by Jan Baughman
(Swans - January 11, 2010) I had to take a day trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles on July 24, 2011 -- at least it would have been a day trip in days of yore, but no longer in the post-9/11 era and especially after the Christmas 2009 bombing attempt that exposed the systemic holes in the system for which we surrendered our civil liberties in the name of safety. I arose at 3 A.M. for my 10 A.M. flight, placed my 3-ounce toiletries into small zip-lock bags, took a shower, and proceeded to put on my underwear before remembering it too had to be placed in a see-through bag. (Carry-on underwear is permitted but it is no longer legal as a wear-on, not even a thong, which makes you eye your fellow passengers even more skeptically than before.) I placed the transparent paraphernalia in my bag, donned my overwear, and headed for the airport, cutting it close by only allowing 6 hours.
I still dream of the pre-9/11 travel days and beyond, when security was rational and being a frequent flier actually came with perks -- something you kids will never appreciate -- like arriving at the gate 10 minutes before the end of boarding; at times the door had already closed and it would be reopened to let me in. But I have to admit that there are some advantages to the new rules. For example, the requirement for full-body scans of all passengers, though unsuccessfully protested by the ACLU on the grounds of privacy invasion, inspired the medical-device industry to convince the Transportation Security Administration to purchase (no-bid) CT scanners for all airports, thereby not only screening for potential terrorists, but also checking passengers for suspicious lesions. In addition, body cavity searches are now performed by internists, who were heretofore facing extinction in the for-profit health care system. Female passengers over 18 are afforded the luxury of a free gynecological exam, and male passengers of a certain age a prostate exam. And of course, all genders get the lower-GI exam that can detect both suspicious paraphernalia and suspicious polyps.
Sure, as a frequent flier I face the danger of overexposure to radiation with all those scans. But the airlines provide double mileage to their most loyal passengers to compensate for any "inconvenience," should they live long enough to redeem them, and as if they have any desire to fly for the "fun" of it. And even though I seem to waste 6 hours at the airport before each flight, the potential health benefits are obvious. Perhaps all that was needed for true health care reform and the guaranteed safety of all Americans was a Christmas terrorist attempt that led to the convergence and ultimate success of two failed systems.
Finally in the air, we were served the usual diuretic fare, but were not allowed to visit the facilities, given the short duration of the flight. The toilets are now on lock-down for flights under four hours; on longer flights passengers are limited to a 3-minute visit, timed and monitored by Federal Air Marshals who have the ability and authority to barge in at any time (the newly-created bathroom-monitor position added thousands of undesirable though well-paying jobs to the ailing economy. And I understand that as a perk, they get to fly in underwear).
Unfortunately, the full-body scan prior to my return flight revealed a polyp, which was confirmed by the body-cavity exam. Thankfully, after a few tense days, it was found by my real doctor to be benign. However, things soon took a turn for the worst when I arrived at the airport the following month and discovered that I had landed on the no-fly list due to my prior "suspicious behavior." The harmonization of databases between the TSA and the insurance companies is still incomplete, despite the president's economic stimulus funding to digitize and consolidate everything. I was dropped from my company insurance policy and ultimately fired because they couldn't reconcile the TSA findings and affirm that I was not a flight risk and therefore able to perform my job. Health care reform's promised protection from discrimination based on pre-existing conditions remains a loophole-ridden enigma.
I am now unemployed and uninsured -- the only public option is those airport medical exams -- but I should be thankful that because of my sacrifice the world is allegedly a safer and healthier place. Sure, there have been no breaches in airline security since December 2009, but just as sure as the ACLU had warned, there was that scandal in August 2010 when unflattering body scans of hundreds of overweight female passengers were posted, complete with similarly unflattering captions, on the TSA Web site.
I recently wrote to my "preferred" airline and to the TSA to suggest that elite fliers should be allowed to redeem miles for privileges in the same manner that prisoners can earn privileges for good behavior. It seems logical to me -- if you've flown say a million miles, you've obviously passed on myriad terrorism opportunities and managed to stay off the no-fly list. For 10,000 miles, give me a year of underwear privileges. Fifty thousand and I get to skip the full body scan. One hundred thousand and I'm exempted from the cavity search.
I eventually received a polite letter from the airline explaining that this would be impossible (and unaffordable) to implement, but thanking me for my loyalty. I never heard from the TSA, though I'm pretty sure they read my letter because once I succeeded in clearing up the polyp mishap and getting my name off the no-fly list, on my next flight I was subjected to searches in cavities I didn't know existed...
After all is said and done, it's safe to say that flying has, figuratively and literally, become a pain in the ass.
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