First Class, Business, or Commercial?

Originally published November 21, 2012

First Class, Business, or Commercial?
by JAMES WEST

I don’t fly often, but my experiences in the past have largely been negative. Most prominent in my mind are the many times I went through security with my family, my father barking at us kids through gritted teeth to “take off your belt.” Or, having passed through security, he would quietly encourage us to “put your belt back on faster before they decide to search your bag.”

More than once I was that unlucky traveler whose carry-on bag was indeed searched — I was regrettably slow about putting the belt back on. A surprised man in a white, decorated security shirt holding up one of hundreds of volcanic rocks I had been lugging around all week: a razor-sharp obsidian. Then he digs around my duffel and removes a very dusty Luke Skywalker in Bespin Gear (missing his light saber, blaster pistol, and the left, removable hand). Despite raised eyebrows and concerns that a child was carrying around a bag of rocks, I was allowed through, a pound or two lighter after they confiscated a few of the larger, more wicked slicers.

There was the time when my checked bag arrived a day later than I did. There was the time when my father’s checked bag never arrived, and he had to itemize the contents of his suitcase so he could be reimbursed: Three Croft and Barrow button-down shirts; several ties, socks, underwear and the like; a state-of-the-art, early 2000′s, Dell laptop computer; carefully annotated copies of John Locke’s “Paraphrase and Notes on the Epistles of St. Paul,” Thomas Hobbes’ “Leviathan,” and several issues of The Weekly Standard. My father never checked another bag, and neither did I.

After the terrorist attacks on 9/11, airport security only got tighter, as we know all too well. I can remember having to take off my shoes, now, too. I think my parents heard reports from their friends and from The Wall Street Journal of long, interminable lines leading up to security. Random searches of bags (post scanning) were all too likely at this point. Old ladies in wheel chairs were suspected terrorists, in keeping with airport security’s commitment to impartial profiling — and this “taking-off-your-shoes thing” was ridiculous.

In my parents’ eyes, the tightened security was almost as bad as another terrorist attack, in that it instilled fear and misgiving in the hearts of the travelers, and was really, really inconvenient. We would arrive to the airport no later than two hours prior to the flight, just to be certain that we made it through the long lines in time for the flight.

Thus did I resemble my father at 25 as I arrived at the airport the day before Thanksgiving, expecting the worst. As I drove, Morning Edition on NPR reported long lines leading up to airport security all over America. I imagined our nation’s travelers, heavy-laden with their bags and their children, loitering in a meandering, roped walkway and resembling a refugee camp. This made me glad that I had arrived not two, but three hours early for my flight.

I had packed light, carrying my heavy coat in my arms and bringing only my backpack with four changes of clothes, two sweaters, and minimal toiletries. Hoping to avoid any confiscations, I left my toothpaste and razor, bringing only a toothbrush and a stick of deodorant. The deodorant I almost left as well, but given that it was almost empty, I thought, “Why not.” At the last minute I left the computer at home, imagining that having to open my bag for any reason at security would be like opening a bloody wound in shark-infested waters.

My roommate dropped me off at curbside check-in. Striding past those money-grubbing, bag-losing concierges, I entered the dark-tinted double doors. There was I met with an airport scene unlike any other I have witnessed. No throngs of people, no roped barriers of weaving lines — but a resounding quiet.

“Hello,” I said hesitantly to the redcoat American Airlines attendants. I hear an echo in my memory. My greeting was met with an unhurried, unenthusiastic, “First class, business, or commercial?”

“Business,” I said confidently, completely off, and a little rattled by the sudden array of options. “I did the online check-in last night,” I offered. “Did you print out your boarding pass then?” she asked hopefully. I told her I had opted for the mobile device option, pulling out the iPad. She turned to the man next to her and asked, “Do we do that, comrade?” (leaving out the “comrade”), who responded with skepticism, and personally printed me a copy from a self-serve kiosk. He then pointed me to the security line, which was all of 7 bodies deep.

It was the priority security line reserved for people with more money than I have. I only realized this when an older man toting a bike for his limp, unusable lower-right limb, mentioned it to the woman behind him, as the line for the regular folks was ten-to-twelve bodies deep with an enviable two security guards checking people through (as opposed to one). I expressed my surprise to find myself in such an elite arena, but the man with the bike assured me that if there was any question, that I should tell them I was traveling with him. I thanked him and told him I was three hours early and he seemed genuinely taken aback. He probably thought I was a really big idiot. I let him go before me, and the guards led him through a special inspection gate for injured airport people with bikes.

I had waited in line with him barely three minutes to have my boarding pass inspected. Envisioning a possible ID issue, I had brought my passport. The official simply tilted my license, reflecting the light off its seals, and ran my boarding pass through his console. He scrawled a cryptic set of initials on the pass, looked me in the eye, and gave me a tired smile. When I stepped through the full-body scanner, I had to take my passport out of my pocket, only so I would have nothing in my pockets. My carry-on met me on the other side, untampered — I got to keep my deodorant. And I had three hours to kill.