SECURITY -- December 30, 2009 at 2:25 PM EDT
A Long March Before Cruising Altitude
DISPATCH FROM MONTREAL: I have seen the future of air travel, or at least the next several months. Better bring comfortable shoes.
Airport authorities around the world are quickly installing countermeasures to protect travelers heading for the U.S. This morning, I watched a familiar place become less so, and wondered about the future of convenient air travel.
For the last ten years, I've regularly been crossing the border between the United States and Canada near Champlain, N.Y., and flying to Washington from Trudeau International Airport in Montreal. During a few days off around the Christmas holiday, I read the news about an attempted bombing of a Detroit-bound jetliner and wondered how it would change my upcoming trip.
With my family in New York State, and in a hotel room in Montreal, I watched local media, checked the airport Web site, and heard the panic and concern ebb even as new security measures were put in place. Air Canada instituted a no carry-on bags policy, and the airport asked fliers to get to the airport much earlier than usual.
Check, and ... check. Instead of breezing through the Air Canada doors just after 8:00 a.m. for a 9:20 a.m. flight, I walked in at 7:00 a.m. with only a little laptop bag. Checked in easily enough. Boarding pass in hand, I passed through an Air Canada barrier check allowing only ticketed passengers to proceed. Then, I cleared Canadian security quickly and easily. I was starting to think I would have time for a nice breakfast in the concourses. At around 7:20 a.m. I joined the line for passport control -- and breakfast began to fade into imagination.
There are airports in various places where the U.S.-bound passenger clears passport control and customs overseas and disembarks like a domestic passenger in their U.S. destination city. These include many Canadian cities. All the panoply of border control and enforcement, treasury and taxation await you in this overseas airport, a little bit of America plopped down somewhere else. As there is no international arrivals facility at Reagan National Airport in Washington, I had to take some time to enter America, before entering America.
The line snaked back and forth across a vast passport control hall. I knew the drill at Trudeau and had joined lines like this many times before. But the line moved significantly slower this morning ... as Canadians and other foreign nationals gave their fingerprints, entered into long conversations with border control agents about itineraries and return dates, and sometimes got pulled off the line for more interviews in another location.
I wasn't worried about missing my plane. Not yet, anyway. 7:45a.m. 8:03 a.m. 8:22 a.m. I had now been on a one-hour line for a one-hour flight, and began to wonder whether this really made sense for one individual international traveler. At 8:35 a.m., I was handed my passport and wished a nice day, and headed into the concourse, having spent more time in passport control than I was about to spend in the air.
In the months after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, flights to Washington from around the world and from elsewhere in the U.S. migrated to airport gates away from everything else. A regional hub in the U.S. might put its Washington flights at the end of a concourse, with a few gates separating passengers from other fliers. In Frankfurt, for example, United's Washington flights left from area well away from other airlines and other flights making it possible to add another layer of screening when necessary. Trudeau was no exception: Washington bound flights were often a long hike from passport control. But this morning was different...
Today, the concourse itself was sealed off: only domestic passengers could walk toward the newsstand, the restaurant, the coffee shop. We Washington passengers had to enter a new layer of screening, another line for a pat-down and full search of all personal effects. It was careful. It was slow. It was thorough. When I was handed my passport once again and wished a good trip, rope lines took me to the only place I was allowed to walk, the first gate in the concourse and my flight to Washington.
There would be no morning coffee (paid for with all the carefully husbanded Canadian coins that would now end up in a desk drawer), or a newspaper, or the year-end issue of MacLean's, the Canadian newsweekly. As someone who wanted to fly to the U.S., I could not browse the bookstore or pick a danish from the bakery display case.
OK. It's hardly terrible suffering. It's not some terrible trial that takes one to the edge of endurance. But it is a burden. At 52, standing for multiple hours is not a much-anticipated joy, but bearable. What if I was 72 ... or 82? There's no place to sit. No way to eat. To leave the system less open to being gamed by terrorists, there's no projection of how long the new measures will stay in place. But it sure makes Burlington, Vt., a more inviting airport than Trudeau International.
Air Canada Flight 7650 pushed back from Gate 76 at 9:20 a.m., right on time. It's hard to know whether the measures I faced on one particular morning in one particular airport made my country, or myself, any safer. It is however, very easy to know how much less simple, enjoyable, and comfortable getting into the U.S. was becoming for people heading home or for those in line with me heading to the U.S. to spend money and have a good time.
And that is the challenge facing policymakers and the travel industry on this morning, at both ends of my trip.
Ray Suarez will have a report on the latest details surrounding the attempted attack on a Detroit-bound airliner on Wednesday's NewsHour.