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The Airport Experience: A Journey in Itself

Post-9/11 airports have lost their Norman Rockwellian glow.

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In an era of increasing surveillance and eroding privacy, our airports bear little resemblance to the community gathering spaces of our cultural imagination, where families and friends could see each other off and meet at the gate to embrace one another.

Hugh Grant’s opening voiceover in the 2003 Christmas romcom Love Actually paints a charming, heartwarming picture of airports as community spaces, unique in their purpose of bringing people together to greet or part with one another.

“Whenever I get gloomy with the state of the world, I think about the arrivals gate at Heathrow Airport,” Grant’s character tells us over montages of families embracing one another. The airport in the town where the two of us grew up, a small city in Iowa, fits Grant’s moving depiction to a tee; passengers exit the plane into the one-room airport, where everyone’s families are standing together, waiting.

For most people traveling for the holidays in the US, though, the experience at the airport will be far less idyllic. Many will be subject to Rapiscans, the full-body “people screening” device, exposing them to radiation and invasive body imaging. Those who opt out will be subject to a full pat-down, often in full view of all the passengers waiting in the security line. Much has been written about the increasing security measures taken by the TSA in airports across the United States, the drastic escalation of which began after 9/11, with the gradual introduction of stricter policies since then. With the impending holiday travel season, we wondered whether the security measures Americans have grown used to are unique to the United States, or whether they have become the norm around the globe.

Flights between certain African countries and Europe, for instance, are subject to extremely strict security, justified in terms closely resembling the political rhetoric of the United States regarding the threat of terrorism. A 2009 Wall Street Journal article following a bombing attempt by a Nigerian passenger vaguely describes “some African countries” as having “unreliable” airport security with “rudimentary” screening equipment. As a result, airline carriers in Europe compensate by “conducting extensive security reviews of the airports they serve and even flying their own security staff in on each flight to conduct a second screening.”

Katyana Melic, a current resident of Ghana born in Singapore, told us border security tends to be specifically targeted at other Africans. Both a passport and a ticket are required to enter the airport, which means, “If you’re a poor Ghanaian trying to say goodbye to your family, you’ve got to wait on the other side of the road.”

Despite such dehumanizing, isolating security policies in the name of terrorism prevention, not all countries have transformed airports into hyper-securitized, locked- down spaces. In Australia, airport security allows entry for non-passengers to the terminal, so long as it’s a domestic flight. “People can still go through security even if they’re not traveling, which means you can meet your loved ones at the gate, instead of standing in a cramped space between the security exit and baggage claim,” said Salvatore Babones, a senior lecturer in sociology and social policy at the University of Sydney, who is also a Truthout contributor and Public Intellectual. “There’s no shoe removal, except for flights to the United States. When you fly to the US, you have to go through an extra security check – and take off your shoes.”

Babones also described the amenities available to travelers at the Hong Kong and Singapore airports: Hong Kong, like most large Asian airports, has shower lounge facilities for transferring passengers (about $20) and many great food options as well as several areas with turned-down lights and free full-length sleeper sofas. The Singapore airport features small botanical gardens to help travelers recharge with a little access to nature.

Such facilities might help those people who face more than extra screening. US journalist Jared Malsin was detained at the airport in Tel Aviv for eight days, then deported back to the United States, despite the Palestinian Authority’s recognition of him as a journalist. That nightmare situation is obviously rare, but with seemingly ever-increasing so-called security measures, moving through security checkpoints can be incredibly anxiety-inducing.

One question you often hear when discussing the subject of airport security is, “Are we doing enough?” Embedded in this question is the distinctly – though not exclusively – American assumption that more is better: bigger, more invasive metal detectors, more items you must run down the conveyor belt, more items on the prohibited list. (As Minneapolis-based rapper Astronautalis says, “Are we for really still sweatin’ shampoo on planes … keep sweatin’ al-Qaeda/I’m scared of the banks.)

On November 25th, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) turned ten. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is under the massive purview of DHS, and although there have been some improvements (like strengthening cockpit doors), but there have also been a fair number of missteps.

The government announced a program called CAPS II in 2002 – and eventually all but scrapped it in 2007 – that would have used commercially available data about travelers to determine their risk status. The program lives on, in a limited fashion, under the name Secure Flight, which compares a passenger’s name with government-compiled watch lists.

The main problems with privacy arise in traveling internationally, where border guards have broad discretion when it comes to searching laptops and other electronics, which they can do without a warrant. These searches are almost always conducted by the US Customs and Border Protection, not TSA.

When it comes to strategies for protecting your data, many people who feel they may be at risk for searches are choosing to travel without much digital information on their person. The indispensable Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) also suggests making regular back ups, and encrypting your information.

Also, wondering what that wipe thing that TSA uses is? It’s called explosive trace detection, or ETD. When we travel, we bring a snowball mic to record our podcast Radio Dispatch on the road, which always gets wiped down. This latest time, one of the TSA guards asked if it was a microphone, which is the first time that’s happened to us. Usually they handle it like it’s something out of Star Wars.

Though Americans’ fear of terrorism is at a relative low point compared to times in the Bush-era, 38 percent of the population still thinks a “terrorist attack in the US could be imminent.” There’s good reason to be skeptical of polls like this, though, not least of all because the word “terrorism” has no fixed definition other than violence against the West committed by Muslims, as Glenn Greenwald has repeatedly argued. Still, a perceived fear of terrorism has driven ever-increasingly authoritarian policies from the Patriot Act and warrantless spying on Americans to the kind of security theater we’re now familiar with in our airports. How great is the actual threat? That’s obviously impossible to say for sure, but in 2011, about the same number of Americans was killed by their appliances falling on them as were killed in terrorist attacks.

There is, of course, a lot of money to be made by continuing to tell Americans they are under constant threat of terrorism. Military policy analyst Chris Hellman reported in 2011 that although we’re often told the Pentagon’s budget is around $700 billion, the actual national security budget is closer to $1.2 trillion per year.

As hundreds of thousands of passengers travel home for the holidays, they will have little choice but to consent to these ever-encroaching security measures. In an era of increasing surveillance and eroding privacy, our airports bear little resemblance to the community gathering spaces of our cultural imagination, where families and friends could see each other off and meet at the gate to embrace one another. Such exchanges, now, have been pushed outside.