International air travel — as a user experience — sucks. I should know; I'm just back home in Scotland after a nearly two week trip to the USA, and I'm off to Japan in April. (My carbon footprint, let me show you: the domestic/automobile side of it is positively hair-shirt green in its miniscule dimensions, but the air travel part is bloated.)
Right now, I'm jet-lagged. Which is annoying, because I'm supposed to be writing a novel: but while I'm kinda-sorta back on local time, past experience suggests that if I try to work, my written output will resemble that of a fourteen year old with ADHD — anything I do in the next day or so would have to be junked or re-written so thoroughly that it would add more time to project completion than it would detract.
Jet lag is an insidious and unpleasant condition, aggravated by economy class travel and overnight flights: in my case, taking off around 10:40pm in New York, landing at 11:20am in Amsterdam, after six and a half hours or so in flight. The night is shorter by six hours than it should be, due to time zone differences. The cabin crew are scheduled to feed and water the cattle 30 minutes after take-off (allowing an hour for dinner), then 90 minutes before landing (with a light meal). In-between, the cabin lights are dimmed ... allowing for a grand total of four hours of darkness in which to sleep, if you can, in a not-too-wide seat. I lucked out on this trip (we were bumped from regular economy to KLM's economy-with-15cm-of-extra-legroom, normally a €60 extra) and was able to nap a couple of times; but it's no way to spend a night, and I've never in my entire life been able to stay awake for more than 28 hours at a stretch: I need my sleep.
West-to-east travel across time zones makes for the worst jet lag; you lose hours out of the middle of the night, and unless you can afford business class (I can't, usually) you don't get a seat you can sleep in. The end result is something like an 18 hour day followed by a 24 hour day, with some uncomfortable napping in hours 16-20. To minimize the damage and get onto local time at the destination as fast as possible, my preferred strategy is to catch a 2-3 hour afternoon nap on the day of arrival, then stay up until regular bedtime. Trouble is, after that nap I wake up feeling as if I've got most of the symptoms of flu (except for the fever and severe joint pains), and it lasts for days.
To add to the fun, my local airport doesn't serve many destinations outside the EU. I therefore need to connect via a major hub. In this case, back in November 2009 when I booked the flights (before Mr Explodeypants screwed the experience for everyone) I booked via Schiphol, Amsterdam's airport. Schiphol is actually east of my destination on the west-to-east flight; but I had a reason. Firstly, Schiphol is not Heathrow (or Gatwick) — travel via the British intercontinental hubs is a hideous experience, and I'll go to some lengths to avoid them. In terms of flight time, Amsterdam's about half an hour further from the US than London, and half an hour further from Edinburgh. But in the departure area there is a hotel which you can book for a four-hour slot, for about the price of access to a business class lounge. This gets you a compact but nicely designed room with an en suite shower/toilet bathroom and a really nice mattress. I planned for a four-hour connection, precisely so that I could catch a nap after the overnight flight: it worked well enough that I'd do it again.
A secondary aspect of the experience is dehydration, of course. Like many forty-something males I take medication for high blood pressure; consequently, I drink like a fish. Air-conditioned cabins pressurized to the equivalent of a 4000 metre mountaintop are very dessicating: at the end of a long flight my skin feels like leather and I have a mild headache, and that's even after managing to grab a litre bottle of water to supplement the ration that comes with dinner. Alcohol is pretty much right out, unless you can grab an extra water supply: it's a mild diuretic, your tolerance at altitude is reduced, and if you indulge to even a normally tolerable extent you'll end up with the hangover from hell.
Perhaps the worst part of the experience of flying these days is the security theatricals. No surprise in the attentiveness of the screeners at Schiphol being dialed right up to eleven; but I was somewhat shocked by the poor quality of the security at JFK.
Here's the rub: security is a state of mind, not a procedure. Procedures can't cope with attackers, because they're inflexible. If you search passengers for guns, someone will carry a knife. If you search for knives, someone will sew themselves a set of underwear full of PETN. And so on. To deal with a threat — say, someone who wants to attack your air travel infrastructure — you must look for the attacker, not their tools, because they can change their tools at will to exploit weaknesses in your procedure for identifying tools.
JFK is wide open to terrorists intent on causing mass casualties.
It took me about 60 minutes to shuffle through the scrum for security clearing, around 8pm on a Thursday. This isn't an accident of timing: at that time, we had about four or five 747-loads of passengers trying to get to their gates. Among them was the last El Al flight of the week to Tel Aviv that can arrive before sunset on Friday (i.e. the sabbath); guess what ethnic profiling of passengers for that flight would suggest? Also among them: the last 747s for Europe from New York on a regular midweek day. All these flights were crammed to the gills; so we had a couple of thousand passengers milling around in a zig-zag maze of rope barriers, waiting to squeeze themselves through the metal detectors and their bags through the X-ray machines. Keeping an eye on this mass, from outside: about two cops and two soldiers. At the gate, security was cursory at best: the only passenger I saw being hand-searched was the wheelchair user (who obviously couldn't go through the gate), and I saw no sign of bags being re-checked or hand-searched either: the TSA staff were clearly under immense pressure due to the workload, and were therefore going through the motions — performing their checklist at maximum speed (look for guns, look for knives, look for things that look like TSA-standard training bombs), rather than being thorough.
Let me wear my Osama bin Laden hat for a minute:
Suppose I wanted to attack the US air travel infrastructure. I can't get bombs or box cutters onto planes reliably. But I can kill lots of passengers! All I need to do is to buy a maximum-size carry on bag (US dimensions: 7" x 13" x 20") and build the biggest, heaviest bomb into it that I can wheel behind me. It's not weight-constrained for hand luggage: there's probably room for about 10 kilos of PETN (or similar) and 5 kilos of metal shrapnel in such a bag.
All I would have to do then is buy a ticket (return, please: one-way with no checked baggage is now flagged as something to watch) and go queue. Then, when I get to the middle of the crowd, detonate the device. (For added horrors: have an accomplice with a similar device hang back, to detonate their bomb amidst the fleeing survivors.)
My point here is that security checkpoints are a target, too, because they slow down travellers and cause crowds to form, and another term for "crowd" is "convenient target". And because the attacker has not been separated from their weapon at the point when they reach such a target, it's the logical weak point for causing maximum damage.
Schiphol — Amsterdam airport — gets the security screening right, or at least less wrong than JFK and most other airports. Rather than having a hideous bottleneck between check-in and the departure area, security screening is carried out at each depature gate, with a separate metal detector and X-ray belt; no huge crowds form in unsecured areas. On US-bound flights, someone who clearly isn't a minimum-wage drone checks ID documents and asks a couple of questions that seem to me to the aimed at flushing out anyone who is disturbed or tense — a crude form of profiling. This was in place before December 26th, 2009; Schiphol has much tighter security than many European or American airports. (Which is another, albeit minor, reason why I prefer to use it as my hub for long-haul travel. There's just one black mark against it, namely the lack of soft drink/water vending machines — or even toilets &mash; in the gate waiting areas after security: you can't buy extra fluids to take aboard your flight.)
Anyway. Never mind the jet lag and other minor inconveniences: I resent the way the inconvenient, intrusive, and annoying security procedures currently being forced upon us actually make air travel less safe. And I resent the way that the political syllogism — something must be done; this is something; therefore this must be done — is used to justify nonsense like expensive and buggy teraherz radar booths as a panacea in place of plain old-fashioned intelligence-led policing.
(And now, if you'll excuse me, it's time for my afternoon post-jetlag nap.)