Bugged by baggage

I recently flew on commercial aircraft for the first time in a year, and I'm deeply concerned about the state of airport security during these troubled times.

At Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, one of the nation's busiest, I noticed several signs that said: "Passengers Must Control Their Baggage."

Apparently, during my travel hiatus, baggage has been running amok in our nation's airports. It's one thing when weary air travelers can't control their children in congested airport concourses, but when their luggage starts misbehaving, look out.

I didn't see any baggage do anything suspicious during my recent flights, but I kept a close lookout because those signs were everywhere.

Perhaps I misread the situation (the signs included a lot of fine print that I couldn't make out without removing my bifocals and holding them three feet from my face like a doofus).
But if the signs didn't mean we had reason to fear our own baggage, what could they mean? Keep your baggage on a leash? Don't let your carry-ons whisper among themselves? Watch out for rolling suitcases popping little wheelies in the corridors?

Was "Passengers Must Control Their Baggage" a crude suggestion referring to foundation garments? This was in Texas, after all.

Finally, it dawned that these signs had been erected, as it were, to replace those questions airline clerks used to ask -- Has anyone else had possession of your luggage, etc.

I'd read that government officials no longer required airlines to ask those questions, but I didn't even notice during check-in that I wasn't quizzed with the hilarious old stand-bys.

(I always loved, "Did you pack your own bag?" As if I could get anyone else to pack it for me. I always wanted to answer, "My butler tidied everything up," but I never worked up the nerve.
I suppose my kids would pack my bags if I asked, but they'd probably put in a lot of action figures and none of the clothes would match. I'd arrive at my business meeting dressed like Bozo on Yardwork Day.)

I was distracted at check-in because, as I stood in line, I saw one passenger after another get "selected" for the now-customary "dump search," in which an extremely bored airport security worker paws through all the passengers' belongings, including their foundation garments. By the time I reached the counter, I'd spent ten minutes running repeated mental inventories of anything embarrassing they might find in my bags. I worked up an anxious sweat, then was allowed to sail through without a formal body-cavity search. This, naturally, made my day.

It wasn't a busy travel weekend, but I followed the rules and arrived at the airport exactly two hours early for all my flights, so I'd have plenty of time to get through security checkpoints. Each time, it took about ten minutes. Which left me with approximately three days to sit around the airport. I spent more time sitting in airports than I did sitting on airplanes.

I used all this newfound spare time in productive ways -- watching for out-of-control baggage and eating.

People-watching's fun, but pretty soon you start noticing how other passengers aren't keeping their baggage under control and you feel compelled to say something, though you know it will make a scene . . .

Better to keep your head down, eating at the franchise-food bazaars that have turned all airports in America into bright, plastic hog-troughs. The airlines won't feed us anymore (mini-pretzels don't count, dammit), so we air travelers scarf down tacos and waffle cones and burgers and pizza and double-latte mocha-chokas while we're waiting on our planes.

Most of this food is deadly, fattening stuff, and one must search long and far to find something nutritious, like beer. Sometimes, on airplanes, if you listen carefully, you can hear your seatmates' arteries hardening.

If terrorists were smart, they would do nothing to interfere with our national air travel system. The body-cavity-search anxiety and the waiting and the lousy carbohydrates take a bigger toll on the security of frazzled travelers than any terrorists' puny efforts.

Plus, now our baggage is out of control.

(Editor's note: This column first appeared in newspapers in 2002. I'm happy to report that the airlines have solved all these problems since then.)


Heather said...

This hit home. Last month, I travelled by air for the first time this century. I felt I was in an airborne version of a cross-country bus -except that the staff in bus stations and bus drivers that I've come in contact with were much more polite that the airline staff and the workers in the airports. With a handful of exceptions (most of them at my home airport JAX who managed to be cheerful and helpful even before 6 AM- that includes the TSA folk), most of them acted as if passengers were -on the whole- something to be endured. From the stories I'd been hearing, I didn't have high expectations to begin with. Usually, this sets me up to have my expectations exceeded. Not this time.

On the bright side- everyone's baggage was well behaved with the possible exception of my own. It managed to get heavier each time I had to move it- possibly exhibiting PALS (passive-aggressive luggage syndrome).


PALS? I love it. I hope you taught that luggage some self-control.