Thursday, 2 October 2008

This Is How We Say Goodbye in England

International travel is no longer what it's cut out to be. It used to be about adventure; it used to be that when you heard of someone flying you'd be jealous because you would see them in their jet setting apparel, dodging air hostesses from all sides as they sip champagne in the confinement of their economy class seats.
Not anymore. Today's air travel is a pain in the ass.

It starts with the security. Flying out of Melbourne, for example, I was randomly selected for a personal security check. It was very random, of course, and had nothing to do with my looks (I was the only non Anglo Saxon in the vicinity). That was one thing; the rest of the time, as you run from one connection to the other, you just stumble from one security check to the other.
The peak of stupidity was at Frankfurt airport. We've just arrived from Tel Aviv and were on our way to catch a connecting flight to Singapore. First, we had to pass through security screening, even though we just came out of a flight for which we were obviously screened in the first place. Then, at the gate itself, we had to present our passports and boarding cards to get into the gate, where - less then two meters later - we had to present our passports and boarding cards again to someone else who had another look at them. Obviously, those two meters were very crucial; an airport's weak spot that any wondering rebel x-wing might be attacking any minute now.

Then there are the airlines themselves, which seem hellbent on doing everything they can to reduce costs and maximize profits. Lufthansa, for example, seem to excel at reducing costs by hiring staff specializing in being so annoyingly stupid they must be paying them less than the minimum wage. You see, at Manchester airport we were checked in by this cow who sat us in different parts of the plane (that is, until I came back and had her fix it); she also insisted we issue Dylan a paper ticket, despite our general electronic ticketing scheme, which meant we had to wait at another queue just to get a meaningless piece of sheet we didn't need and which served no purpose whatsoever.
The airline's new trick, though, is to hit you with overweight. The days of being able to board a plane after checking in your entire possessions upon this earth are gone. With our flights, we were limited to two articles of 20kg each, plus one article of 10kg for Dylan; more than that and you're stuffed, and believe me, the airlines did their best to make sure it was a case of no more. Now, 50kg might sound like much, but it's not, really, when you consider the demands of going away for a month with a baby.
We spent quite a lot of time with scales while we were packing.

Security and airline stupidity are one thing, traveling with a baby is another. I have already talked enough about the pleasure of using the bassinet, but the reality is that bassinet seats are the best thing you can have: as they are on the first row, you get the best legroom! Turns out we were lucky with our baby Dylan: He was just young enough, size wise, to fit in the bassinet. By now, for example, I suspect he simply wouldn't fit in one and we'd have to hold him in our arms all flight long. It is clear we should not be flying with Dylan anymore until he's two, by which time we'll have to pay for a his seat but at least he'll have his own space.

Turns out we were also lucky Dylan was old enough. Otherwise, he would have starved to death on the flight out of England.
You see, England has this thing going where they just don't care about babies; it's security they care about and nothing else. New international security measures for taking liquids on board flights limit you to one small plastic bag full of 100cc or less liquid containers, but also state, and I quote, that "For those travelling with babies, there are exceptions for baby products required for the duration of the flight". Now, in Melbourne, Frankfurt, Tel Aviv and Singapore they interpret the baby food clause as "bring in as much baby food as you deem necessary, this would not count towards your liquid allowance". In England? Well, in England they interpret the paragraph quoted above with jealousy that would put the Gestapo to shame.
As we got to the liquid security check post at Manchester airport, this nice lady greeted us. We showed her our liquids, and... trouble started.
With us we had a couple of 500cc bottled baby formula bottles, of the type that doesn't need refrigeration. No, the nice lady told us, we can only take these on board if we taste them first, because they are more than 100cc in volume. Jo protested, explaining to the dumb bitch that once we open the bottles we need to have them refrigerated or thrown away in two hours, but again - no, said the dumb bitch.
At this point my blood boiled. You see, I imagined a younger Dylan, a Dylan that still needed his sterile bottles. How the fuck are we supposed to feed him if we need to taste the sterile water, thus rendering it un-sterile? And it's not like we're talking ancient history here; Dylan was on sterile bottles just a few months before.
The nice lady told me that these are the rules and that they have to be followed.
My blood boiled even more. I asked her what we are expected to do if we were to fly all the way directly from Manchester to Australia, and how is our baby expected to survive such a long flight with no food because our fair lady decided to contaminate it all?
I was answered, rather laconically, as if citing from the rule book, that these are the rules and that they are meant to protect me. I explained exactly how protected these rules made me feel, but exactly, and I also asked if these rules are meant to protect babies dying of starvation during flights.
At this point the nice lady switched into some sort of an authoritative mode, changed her tone of voice, and started telling me that I should shut up or she would have me shut up.
Jo realized I was one step away from being arrested and stopped to calm me down. I did, sort of, but continued arguing along more polite lines. Much good it did me; again and again the stupid idiot told us that these are the rules and that they need to be followed. Not only that, she suggested we give the bottles away to the airport's fridge after tasting them and then put them in the airplane's fridge so they survive the flight. What the hell was she on? Airport fridge? Airplane fridge? Excuse me, lady with the power to have me arrested for making too much sense, what planet are you on?
Oddly enough, they were fine with allowing us to take as many 100cc and less bottles on board as we wanted to. A note to all would be terrorists: don't bother with big bottles, just bring your explosives with you in small bottles and mix them up on board.
Eventually we gave up, surrendered the milk for the nice lady to "destroy", went on to board the flight, and consoled ourselves with the knowledge that Dylan is old enough to drink cows' milk and that the planes should have cows' milk on board.
I will conclude with this: the first person who used the "but these are the rules and I didn't write them" argument to defend his actions was Adolf Eichmann. Sixty years after beating Eichmann and his likes, modern England got to the stage where the people are just as intoxicated in their perceived sense of superiority as the Nazis were in their own time. Sure, they aren't taking train loads of people into gas chambers, but they will starve your baby if you decide to commit the crime of taking a long range international flight. Australia, Israel, Singapore, and even Germany all have enough sense to let babies through; but in England they will follow the laws to the letter whether they make sense or not. Me, I'm just waiting to see what England comes up with once terrorists find a way to make explosive underwear.
What a stupid country.


