Nepali Times
Worldly Wise
Air farce


Ihave been a frequent air traveller since I was a few months shy of my sixth birthday, when my parents packed me off to boarding school two plane rides away from home.

Those days of being willingly handed from air hostess to air hostess as an unaccompanied minor made me blas? about the rigours of air travel. Going abroad to study as a teenager, and joining the United Nations at 22, confirmed my ease with the world of the frequent flyer. I saw the average airport terminal as a familiar haven, like a friend's sitting room.

But 9/11 changed all that. The assorted divestments, the enthusiastic frisking, the suspicious prying open of your bag, that bleeping wand pushed into awkward spots, have all combined to make flying less fun than ever. Passengers at airports now look so chronically morose that a passing vulture flying overhead would sense a business opportunity.

The episode of the shoe bomber Richard Reid has suddenly meant more feet being bared at airports than at the average Hindu temple. My solution has been to replace my customary lace-up Oxfords with a pair of slip-on loafers when I fly. Generals are always fighting the last war, and security screeners are the same. I'm just grateful it was a shoe bomber they were reacting to. What on earth would they do if the next Richard Reid tried to ignite his underwear?

Then, came the terrorists who planned to explode liquid chemicals on board. Since the plot didn't work the first time and no one has tried it since, the only beneficiaries of this are the recyclers, who receive a truck-load of discarded water and shampoo bottles from airports every day, and the concessionaires on the other side of security, who charge exorbitant prices to quench the thirst of parched passengers suddenly deprived of their drinks.

Indians such as myself whose features might pass for Middle Eastern have learnt to put up with the misadventures of flying. "There was a time during the 1970s oil boom," a fellow Indian told me, "that I rather enjoyed being mistaken for an Arab. People assumed I was richer than I was and treated me with respect. Now, after 9/11, I'm anxious to demonstrate that I'm Indian. If I were a woman, I'd wear a sari all the time, just to show I'm not that kind
of brown."

In all fairness, you don't have to be brown to be selected for extra-special attention, though it helps. In their desire to prove the randomness of their biases, I've also seen security people pick passengers in inverse relation to the likelihood of their being a terrorist-elderly women making their way through security using a walker, say, or a certain white-haired senator from Massachusetts. (It is normally not difficult to tell the difference between Ted Kennedy and a terrorist fanatic bent on mass murder but I guess they wanted to prove their even-handedness, or their bloodymindedness.)

A mother carrying breast milk in a bottle for her baby was ordered to drink it to prove it wasn't a lethal toxin. A friend tells me about his handicapped young son who flies with an oxygen tank. How do we know it's not a deadly poison gas, they wanted to know.

But every time you think you've got the formula down some new complication crops up. It's bad enough that you have to take out your laptop, empty your pockets, slip off your shoes, loosen your belt and shed your jacket to facilitate the inspections: they'll still ask you to spread your arms and legs. Worse, you have to smile through the whole ordeal. Because if you dare to complain, they really come down on you.

A witticism in an airport security line is like a Swiss tap: turn it on, and you instantly find yourself in hot water. 'Jokes or inappropriate remarks regarding security could lead to your arrest,' signs humourlessly warn you at strategic points. And until they actually close Guant?namo, I'm taking no chances . . . I have watched in mounting incredulity as one of my own books, which I was carrying as a gift, was taken away to be inserted into a special device after it had already passed security to make sure, no doubt, that my words wouldn't explode mid-flight.

I feel sorry for the next six-year-old who needs to fly alone. The innocence with which I first embraced air travel is simply inconceivable today.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)