I have traveled quite a lot since September 11. Actually, to be more accurate, given that I turned 18 that year, my world traveler career only boomed after that. I am a pure product of the modern terrorist-hunt era, therefor I should be fluent with airport and travel security.
But I still don’t get it.
I remember that right after 9/11, flying was not popular, and ticket prices were at a all-time low. Planes were also quite empty: I remember having a whole four-seats row for myself on my flight back from Hong Kong to France, and then from France to Mexico! I can’t remember any specific regulations at that time. I’m sure some were being implemented, I just wasn’t aware of them.
Now, forward a couple of years. I was living in Canada half of the time, in France the other half, always looking for a way to extend my work visas and already planning to apply for permanent residence in Canada. I was going back in forth on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. At the time, the cheapest flight available was often the Toronto-Philadelphia-Paris one, with American Airline. I didn’t mind the stop-over in Philly: I was a student and I was broke. If the stop was going to help me save a couple of hundred bucks, it was good for me.
But at the same time, US airport security and immigration procedures were getting tighter and tighter, and the rest of the world was soon to follow.
One thing a lot of people don’t know is that when your flight stops in the U.S.A, whether it is for a couple of hours or for a day, you are not really considered as being in transit, as anywhere else in the world. You need to pick up your bags, go through immigration, and then check in again. To my knowledge, the U.S.A is the only country with this policy. Usually, as long as you stay in the airport, you are in an international zone, so you don’t go through immigration and you don’t pick up your bags, which are typically checked all the way to whatever destination anyway.
The U.S no transit policy confused me to no end. I’m lucky though, because as a French citizen, I do not need a visa. Upon arrival in the U.S, I just have to fill up the visa waiver program form (the famous I-94W green paper), have a little chat with the immigration officer (that can range from very straightforward experience to extremely unpleasant one) and the form is stapled in my passport. I have to give it back when I leave.
Now, when you go through the U.S, you still have to follow that process, even though you won’t be going outside the airport. Sometimes, the immigration agent does not understand we don’t have an address or an hotel in the U.S. Which is very logic since we are not traveling there…! Sometimes, we are given the visa waiver form, stapled in the passport, and give it back 30 minutes later upon boarding the next plane. Stupid if you ask me.
Since January 12th 2009, there has been new requirements implemented for passengers traveling to or transiting to the U.S.A under the Visa Waiver Program. We are required to apply for an Electronic System for Travel Authorisation (ESTA) no later than 72 hours prior to departure. You then receive a response determining whether travel to the US has been authorized. If the application is not authorized then a visa may be requested through the US Embassy.
I haven’t apply for an ESTA yet because I’m scared of the system. I have nothing to hide and there is no reason why I shouldn’t be allowed. Yet, what if…? What if the computer system screws up? What if, what if, what if? Am I going to be banned from traveling to the U.S? As a Canadian resident, it would be very tough. Because a lot of flights go through the U.S, whether we want it or not. Most Latin American bound flights from Canada go through the U.S, as well as a fair share of Europe bound flights!
Recently, another blogger wrote a post criticizing my attitude towards U.S security policies. Her message was simple: if you don’t like the way we do it, don’t come here. Yeah, well, I don’t really have the choice. As I explained before, I comply to any requirements to enter a country that I’m visiting, because after all, I don’t have to come if I don’t like it. Now, I don’t have the choice on where I will be in transit, and since I live in Canada, I simply can not avoid being in transit in the U.S.A quite often. Yet, I’m aiming for direct flights until I — hopefully – get my Canadian citizenship.
But this is only the tip of the iceberg. I used to like flying. I don’t anymore, because it’s such a hassle, no matter which airport, no matter which country.
First, what can you put on your bags, what can you put in your carry-on? This is not clear to me. I usually travel light, with a backpack and a small rucksack. I used to pack a few items for the first night of travel in my carry-on bag, in case my checked-in luggage is lost (yes, it does happen). But I have to consider what considered as safe. I would never think of carrying an ice pick, a sword or a saber, items which are all — understandably — on the prohibited items list. On the other side, I do frequently have small scissors, lithium batteries (for my camera) or tweezers, which are prohibited items as well!
As for clothes, the TSA websites advise you to “avoid wearing clothing, jewelry or other accessories that contain metal when traveling through the security checkpoints: clothing with metal buttons, snaps or studs, metal hair barrettes or other hair decoration, under-wire bras“. I should call the airport for fashion advice because most of my clothes do have metal button (jeans) and I won’t even mention my bras. Fortunately, my hair is short… so no barrettes.
Since September, 2006, all liquids, gels and aerosols in their carry-on bag must be in three-ounce or smaller containers. They must be placed in a single, quart-size, zip-top, clear plastic bag, and each traveler can use only one. It has to be removed from the carry-on and placed in a bin for separate X-ray screening.
Now, I check in everything. In my bag, I only have my camera, my wallet and a book. But it’s not good enough apparently. Ooops, forget the lip balm in my inside bag pocket, next to my tampon. Ooops, my camera has lithium batteries. Ooops, I smuggled a knife… actually, not. But the X-ray — wrongly — said so.
Once I have taken off my shoes, belt, change, coat, scarf, ziploc bags or sample-size toiletry, thrown away my bottle of water, I am hopefully allowed in. Not so fast: I am always the one pull on the side for the body search (how nice) even though I am only wearing a skirt and a teeshirt (scarf, coat etc. being in the X-ray bin).
Don’t get my wrong, I’m not against airport security. I just find the current policies more ridiculous than efficient. I feel it basically discourage people from traveling, and for the rest of us that still do, it’s a huge hassle. September 11/9 was a tragedy for the U.S.A and the rest of the world. Yet, we have to admit terrorism can strike anywhere, and no matter how tight the security is, there will always be loopholes. What’s next? No weapon-like objects, no liquid, tight passenger screening and… and what? The day a lunatic strangles someone on board we will have to have our hands cut?
We flew to France yesterday, and after our travels in Latin America, where airport security is straightforwards and quite basic, it was a shock. Security in Montreal was very tight. We flew from Paris to Nantes, my hometown, and even for this domestic leg of the trip, we had to remove our shoes, have our carry-on X-rayed and searched etc. The woman in front of us almost wasn’t allowed on the plane because she was traveling with her kid who had an American passport (dad was American she explained) while she had a French passport. Phew. Come on guys, it’s domestic…!
Anyway, we are in France and it’s all good. Gotta go eat some cheese and drink some wine now.