Moshe Reuveni said...

As this was a rather emotional post, I think I should add the following notes to it.

First, I would like to make it clear that when I expressed my opinions concerning security to the security lady I did not use foul language nor was I aggressive (unlike in the above post). I was, however, cynical: I said something like "oh, now I feel very secure". That's all.
The fact such a simple statement can get one arrested shows exactly where we, as a society, are. Luckily Australia is not at the pit England is in, but I wonder if it is just a question of time.

Second, when I told my brother about the incident he said I should see things from the lady's perspective. That is, she woke up in the morning trying her best to do her job by the book, and then this heavily accented trouble maker lands upon her. What can I expect her to do? I should have just obliged and walk on.
I, however, expect the woman to use common sense. I expect her to realize that the law can be wrong, just as it was wrong back in Nazi Germany and just like it is often wrong in many other cases; after all, laws are written by humans, and humans can make mistakes (especially as laws are written by this special breed called “lawyers”). It doesn't take much of an intellect to realize the regulations have a problem with babies on long haul flights, and all that woman needed to do is alert her supervisor. All she needed to do is be slightly proactive to make the difference. All she needed to do is apply common sense, be rational.
I disagree with my brother. I think it was my duty to make a fuss there, and if anything I should have gotten myself arrested to make the point; after all, what would they accuse me of? Being cynical? Obstructing an officer of law through rational thinking?
We as a society can only overcome this "cover my ass" mentality if we fight it with whatever means possible and whenever it exposes itself.

Wicked Little Critta said...

Airline travel has become hellish. They charge for everything, and even though I know it's for safety reasons, I can't help the feeling of being herded into some kind of a concentration camp as they stuff crowds of people into small spaces, make us partially strip down, poke around in our personal belongings, and then treat us as though we're idiots. The last few times I've flown the security officers have been downright rude and degrading to the people trying to get through. Not a fun experience.

Anyway, you're right in that she could have at least gone to a superior with the problem. It's not as though you were requesting something unreasonable, like to bring your goldfish and it's tank along.

Moshe Reuveni said...

The trouble with the security measures is that not only do they degrade the passengers, they are pretty useless against terrorists; they're there only to show that something is being done. It’s a game of perceptions.
As I have pointed out, the would be terrorist could still make a bomb out of liquid from several small canisters. Or, instead of taking a knife on board, they could take a rather sharp pen. Or, they could just be good at martial arts.
The current logic of "the terrorists had knives so let's get rid of everything called a knife" followed by "the terrorists had liquids so let's get rid of liquids" is incredibly stupid. For a start, at least one terrorist had explosive shoes and we can still wear them on board. But then this could be taken further: terrorists have been known to go to the toilet, so maybe we should remove them from planes to deter the terrorists. They have also been known to wear clothes, so maybe we should remove all clothing on board. And they usually eat, at least from time to time, so let's avoid feeding anyone.
On the other hand, the alternative security strategy used by Israeli authorities is not as dumb as the British one but much more intrusive: they do profiling. Then again, the "random" security check I have had at Melbourne, and the "random" security checks I've had in plenty of other places, show the other countries do not avoid profiling because they don't want to but rather because they lack the means to do it.
In short, the world of aviation security is rather incapable.

As for my nice lady talking to her supervisor:
The reality of the situation was that we were not being dealt by just one lady but rather by a congregation of airport security people; it's just this specific lady did most of the talking.
Sure, she should have talked to her supervisor. But the numbers on her side of things show that at least as far as most Manchester Airport security personnel is concerned, the starvation of babies is perfectly fine.
And I call that a symptom of a sick country.