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Friday, August 16, 2002

Friendly Skies

Getting from here to there after September 11 – part 2

By B. C. Stangl

Beware the swizzle stick and the shish kabob stickers!

Oakland is no tropical getaway but I figured I had it wired as I loped around the jammed counter and headed straight for my gate. It was 5:55 am and Flight 441 was scheduled to depart at 8.00. If you know anything about the history of Hawai’I, you probably know that the heroics of the 100th Regimental Combat Battalion’s 442nd Infantry forever changed the face of politics in the fiftieth state. I always tipped my hat to Aloha Airlines for numbering their first ever mainland runs 441 and 442.

But this was far from a run. It was a dead stop. Three lines the length of football fields greeted me just inside the main terminal. It would be 53 minutes before I emerged from the security stop, only to be informed that my flight was delayed.

While in line, I twice heard announcements for passengers to come claim their ID. I had heard that announcement three different times in the Reno terminal the day before, and I hated the odds of how many passengers would now fly away ID-less into this cloud of new regulations. And how many people, upon landing, would futilely reach for their driver’s license at the car rental stand, not to mention most major hotels that now demand ID at check-in? Worse still, picture the stranded traveler only halfway home or wherever he is headed, stuck in some regional hub, unable to complete his connecting flight. I was reminded of that 1950s hit by the Limeliters, among others, about poor old Charlie, stuck on Boston’s MTA. "He will ride forever ’neath the streets of Boston, he’s the man who never returned."

"Esqueer" was not a word the Filipino security guard in Oakland spoke. In fact, when he discovered my onerous scissors snug in their plastic case, he became as pumped up as those guard dogs had the day before, convinced he was hot on the trail of "B.C. Scissorhand, terrorist."

I tried the "square" defense – which I had only learned the day before – but he would have none of that. After almost an hour of shuffling along, it was one real melee when you finally reached the Oakland security post. I counted 30 employees, then stopped counting. A ring of guardsmen in fatigues with automatics slung over their shoulders – armed or not – began to tighten around me as my handler lead me to the "shoe removal section." There really is such a setup, three chairs lined together like the old shoe section as an afterthought in the far reaches of a W. T. Grant department store. This fellow wore no gloves and the guardsmen wore no smiles. I was surprised when this guy didn’t inspect my shoes but carried them about 30 feet over to a humongous machine that resembled X-ray equipment. Now these are not the "gangsta" shoes you might see on an urban play yard. These are very thin, worn Nikes. Nonetheless, someone in charge of the "shoe machine" approved my footwear. My guy returned them to me there in the "shoe section" of Oakland International, and he informed me in broken English that I was free to go.

A very different voice, a very formal English voice, then sounded behind me. Quite the buttoned-up Brit businesswoman had witnessed my dressdown and was trying to comfort me. "I happen to favor tall hose, and you cannot believe the hair raise they caused at Heathrow last week. You know, the metal fasteners way up to here? I had to wait ten minutes for security to find some matron who had surely never seen the likes of it. I almost bloody well missed my plane."

Ordinarily, I would have gone after that line like a hungry Doberman, but I was after my scissors. I found the shoe inspector’s supervisor and asked him if I could have them back. After a while, he emerged with my illicit pair in one hand and a butter knife in the other. He began to explain just why he felt compelled to confiscate my scissors as contraband, but I cut him off – so to speak – and just said, "I understand, thanks anyway."

"Thank you for understanding," came his bewildered reply.

*     *     *      *     *

"For your security and comfort…"

I must have heard that recorded message five hundred times while waiting for Aloha’s wayward plane to come in from Las Vegas. Worse, however, was the second part of the monotone message: "Only ticketed passengers are allowed inside this terminal," the voice intoned, to hundreds of passengers now suffering the added humility of standing in yet another endless line that stretched almost to the checkpoint they could in no way have ever gotten past without ID and a valid ticket! Finally, Flight 441 was ready for boarding. Aloha uses a 737-700 to cross the Pacific, a Boeing 737 modified with an additional sixteen feet of wingspan. They configure the plane with a first class of twelve seats in three rows. I prefer 3C, a far aisle seat.

My seatmate in 3A was an elegant, older woman. When I went to untie my shoe laces, something compelled me to assure her that this particular pair of Nikes had been approved for air travel not once but twice in the past two days.

She silently and gravely stared at me like I was the nastiest breed of time-share salesman. Come to think of it, what would I have done if the bloke next to me began loosening the laces on his Nikes?

Not only is Aloha convenient for my needs; they also feature meals created by renowned chef Alan Wong. I was ready. A pair of Absolut Bloody Marys helped all the more. Still, my conundrum of choosing between the Kalua pig omelet with spinach and Jack, or the fresh snapper on sausage paella was hard to overcome. Whatever I chose, it would be my first ever meal in first class with plastic silverware wrapped in fine linen.

Regardless, we all were served the same appetizers after the plasticware bearing the macadamia nuts was cleared. I almost howled. Pineapple, mandarin oranges, strawberries, grapes, and cheeses you were to dip in a delicate yogurt. As I began sliding the fruit off my skewer, it quickly dawned on me I now had – compliments of Aloha Airlines – four extremely sharp, durable weapons that might be as painful as any boxcutter. Would that my confiscated scissors came to a point anywhere near these kabob sticks, and the knife I’d lost in Reno was about one quarter the length of my new "weapons by Wong."

I couldn’t keep thoughts like these out of my mind, especially when I was served Rutherford Merlot in a fine, tall glass. "How difficult would it be for someone to bust his glass over his armrest, grab a nearby stewardess at glass-point, and be no less armed than Osama’s suicide squad?"

I kept mulling thoughts like these while still fuming about not just the two trite trinkets taken from me, but the "Bush league," inconsistent, uneducated manner in which I was handled.

The Reason Foundation’s Mr. Poole opines; "Until and unless Congress rethinks its hasty overreaction to Sept. 11, we will continue to load billions of extra dollars onto the cost of air travel while meeting security deadlines in appearance only. At the same time, we’ll continue to delay the recovery of this vital industry by making air travel an unpleasant ordeal." I had become quite content in Nevada, but one worry had nagged me ever since the four planes were hijacked. Would air travel between my homes now become so prohibitive as to destroy my easy come, easy go intentions? Yes, I have decided, and the condo is now for sale. I wrestled with that decision all week before it dawned on me that never once, not one single time during my long trip, had the thought of fear of flying entered my mind. Rather, it was my fear of exaggerated inconvenience, which had been proven true. But for what it’s worth, allow me to do my small part to help insure safety in our new friendly skies. To wit; Mr. Wong, I would suggest no fondue on future flights.

B. C. Stangl is a retired San Francisco and Honolulu radio executive. © 2002 B. C. Stangl.