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By Terry Joseph
April 17, 2002

After providing a marvellous source of personal pleasure for some 35 years and at what first appeared to be no additional charge, air travel is now less-than-subtly calling in the chips.

Both in flight and on the ground, the joy is dwindling at a speed rivalling Concorde. Hidden costs have severely dented fantasy-fulfilment that once began at lift-off with sheer defiance of gravity and escalated meaningfully at cruise level.

For reasons not all attributable to after-effects of 9/11, airlines have successfully replaced this magic-carpet ride with a conspiracy of costly alternatives. Except for the serving of consistently unappealing food, a tradition since the 1960s, everything has changed.

Now there are painful pre-flight security checks and once airborne, unilateral decisions about “providing you with a smoke-free cabin” plus the threat of deep-vein thrombosis. Add contemporary ticket prices and finally, the sky really is the limit.

In an age when passengers are getting taller, airline operators universally reduce leg-room to the point where only heaven can help when the Sumo wrestler sitting directly ahead suddenly throws his seat into full recline; preying on your already cramped knees.

But even achieving that level of discomfort presents its own bundle of challenges, some requiring review of personal protocols. For openers, luggage packing has been elevated to art. The rush to meet earlier check-in deadlines is no excuse for careless placement of underwear.

“Eh-eh! Look what wearing thongs these days,” the nubian behind me whispered to her equally egregious travelling companion, after a gloved guard at the check-in counter opened the suitcase of a portly woman and what must have been one of Victoria’s biggest secrets ever suddenly became public knowledge.

And there may be as many as three such opportunities for exhibiting personal garments before you’re deemed worthy of flight. Today’s pricey airline tickets no longer guarantee a ride.

At US airports, the ticket deal is arbitrarily neutralised if, even in whispers, certain forbidden words slip past your lips. Once in the search-and-destroy corral, don’t answer any questions about Jouvert morning pan competitions, lest the word “Bomb” be inadvertently uttered, even in the context of Neville Jules and the Neal and Massy Trinidad All Stars.

Be warned, women of hitherto negligible ladders in your stockings and men of socks that give a big-toe “breeze”, embarrassment awaits where electronic body surveillance begins at the very sole of each passenger’s foot. Lord help the less agile fat guys, if their belts are purely functional, when the demand comes to “undo the buckle and move your hands away”.

Already bombarded from all sides by relentless nagging about the dangers of cigarettes, smokers must now add to the already prohibitive price of air-travel, the recurrent cost of confiscated matches and cigarette lighters.

“So what if it was a 24-carat gold Ronson with designer-inlaid diamonds?” I asked after being told no redress was available to those who didn’t dispose of “flammable items” before boarding. “Tough,” said the robust lady in the Airports Authority uniform. “When we seize, we seize!”

Now, if the daily cache of incendiary devices, manicure sets and other recently outlawed items are auctioned and proceeds go into a fund for retired baggage handlers, most travellers wouldn’t mind.

But I sense the bucks stop at the security checkpoint, with guards raking in additional income from ruthless exploitation of other people’s nicotine addiction and personal hygiene habits; while the airline’s customer-service department reminds us of FAA regulations and hovering threats from insidious terrorist cells.

Ostensibly designed to ferret out sinister and dysfunctional types, the cost of technology involved in meticulous surveillance will inevitably turn up on the passenger’s bill as a payment “for your own safety”; never mind its proven failure at discovering terrorists, who simply thought up new tricks.

Belts and shoes graduated to an already long negative-list, once the bad guys were caught using those items. Pretty soon we could all be flying completely nude, explaining it away to the moral majority as “collateral damage”, if the next three terrorists figure out how to rig pants, tops and underwear for in-flight detonation.

None of this would be objectionable if these frightfully expensive computer-aided super-spy devices were as efficient at detecting cocaine as they are for arms and ammunition. Drug mules, long agreed by all as the real carriers of weapons of mass destruction, routinely elude the army, security guards and high-tech scanners.

Happily, for cerebral balance, there’s some fun to be had from the new procedures, that is, as long as you keep your thoughts private. Did I pack my bags myself? “No, I left them on the sidewalk with a bundle of clothing options lying alongside and this morning … Voila!” Silly questions deserve stupid answers. If I planned to blow us all to kingdom come, would I tell my secret to someone wearing epaulettes? Let’s face it: the chance of being shot-down or blown-up on an intra-Caribbean flight is at best minimal, consequently much of this stringent security is pure “tan-ta-na”. Give me a polygraph test, determine my mission and let me proceed to more pressing matters like duty-free shopping or liming in the lounge.

Believe me, you’re looking at the wrong guy. Again!

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