I’m in Switzerland for the Black Diamond Kandersteg Ice Festival, one of the bigger Euro Festivals and always a good time. It’s a really short trip--I don’t like this sort of mad travel, but some swirling combination of schedule, an injured elbow, airline tickets and life landed me in Switzerland for the weekend. Worse things could happen. But before I write about the best iceless ice festival I’ve ever been to I need to discuss travel in the post-911 era.
On the flight over to London I’m bumped to business class thanks to sitting on lots of other airplanes. Air Canada’s business class is called “Executive First,” which is nicer than the cattle call on the back of the plane I normally ride. I get a hot meal, free drinks, a reasonable seat with some leg room and the biggest luxury of all, a small ditty bag with various “in-flight essentials.” All of this added up to a pretty tolerable flight, but then it hit me: when I first started traveling internationally all of the things I was currently enjoying in business class used to be part of coach class travel… Years ago I flew full first class back from Europe, and remember the insane full bottles of scotch, near one-on-one service from the staff, and the overall comfort. This business class wasn’t nearly on par with that, yet my ticket said executive first. Overall airline travel today sucks in comparison with what it used to be. But it’s not just the in-flight creature comforts that make the difference, it’s the attitude of everyone involved in the process, including me. Travel used to be relaitvely rare and a bit of an occasion for most people, now it’s an A to B process done as cheaply as possible. Lower-cost travel has opened up the world to many of us who likely couldn’t afford it otherwise, but the experience is only slightly less odious than going to the dentist.
This trip started in the Calgary airport security line. I’m traveling with only my boots, harness and helmet to make it all work as a carry-on (land in Zurich at 4:30 p.m., drive three hours, show at 8:00, not a lot of time to collect bags). While in line we are repeatedly admonished to put all of our gels and liquids into a single clear plastic bag. Not two bags, one, of the supplied size only. Which my contact lens solution doesn’t quite fit into. The bottle is half-full, but the container is over 100ml, so a dour security guard informs me that it’s too big as the bottle says 150ml. I point out that it’s less than half full, so it can’t possibly have more than 100ml in it. Nope, rules are rules, I have to either check it or toss it into the bin with all the other dangerous substances such as water bottles. I ask if I could dump out all the solution and take the bottle perhaps? Yes, this would be OK, empty bottles aren’t dangerous. And if I had a container to hold the solution could I put it into that? I’m eyeing my travel mug and thinking I’ll pour the solution into there, then pour it back into the bottle once I’ve survived security. But no, less than 100ml of contact solution in an open container isn’t allowed. So if I had a screw-on lid for my mug that would be OK? The security guard is getting frustrated and tells me to “follow the rules or I’ll become a problem passenger requiring more screening… I surrender the solution.
During the whole 20-minute security process I have to deal with getting told about three times that I’m at the wrong security gate for my flight. Yes, I’m aware of that, but you can move from terminal to termainal on the far side of security, and the “idiots who travel too much special holding area,” also known as the Gold status lounge, is in the A terminal… I point this out and am allowed to proceed toward the contact lens solution confiscation point. After about five people in line in front of me figure out that the metal detector does indeed detect metal, so that huge crucifix dangling around their necks might just set it off, or possibly the numerous metal rings on their fingers, or the Frisbee-sized belt buckle… I’m always amazed that person after person fails to figure this out. The whole vibe is suspicious and rude, and I suspect, largely ineffective. I can think of a half-dozen ways to get explosives or serious weaponry through the “security,” and that’s just while standing in line for it.
Finally I’m in my seat on the plane. It’s a good thing they took away my dangerous contact solution (Slate did a great piece on how it’s basically impossible to brew up a good bomb by combining liquids on a plane…), I just feel so much safer. I’m also strangely comforted by the fact that I get a plastic knife to cut my chicken up with—never mind that I’m given a large glass tumbler for my scotch, and that there are numerous wine bottles on hand. Now I’m no expert on weapons, but I’ve always feared a broken bottle in a bar situation, and I’ve cut myself on enough broken glasses while dishwashing to have a healthy respect for broken glass. I can’t bring a contact lens solution on board, but I’m given all the raw materials to make a hell of an effective knife? I briefly contemplate smashing my glass to have a more appropriate edge for dealing with the chicken, but that might lead to the plane being grounded so I could be wrestled off by local security forces…
The flight goes by peaceably, and after about ten hours I land in the worst damn airport in the world, Heathrow. We stand in line to get in line for the shuttle to the other terminal, stand in line to get on the escalator to stand in line for passport control, then stand in line for 45 minutes to go through security--again. And despite it being winter, the British have somehow figured out how to keep it jungle-hot, just what you need when nursing a free-booze hang over after being up for 30 hours straight. An old woman is visibly wilting in front of me, yet is treated like a potential terrorist when she politely asks a guard if she could sit for a bit on a chair just outside the maze while waiting her turn. I have to ask the guard if he would treat his own mother this way, it’s just wrong, a minor glare-fest ensues. The guard gets his back when I have to stuff my computer bag into my climbing pack to meet the one-bag rule, which doesn’t apply to the first-class passengers in a special line… I’ve already taken the computer out, and when the bag doesn’t quite fit into the “one bag only” box I start kicking the shit out of it until it does. The head of security comes over and decides my bag is OK, but it takes about five minutes to get my bag out of the “no bag bigger than this” cave I’ve just stuffed it into. I’m starting to almost enjoy the process. We used to be able to take two bags on, and I’ve always played by the rules of keeping them reasonably sized. Now it’s one bag, unless you’re a woman with a huge purse, a pet dog in a little mesh box and a carry-on with this season’s full Dior fashion line in it. The dog is OK with me.
Finally I’m in the line to stand in line for the next stage of security; a vast maze lies in front of me, which we all dutifully shuffle back and forth through like rats trying to find the reward. The guards and passengers are all surly; there’s a strong sense of futility and barely-restrained hostility permeating the atmosphere. Occasionally someone will break and start yelling at the security guards, only to be whisked off to wherever surly passengers are taken. I joke with a sun-baked surfer about the whole situation until the guards take notice of someone potentially having fun with the madness and start eyeing us up. We pull our sheep costumes back into place and keep our eyes downward lest we arouse the interest of the rubber-finger clad… It takes a full two hours to finally get through it all, and by the time I arrive at the next gate I’ve really had it with the British empire. Still, I’m loads better off than the old Sikh guy in front of me waiting to get into the waiting area at the gate—he makes the mistake of asking if he has enough time to get some food before the flight leaves. Another failed prison guard tells him “No, the flight leaves in 15 minutes, get in now or be denied boarding." Then we sit in the holding area for an hour because the plane is late. The Sikh had to be hungry to even ask about eating British airport food, so another hour could have killed him. I’m seriously surprised there isn’t more insanity in the airports from passengers driven over the brink.
Whatever you do, avoid Heathrow if at all possible, it’s a soul-choking mix of British clerk hell and old Soviet-style endless cues to stand in line for the next cue. I’ve flown through London three times in the last three years, apparently I forget the sheer idiocy of it all after about 364 days.
The only fun part of the trip comes when I drop a bunch of change on the floor and the muslim guy behind me directs his kids as they scoop it all up and offer it back. It’s pretty cool, I give all the change to the kids not because they look like they need it but because they figure out it’s Canadian and are psyched on it. A rare moment of humanity in the cluster of modern travel….
Next report: Kandersteg, which had almost no ice but sure was fun!