Random Acts of TSA Kindness, and Other (Mainly) Good Airport News

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In response to my contention that American airports had become run-down and off-putting to an extent that Americans who don't travel internationally may not realize, several "on the other hand" replies.

First, a reader who is highly experienced in and around aviation sends a report of two recent "humane" interactions with the TSA. I've changed the names of the airports he mentions so as not to make the TSA people in question too easy to identify:

The first case was in December at [a major West Coast airport]. I was in line for security behind a late 20ish pregnant woman. As we got close to the front of the line she leaned over and asked the TSA person at the mileage elite/first class line (who had nobody in his line), "I'm just curious, are these things safe for pregnant women, do I have to go through?" My first thought was that she just sealed her fate for extra security.

She was obviously pregnant, and sounded generally concerned and wanting to know if the x-ray boxes in our path were safe.

"They say they are" was the response from the TSA agent. She didn't seemed all that satisfied.

A few moments later he leaned back and said, "once you're past the ID check, go over to the line on the far [left or right], there isn't a machine over there."

As somebody who also opts out at every occasion, I was surprised and pleased by this piece of advice. And sure enough, both of us walked to the far-side line after the ID check and were whisked through a metal detector only. No x-ray in that line.

I have since made a point of going through this same line at that airport twice more and each time with the same no x-ray/opt out decision needed.

The next experience happened [yesterday] departing [a major East Coast airport]. After opting out of a millimeter wave scanner (I just opt out of everything on principle), I was politely walked to a location for the pat down. Just as the pat down began (professionally and politely), another agent walked over and said he was going to send my carry on suitcase though the x-ray again for a second screening. No problem.

After the pat down was complete, the TSA agent said to me, "sorry about that, I just wanted to make sure you weren't one of us."

I was confused and it must have showed. He explained that the reason he was extra careful with the pat down - which was actually not the most careful one I have received - is because after I opted out and my bag warranted another scan, he thought I must have been a TSA tester sent through to check the system. He then explained to me how that happens every so often and the little things that the testers have on them to test the TSA agents.

So two stories of rather polite TSA agents sharing a little inside info with me. One an advice on how to avoid the x-ray scanner, the other on where to hide something if I wanted to emulate where the testers apparently think the sneaky traveler carries contraband.

Now, from a reader who says US airports aren't really that bad:

On the aesthetics, cleanliness, and amenities of US airports: I haven't been through every major airport in the US, but I've been through many of them. This weekend I was at SeaTac, Newark (where I had to spend the night in the terminal), and Orlando. In my time I've been through Atlanta, Houston, O'Hare, Midway, JFK, Dallas, Minneapolis, etc. Most of the hubs.

Most of them are pleasing enough, in Holiday Inn kind of way. Most of them are clean. Most have decent amenities, at least until the late evening hours. They could all use Japanese-style "tube hotels" in them, for the case of longer times between flights, and they could all use more truly personal services.

I've only found one that was wholly unacceptable, and that, unfortunately (given the nature of international flights) is Newark. It's an open pit, a noisome, foul, offending spot ("things rank and gross in nature possess it merely"). To put it literally and succinctly, it stinks.

Just one man's opinion, without tears.

And further on this theme:

I've always found Heathrow to be one of the worst experiences one can have to change flights. If one has a connecting flight, you still have to through the customs rigmarole. If I ever have a transfer in London that is less than 2 hours, I usually decline it because there's an even chance I'm missing my connection. CDG, while not as bad, is pretty bad as well, since you have to go through security unless you're connecting within the EU.

After the jump, a report from a reader in Japan.

An American who has lived for years in Japan writes:

point 1: avoiding the US

My wife had a conference in Canada, we live in Osaka, Japan. Although it would have been nice to use Delta and get the miles (would have pushed her into the silver medallion level) - it just was not worth the hassle of her having to transfer in Seattle and go through TSA.

point 2: security theatre

we keep our shoes and belts on in Japan, go through the standard metal detector (or whatever it is) machine, occasionally get the wand treatment. Amazingly so far, no security breaches!

point 3: kind-of related to cruddy infrastructure

for the push on developing a bullet train in the US .... that will be nice (Amtrak is embarrassing but we do have some lovely train stations to shop in), icing on the cake, but what is truly needed is decent regional rail. To start off with bullet trains touches on another Patrick Smith`s article, the new airport in Dakar, Senegal, what a depressing parallel to make.

More in a while, including some Big Thoughts. For the moment, I appreciate these reports.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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