Friday, August 1, 2014

Wake Me When It's Over....

Trying to stay awake after 36+ hours with no sleep.

Airline travel is hours of boredom 
interrupted by moments of stark terror. 
– Al Boliska

One of my biggest fears when traveling is having my luggage searched.  I watched TSA go through my mother's stuff numerous times when she flew, and that always unnerved me. (Although it could have been that she wore underwear that was about 5 sizes too large for her, and the agents always held at least one pair up.)  I'm grateful that I get pre-checked through a lot these days, although I don't think they do that on international flights unless you buy a Global Pass, which I have not done.

My flights were relatively easy yesterday.  I flew British Airways (direct) from Las Vegas to London Heathrow. The flight took almost ten hours and arrived in London around 3 PM their time.  After a six-hour layover, I caught another BA flight to Bologna, arriving here at 11:30 PM Bologna time.

I was fortunate to have an exit-row seat with no one in front of me, so I could stretch my legs out. (See photo below.)  Even better, there was no one in the middle seat, so the 80-year old lady who shared the row with me could spread her stuff all over the place.  There were only two minor blips to the first flight: 1) When I lifted my backpack into the overhead compartment, two tins of mints jumped out and kicked me in my left eye. Of course, that's the eye that's had the most trouble since surgery.  2) I didn't sleep.  Between the house and the plane, I somehow misplaced the pills (including Ambien) I had for the evening.

I was a bit cranky when I deplaned, and I'm not sure if it was the lack of sleep or the I-Hate-Heathrow Effect.  More than twenty-two million passengers pass through Heathrow annually making it the fourth busiest airport in the world and, as you would imagine, jammed with people. Worse, as the planes hurl the masses into Terminal 5, everyone who is not staying in London (about 90%)  get pushed to a central area to await notification of their next departure gate.  You see, Heathrow does not announce gate numbers until one hour before flight time.  There are a zillion inhabitants in the  area at all times of day.

Of course, before passengers have the luxury of waiting in that massive waiting room, they have to run the Heathrow Security Gauntlet.  Uniformed (in purple, no less) agents push everyone to the first checkpoint.  The line of people snakes through the cordoned-off rows while the same recording urges people to make sure they don't have more than the allowed amount of liquid. Additional purple people hand out the 3-1-1 bags repeating the same warning that anyone who tries to sneak something through will have to go through increased checks.

Arriving at the front of this first line, we get to go to the next available window where another purple person scans passports and makes sure travelers have not changed since they got on the plane at their place of origin. This agent doesn't want to look at our liquids, so we place them back in the luggage for now.  Once we get our passports back and a terse nod from said purple agent, we rush to move to the next snaking line which winds around and drops us at an escalator that takes us to the waiting area . . . or so you would think.

View from my seat featuring Jonathon, the flight attendant
At the top of the escalator, the line fans out, and we can choose to enter anyone of about 20 lines so agents can screen passengers and their luggage once again.  The agents in this area (dressed in grey, beige, or navy) *want* to see our liquids, laptops, and ALL medications.  I showed the bag of medications, and the agent thanked me.

"There won't be a problem with any of these since you still have the pharmacy labels," she said. " Leave your shoes on, too. You'll be fine."

Fine, H-E-Double Hockey Sticks.

Like everyone who went through the arch with shoes, I set off the alarm, so the agent there made me take them off so she could scan them separately.  That done, I got my body scan and went to grab my bags from the belt.  My nicely packed suitcase was there, but the backpack and tray containing laptop, meds, sweater, Ipad, etc. were not.

"Those are mine," I told another agent who was standing behind the counter.

"You've been flagged, Madam," he replied.  "We'll be with you when we can."

After about 15 minutes, an agent grabbed the tray containing the laptop and meds and called me over to her.  She went through the bag of medicines and read the label on each one. She picked up a box that contained a tube of cream and stared at it.

"Where is the presecription for this?" she snapped at me.

"Turn the box over," I said in what I hoped was not a snarky way.  She took the meds and the bag of liquids and touched everything with the magic wand that tells whether there is an explosive on it or not. She then ran them all through the scanner again.

"You can pack everything up again," she finally told me.

"I can't until you give me the backpack back," I said.

"I can't do it right now," she told me as she walked away. I stood there stupidly holding the one big tray of unpackable things.  After 15-20 minutes, a different agent came over to me.

"What are you waiting for, Madam?" he asked me. I pointed to the backpack.  "The iPad set it off," he continued when he got back.  "Take everything out of it and put it in this tray."  I emptied it, examined everything, and told me to put it all back.  "You can throw these on top after I check them." He smiled at me.  He took my iPad and camera and repeated the routine the gal had done on the meds.  After running them through the scanner, he told me I could go.

I lugged everything over to a table, emptied the entire backpack again, and repacked it. By the time I got to the giant waiting room, I had spent more than 90 minutes in lines. 

I'm not really complaining. I'd rather they be overly cautious than not, but it seemed ike the right hand didn't know what the left hand (the screener and the pre-screener) was doing.  I'm just grateful I didn't have to unpack my bundle of clothes.  I might have missed my flight if I had had to repack that thing.

One more word about British Air: Their airplanes are spotless, and the seats in the planes they use for European continental flights are roomy and comfortable.  No one seemed to have his knees in his face during the flight to Bologna.

 Tomorrow: My really big fear is arriving at an apartment after midnight, alone and exhausted, and having no one there to greet me.  

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