Sunday, February 25, 2007

Will Someone PLEASE Carry My Bags?

International travel can be a bitch. I’m not telling you anything new, I’m sure. Don’t get me wrong… I love seeing the world. I love meeting new people with different accents and world-views. I spent two weeks in the UK and Ireland and had a very positive experience in both locations. Yet, at the end of my two weeks when I began craving my own bed and started running out of underwear, I longed for home. So I made my way back to London awaiting anxiously my non-stop flight back home to DC, or at least Dulles International Airport.

Heathrow Airport is simultaneously the most impressive and most disgusting airport I have ever seen. When I made my way through the security line to pass into the gate area, I didn’t have the sense that security was a sham like I did when I left Dulles. The men and women organizing the lines, working the metal detectors, and completing manual searches struck me as SERIOUS professionals. They were respectful, competent, and firm, all at the same time. Before this, I just felt it was a sad unavoidable truth that men and women responsible for our airport security were just destined to be ill-tempered and drunk with power. In fact, there seems to be a sense in Britain that public service is more of a privilege and honor than here in the US. Their public servants are proud to be even train operators and parking enforcers. If anyone has an idea how to spark this here in the US, I’d love to hear it.

Back to my subject – the down side of Heathrow is its pathetic show of greed. Once you clear security, the politeness and respect are discarded along with that 20oz bottle of contact solution that didn’t fit into the little plastic baggy. You are dumped into a large common area with screens telling you which gate will take you to your plane, just like here in the US. The catch is – they don’t tell you which gate you need until 5 minutes before boarding. I was puzzled by this initially, until I realized that the entire terminal is one big duty free store. This is not an exaggeration. The round terminal area is actually one large store in which salespeople try to give you samples and explain how much you’re saving without paying VAT. Really, at this point, most travelers probably want to just sink into a comfortable chair and get the most recent information on their flight, but this becomes impossible when the main goal of the facility to sell you crap. Basically you are forced to wander around a large Wal-Mart until your plane is ready. For those of you who decided to be responsible and get to the airport early, you’re screwed.

Do we have a better system here in the US? I can’t answer that. The Brits are obviously better at catching bad guys who try to blow up or otherwise cause mayhem on planes. Yet, at least here in the US, I get the sense that the main goal of the airport it to get you on the plane and that all the other airport services (including retail) are only a necessity demanded by weary travellers – surprising for our culture of profit and exploitation. I wish we could have the best of both worlds. I think we and the UK should form some sort of combined super state – where British wit and politeness are combined with our practicality and fun-loving nature. We would be unstoppable.

As I returned to the US, I realized that I am indeed not part of the solution, but part of the problem. Instead of waiting in the taxi line like a responsible individual, I was quick to ditch out and be illegally solicited by an off-duty personal driver who offered to take me into DC with three other people “at a reasonable cost”. I blame my lack of judgment on the fact that my conscience was still sleeping after the long flight.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Marty:
When going on International Travel, I suggest you take Ms. Cash with you.

I hear she can get you in first class no problem and she is known to pay for a dinner here and there.

1:30 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree, just about any country other than the USA has better civil servants working and enforcing security, it is always so much more efficient. I don't even mind the semi-inappropriate touches by German security simply because they get you in and out so quickly.

I agree that the board system at LHR does suck, but there are no waiting areas at the gates so even if you did know you would just be standing outside a gate. Even the airport lounges are far from the actual gates. My first time departing out of LHR I lasily sat in the Red Carpet Club assuming the gate was close. They literally shut the door right after I got on the plane. Close call...

6:06 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I like your take on how you write this up. Though I've oft been led to believe the Brits are better than us at most things. It's the price we pay for being the younger sibling.

I don't understand what the girl above me is saying though. What's LHR? An airport code? Who speaks in airport codes? I guess the same ones who wait in Red Carpet Lounges?

10:33 AM  

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