Thursday 27 October 2011


To travel from Wellington in New Zealand to London involves twenty-four hours flying-time, plus several more in check-ins, departures, transfers and arrivals. Door-to-door for me, this time, it totalled-out at thirty-two hours which is, frankly, pretty tiring even without the chronic disruption to the body-clock.

What I, and my fellow passengers on yesterday's Air New Zealand flight NZ4, didn't need was what befell us on our arrival in Los Angeles...

At the start of our journey we had passed through security: we and our bags and baggage had been x-rayed and checked. The normal procedure when the plane arrives in LA is for passengers travelling on to another destination to be held in a transit lounge where they are checked by US security (by scanning retinas and fingers-and-thumbs profiles) and where they then remain for the, roughly, one hour it takes to clean, refuel and re-crew the plane.

Not so this trip...

Because NZ4 was an addition to the usual Air New Zealand flying schedule (necessitated by the number of returning Rugby World Cup spectators) it seemingly triggered some security alarm bell with the US air control. This is, frankly, weird since no flights can begin without their arrival being approved by the destination airport.

Anyway, five minutes before landing the air crew were notified that the transit lounge would not be used and we would all have to pass through security and customs and the re-enter as newly departing travellers.

For the next two hours we queued to be processed as arrivals (along, of course, with all the passengers who really were actually arriving in LA as opposed to just passing through) and then forced to leave the airport and then re-enter at departures and, of course, undergo the full check-in procedure with all those waiting to depart on various flights.

I smiled wryly at the notice assuring me that the US welcomed me and promised to treat me with dignity and respect as we "tired, poor, huddled masses" were herded along like recalcitrant cattle, scrutinised like potential terrorists, had our bodies x-rayed and searched and our carry-on luggage gone through item by item before we were allowed to, finally, re-board our plane for London.

Sadly, not everyone made it back in time and at least two passengers who got snarled up somewhere in LA's security bottleneck had their cases unloaded and were left behind.

I understand, endorse and applaud the need for rigorous security and vigilance – why would I not? I want to know that I am travelling in safety – but this was nothing short of petty-fogging bureaucracy that made unnecessary work for rafts of, doubtless overworked, officials and caused unwarranted discomfort and delay for at least one 707-load of passengers.

We were held up by a further 30-minutes due to Air Force One arriving or taking off (no aircraft can share immediate airspace with the Presidential plane) and whilst I didn't notice Mr Obama in the security queue, it is probably just as well because – despite the 'special relationship' – I'd have, undoubtedly, given him a piece of my mind...


Sheila said...

What a dreadful, dehumanising and dispiriting experience. Obviously the US authorities have forgotten the seminal How to make Friends and Influence People.

... and are now determined to put off as many visitors as possible and also to ensure that transit passengers will in future try any other route rather than via a US airport.

Brian Sibley said...

Too, true! Next time I fly to NZ (if there is a next timne) I will most definitely be flying via Hong Kong!

I am, and have long been, a lover of many things American (as my work has testified), but the US airport experience is not among them!

scb said...

Good heavens! That is simply dreadful. I'm grateful that you got through all that mess and are now home again.

Anonymous said...

Poor old Brian! Now for heaven's sake put your feet up, that awful trip behind you and a nice cup of good British tea in your flight-dehydrated tummy. Welcome back to civilization.

jan said...

oh, brian, i am so sorry to hear about your experience in my country. we do many things really bad and airports are up there at the top of bad.

i hope you were in a wheelchair and didn't have to stand through all this. i've found, when traversing through our 'ports, that being in a wheelchair makes my life so much easier.

Boll Weavil said...

How horrible. Good job you're back in the free world now !

scb said...

I hope you will send in some sort of evaluation. This should not have happened!

SharonM said...

Your rotten experience makes me believe that you empathise with Eeyore so much because of what life throws at you!

I almost wish you had met President Obama at the airport - on the other hand, is Guantanamo Bay still open?

Whenever I feel regretful about the fact that I'm not really able to take holidays abroad at present, all I have to do is think about the inconvenience and hassle of air travel and I'm not so sorry.

I do echo Anonymous's instructions to put your feet up, and give yourself plenty of recovery time.

Brian Sibley said...

Dear All,

Thanks for your empathy, sympathy and shared outrage!

Jan asks if I was in a wheelchair and, yes, I was and, consequently, fared rather better than the majority of my fellow travellers - especially the two who missed their flight home!

Had I met Mr Obama, I would (after a suitable rant!) have politely requested that he consider awarding a Presidential medal to the sweet woman who was undoubtedly underpaid and who pushed the cumulative (and not inconsiderable) weight of me and my hand-luggage all the way from the plane, through immigration and customs out onto the street and then back into the airport again, assisting me with the difficulties of the security ordeal and, finally, two hours later, wheeled me all the way back to my waiting plane!

Suzanne said...

I sympathise whole-heartedly Brian, having just got back from San Francisco, after a very enjoyable month touring the US South-West. Enjoyable, that is, apart from the airport experience. But ours was in Toronto and Montreal airports... the same old rigmarole with security etc... Only here we weren't even supposed to stop over in Montreal.
I now completely understand the word "kettling"!!!

Phil said...

That "out and back in again" palaver has happened to me from time to time is US airports. But sometimes its more worrying to see people coming and going from internal flights with very little security.

I agree with Anonymous: put it all behind you with a cup of tea, Digestive biscuit and a nice sit down. Followed by a listen to the Titus repeats!

jan said...

brian, the pushers (wheelchair, that is) at the airports are the heroes of the flying world. i could not fly if they were not there to help me get from check in to the plane.

while i feel i should have a bag over my head when we whiz by the other waiting passengers, i tell those who glare at me, i would change places with them in a nano second if i could.

take care, brian, and give yourself some recovery time.

Ryan Rasmussen said...

Glad that you are safely back - and sorry for your LAX ordeal.

Having made the LAX-AUK trip several times (though not since the, er, enhanced security measures were put in place), I will now only use or recommend the San Francisco airport. A much more pleasant, humane experience all around.

Rest easy and have fun with those books!

Nancy Reyes said...

Nothing new, nor is the extreme checking limited to the US.

If you fly between the US and the Philippines via Japan, you also get rechecked by customs and security screeners in Japan. We don't have to get out our luggage though: They check that downstairs.

The Japanese don't trust other folks security, maybe because one PAL flight was bombed in the 1990's.

Don't know if this would happen to you in Hong Kong though. And that new airport is supposed to be a lot nicer to sit around than LAX.

Phil said...

It could have been so much worse:

Brian Sibley said...

Now, that is a horror story!