Yes, it has been several weeks since my last post. I apologize for going dormant without explanation. Sometimes life just gets in the way and for the first time in the roughly 4 years I’ve been writing less is more, the thing that had to give was this blog.
Happily, however, I return to these e-pages recharged and ready to write again. So without further ado, let’s talk about why I now hate United Airlines.
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Several weeks ago, I traveled to Newark Liberty Airport at 4 in the morning to catch a short flight up to Manchester New Hampshire to deliver a presentation later that day. Between waking up at 3 AM, seeing a lunar eclipse on the way to the airport, and navigating the somewhat confusing United Terminal to find the barely-there gates for small regional jets, the day had a distinctly surreal quality. After a brief delay for unspecified “mechanical issues,” I heard the announcement that “We will begin the boarding process shortly.”
When the gate agent picked up the microphone again, I quickly realized that words really matter. Or, more precisely, certain words really matter to me.
Those of you who have the courage to slog through these weekly diatribes know that I travel a lot for work. I’ve written in painstaking detail about America’s best and worst airports for amputees, about getting comfortable once on an airplane while wearing a prosthesis, and about my many fascinating interactions with TSA. In fact, let me digress for a moment to touch on that last topic.
I found myself in Orlando week before last and went through security there on my way back home. I climbed into the full body scanner, informed TSA personnel that I had a prosthetic leg, and then emerged for the mandatory pat-down process. The young agent felt my prosthesis and then swabbed it and my shoes. He went over to the machine that analyzes the swabs for suspicious substances and didn’t come back. I knew as soon as I saw him talking to another (older) agent that my sample had registered positive for plastique or some other dangerous substance. Having experienced a false positive before, I saw the next 45 minutes of my life slipping away in a polite but increasingly invasive series of inquiries that would result in my luggage being torn apart and me having to undergo a private screening with my friends at TSA watching.
The older agent approached me and told me what I already knew – positive test result. Figuring I had nothing to lose, I did the one thing I always tell people never to do: I told him what I wanted him to do. “Yeah, I could tell from the reaction that it came back positive,” I said. “Listen, this has happened to me before. There’s nothing on me that would trigger that result -”
“I know, I know,” the TSA agent said, interrupting me. “I’m sure it’s not you.”
Somewhat stunned by his less-than-suspicious attitude – and can we all agree that my unthreatening exterior notwithstanding, the one time we might expect TSA to properly view someone with suspicion is when a pat-down results in a positive test result for something associated with explosives? – I forged onward.
“Listen, can you do me a favor and just do the pat-down again and then run the results through the other machine over there?” I asked, indicating another swab-testing device to our right. “When this happened before it was a problem with the machine.”
“Oh, that machine has been acting funny all day,” he replied. He then turned to the young agent who had patted me down: “Did you notice any anomalies when you did the pat-down?” The 20-something stared at him blankly for a moment, probably wondering what an anomaly was. He then tentatively shook his head.
“Nothing unusual?” the older agent asked again. “No – did the pat-down. Everything seemed normal,” the young agent replied. The older agent turned to me: “You’re free to go. Have a nice day.”
I stood there for half a second, in disbelief. I had tested positive for a suspicious substance; I had requested a follow-up test that would likely prove that one of the testing machines had an issue; but TSA just waved me through. The following thought actually flashed through my mind: “Should I insist on having them redo the swab in the other machine just on principle?” (Answer: No.) I found the whole experience upsetting, though not perhaps for the exact reasons you might think.
TSA security checkpoints are not, in my view, really about actual security. They’re about providing airline passengers with the illusion of security. I board planes all the time knowing that if there’s anyone really serious about taking the plane down, they can probably figure out a way to do it. But I still walk down that jetway with nary a concern in my mind because the official-looking process we all endure provides a psychological buffer between that terrifying reality and the fact that I’m willfully exposing myself to it. What TSA deprived me of in Orlando was that buffer; the senior agent destroyed the illusion of security that keeps my mind from going to Scary Places on Planes.
Anyway, if we now go back to Newark Liberty and my delayed flight, the gate agent began her spiel about pre-boarding. I have been on planes hundreds of times over the past few years and the typical pre-boarding litany goes something like this:
Anyone in a wheelchair or who needs extra time to get down the jetway can board when we announce pre-boarding. After that, we board by zone number. Please look at your boarding pass …”
But this United Airlines gate agent used a word I haven’t heard in at least my last 4 years of air travel. She said the following:
Any disabled [emphasis mine] passengers are eligible for pre-boarding.”
As I have discussed before, while I don’t have a handicapped sticker for my car and I don’t claim any of the other advantages of convenience that walking with a prosthesis could get me, the one perk I do exercise is pre-boarding airplanes. I do this for one simple reason: with overhead space becoming ever more crowded thanks to excessive baggage fees, I want to make sure my rolling suitcase stays with me, particularly since it contains various accoutrements (batteries, charger) for my prosthesis.
But now, on a sunny morning in New Jersey, to avail myself of the privilege of pre-boarding, I had to label myself “disabled” in order to climb on the plane before other passengers. And amazingly, that single word prevented me from doing it. I waited until the gate agent called my zone. I refused to pre-board because the gulf between what that word signifies to me and how I think of myself is so vast that I can’t bridge it in my mind.
In that moment I asked myself, “Aren’t I making way too big a deal about this? Does it really matter? Is there any difference between calling someone “disabled” and using the “anyone who needs extra time” euphemism for the same thing? And as much as my rational mind said, “No, get over it, it’s the same thing,” my emotional mind screamed, “Yes! There’s a huge [expletive deleted] difference!”
So I boarded the plane fourth from last. And I (childishly) felt proud as I climbed up the steps from the tarmac, my prosthesis lagging behind me, as if this silent stand against the tyranny of disability actually meant something.