There’s no two ways about it, the world after 9/11 irrevocably changed. And no industry felt the effects of 9/11 more than that of the aviation industry. Gone are the days when flying was relaxing, when checking in for your flight took just ten minutes and your biggest concern when boarding a flight was being seated next to a morbidly obese dude with chronic flatulence. Nowadays, the biggest threat to flying, apart from the odd annoying volcanic ash clouds, bird strikes and/or wind shear, are terrorist and airlines have devised intrusive and humiliating measures to counter this threat. Having had my fare share of humiliating run-ins with airport security, customs officials and cabin crew, I thought I’d share some of my tips on dos and don’ts to help make your next flying experience as smooth and stress free as possible.
Do NOT look like a terrorist. Now you may ask, what does a terrorist look like? Well, I cannot tell you for sure, but suffice to say if you do look like one you will be searched and interrogated. Therefore, always make sure you are abreast of the newest fashion fad for seasoned terrorists and then avoid wearing that! Avoid reading any material containing the words Al Qaida, Osama Bin Laden, Jihad, Taliban, Hijacking and/or Bomb Making in its title, as it will land you in an interrogation room. Pre-ordering a Halaal meal while you check in online is also not a good idea, especially when your name clearly indicates that you are not Muslim. I talk from experience people. Earlier this year I mistakenly clicked Halaal as food preference and I was harassed by airline staff 4 times: once during check in, once during boarding, and twice during the flight. But, even remotely appearing like you may be a terrorist, sympathetic towards terrorists or in any way affiliated with terrorists are not the only hurdle you will face at an airport.
No matter what your mood when you arrive at any airport always be cordial. Sure you may smell and feel like shit after your eleven hour flight. Sure you may be tired because the dude next to you snored the whole flight through keeping you awake. But no matter what your situation may be, know this - security and customs officials do not give a rat’s ass about your problems. Even if you are late for your flight they will take their time and any snide remark or inkling of an attitude or noncooperation from you will, in all probability, lead to a full body and/or cavity search. Which leads me to another important rule to remember – always wear nice underwear! Because you never know when or where you may be asked to strip down to your tidy withies and we don’t want to be any more embarrassed than we need to be. And then there are those tedious security questions.
The airport has no place for a sense of humour. If you think you are a stand-up comedian please make sure you stay very far away from me when checking in at the airport or going through customs. All airport staff has their sense for humour surgically removed on their first day on the job. No matter how stupid or fantastical the questions they ask you may be, answer them as brief and concise and non-incriminating as possible. I once made the mistake of answering “Did you pack your own luggage?” with “No, my husband did”, causing a twenty minute delay as they searched my bag. I was also recently asked in Kenya whether I “ever assemble or tried to assemble a nuclear or chemical device”. Naturally after being asked this question I paused as I was trying to figure out if the natural poison concoction I developed last year to ward off pests in our garden constituted a “chemical device”. So I answered “No, not recently”. Needless to say both my luggage and I were thoroughly searched and each item carefully inspected. Speaking of luggage...
Be very mindful of what you pack in your hand luggage. A couple of weeks ago I took a national flight for a short business trip. As usual when I checked in the check-in-counter-chick was adamant in reminding me not to leave any electronics in my luggage that’s to be loaded into cargo. Being the seasoned traveller that I am, I knew not to do this and I had my laptop, BlackBerry, their respective cables, a digital recorder and its batteries and my camera and its cable in my hand luggage. (Guess you can see where this is going). I gaily made my way to the security checkpoint, got my little plastic container, took off my watch and belt, took out my laptop and BlackBerry and placed all my items in the container.
As I, my bag and other items made our way through the metal detector and X-Ray machine alarms sounded and I was immediately pulled to the side. “Please empty your bag” I was insolently instructed. Apparently all the different items in my bag looked like pieces of a homemade bomb ready for assembly. As I emptied my bag the pièce de résistance fell out – a knife (don’t ask). The one time I forgot to check my bag before I leave home and I left a big ass knife in there. It was confiscated, I was questioned and I, my “bomb” and knife delayed my flight with a good 26 minutes. And then there is your passport. Possibly the most important document any traveller owns.
Make an effort to look like your passport photo. Sure many of us don’t look our absolute best on our passport photos and there is a reason they don’t allow us Photoshop or Airbrush these mug shots – the reason being that if you don’t look like your mug shot customs won’t allow you to enter the country. Exactly this happened to hubby and I with our last trip to Madagascar. You see, a few days prior to our departure both hubby and I decided to bleach our hair. We figured that blonds have more fun and therefore being platinum blond on an island would be ten times more fun. Boy were we in for a surprise.
Once we departed from the aircraft in Antanarivo and completed our little entry form, we fell in line to have our passports checked and stamped. When we reached the top of the queue our trouble began. The custom official looked at our passports, looked at us and looked at our passports again before handing them off to a second customs official who then took us aside. With a thick French accent the bearded lady asked “Is this you? Is this you here in the passport?” pointing to our pictures. “Yes it is, it’s only the hair that’s different” we responded. “No, not you, no, no, no.” She responded clearly befuddled. A good 15 minutes of negotiation later which also addressed my weight gain and subsequent weight loss, at that time, she was finally semi convinced our passports contained our likeness and we were allowed to legally enter Madagascar.
Yes, flying after 9/11 and the subsequent stringent security measures do, at times, make our lives difficult and drive me mad, but at the end of the day it’s all done in an effort to keep us safe. After all I do prefer landing at an airport rather than the alternative – intentionally crashing into a building. It is an inconvenience that is here to stay and an inconvenience we best get use too. I do hope my dos and don’ts will contribute to making your next flight less stressful and a much more pleasant experience.
Till next time.