had just been there 5 months ago. Who would want to come back so soon? How very unusual! The Customs process to get into the US? 90 minutes. It was almost enough to actually deter me from ever wanting to go to the US again.
Seriously… did I look like I was a drug runner or something? Why the heck did every single place have to take so long? The confusing part was I always made sure I was polite, answered everything clearly… and still I’d be held up by Customs officers at every turn. Perhaps I just caught them all on a bad day. Or perhaps the world thinks Australians are a pack of crazy criminals (yes, yes, we were a penal colony, I know… along with many many other countries!)
The biggest issue? This has got to be killing the tourism industry. At the very least, it can’t be healthy for the airline industry. If I had children, and had to get them through the ridiculous shoes off (even thongs/flip flops), everything checked, interrogation, possible full body scan process… I’d not bother travelling. I’d only go as far as my car could take me. There is no WAY I would want to face a 90 minute Customs process with kids.
Something has to give. I don’t understand why running around scared of everyone is seen as a good thing. Guess what? We have proven to the terrorists that, why yes, we ARE terrified of you. So scared that we are going to go to unreasonable measures to make sure that we feel safe! And then, because we have been so overly-diligent in protecting ourselves… we still won’t feel safe. Yep, you win. We are scared. Isn’t that what these bloody terrorists actually want? The goal isn’t necessarily to kill hundreds of people. It’s to make us all afraid that they could do it whenever they wanted.
And some Customs officers could do with some damned PR training. Or at least a crash course in basic manners.