The Creature (Dis)comforts of Air Travel

It had been months in the planning. A college buddy invited me to his home in Westchester County, NY. On Saturday I would speak at the Pound Ridge Reservation Trailside Museum. On Thursday and Friday he and I would hike in the Catskills. But there were issues at both airports that made getting there an ordeal.

First there was the altercation with TSA that resulted in the letter below, crudely typed in flight while I was still fuming and indignant. Then at my destination, I suffered the consequences of the airline cavalierly moving my flight FOUR HOURS earlier than scheduled less than 24 hours in advance of departure. My friend’s day did not let him blow off planned meetings to fetch me home. So I sat and waited. Sort of.

I got to spend three hours like a street person at LaGuardia, where when you pick up your baggage, they want you OUTTA THERE and provide no place to sit except where you see me splayed out in the window. Color me disgusted with air travel at that point.

But in spite of some other glitches, we landed on our feet in the Catskills, and perhaps more about that soon. I offer my letter, just as a way of venting, and can’t imagine I’ll bother to pretend that sending it would do anything more than add all my personal details to a database watch-list and risk of future harassment, should, God forbid, I EVER have to get on an airplane again.

To Whom if May (or May Not) Concern at TSA

A micro leather man tool on my keychain was confiscated by TSA. It included a blade maybe an inch long and this was deemed a sufficient threat to do what? Somebody could do more damage with a large paper clip. Are paper clips “illegal”? Hair pins? Please offer some common sense maximum-permissible blade length that is determined by potential lethality.

I find it hard to believe that no effort has been made to provide convenient  access to prepaid mailers at public airports. If available these could be purchased quickly so that when small items of great personal value are confiscated at check-in they do not end up for sale. I was told taken items are sold, and this is disturbing.

Taken items should be incinerated so that opportunists with government contracts do not profit. Found items are one thing. TAKEN items should not benefit anyone–especially any entity doing business with the government.

This Leatherman tool was a special gift from my daughter and when it was taken I was given no real option other than to miss my flight to prevent this from being held and sold. That is unacceptable. Please arrange additional options for mailing personally valuable items to our homes rather than having the only choice be  “you can run it back to your car” parked a half mile across the blistering asphalt with 20 minutes before boarding. I am not O J Simpson. My checked luggage was by then already out of the terminal.

I saw your sign asking for input to TSA and have the faint hope that our tax dollars pay for someone at the other end who both listens and has the will and the authority to respond appropriately to disturbing experiences like what has just happened to me on June 10 at 115pm at the Roanoke VA airport.

I encourage TSA to rethink their rules to avoid making airports into increasingly threatening, obnoxious places for peaceful travelers while doing less than necessary to protect us from true threats. Please devote more of your time to consistently detecting truly lethal items and less to the harassment of law-abiding passengers for such low-threat items as a one-inch fingernail-pick.

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. You’re absolutely right, Fred. Life is better if air travel can be avoided. Fact is, we were meant to walk, not fly. Flying is for the birds and bugs. Stay grounded if you can.

  2. For reasons you suffered, and all the other hassles of air travel, I would rather drive a car to NYC than fly.

  3. You were really nice to them. Wish I could do “nice” that well with unreasonable bureaucrats – but I can’t.

  4. Yea, nice tempered by the hot breath of reprisals breathing down my passenger’s neck. They sort of “Gotcha!” and let the victim beware

  5. Very worthy letter, Fred. Us retired persons, with a little more discretionary time, are the ones that must carry the weight of protest in this manner. I have benenfitted a few times from writing a well written protest letter. The most recent was a parking ticket at a newly installed meter with no clear indication as to which meter belonged to which car. I got lots of phone calls from the city and the ticket forgiven!