This Does Not Compute

Technology, gaming, music and things that just don't compute

I hope the TSA is enjoying my underwear

Looking out on Burbank, CA

I don’t travel much. That’s primarily due to four factors:

  1. It’s hard to get time off of work for more than a couple days.
  2. I’d rather spend the money on new toys and gadgets, which are lasting, while vacations are fleeting.
  3. My butt hurts after more than a couple hours in the car.
  4. Flying absolutely, positively sucks in every way possible.

It’s this last point that I’m really worked up about lately.

My wife and I just got back from a week-long vacation in southern California; a few days in San Diego for a cousin’s wedding, and a few days in Los Angeles visiting other family and sightseeing.

The flight to San Diego was actually not bad. We decided to give Sun Country Airlines a chance, partially because they were slightly less expensive than Delta and partially because they only fly 737’s (whereas Delta flies MD-90s, aka “tin can death traps”) to San Diego International Airport, the terminal for which is confusingly also named Lindbergh. In the Twin Cities, Sun Country uses the Humphrey (now known stupidly as Terminal 2) terminal exclusively, which, since its remodel a few years ago, is a completely underrated terminal. It’s only got 10 gates; the check-in and security lines are very short, and the baggage claim is just down the escalator from the gates.

San Diego’s airport is actually remarkably similar to Humphrey. It’s a bit bigger, of course, but the layout has the same concept — gates all laid out in a single row on an upper floor; on the ground floor, right along the entrances, are the ticket counters and baggage claim. Just outside the airport, all of the cabs, buses, and hotel and rental car shuttles line up for passengers.

Thus, our trip to San Diego was blissfully simple:

  1. Our courteus Town Car driver shows up at our house, right on time, and loads our bags into the trunk while we settle into the plush back seat.
  2. We arrive at the Humphrey terminal just on time, breeze through the doors and walk right up to the Sun Country counter, there being no one in line.
  3. Tags get affixed to our checked baggage, and we wheel it over to the porky TSA employee to load it onto the X-ray scanner.
  4. A quick ride up the escalator, and we’re in the short security line. I get no hassle about splaying my Timbuk2 Commute 2.0 laptop bag open in its “Checkpoint Friendly” configuration and leaving my MacBook sleeping peacefully inside.
  5. I put my shoes and belt back on, and our gate is just a few yards away.
  6. Oh look, Humphrey offers free WiFi!
  7. Boarding begins 20 minutes later, and 20 minutes after that, we’re taxiing for takeoff.
  8. We land in San Diego a little less than 4 hours later; by the time we’ve made it down the escalator to the baggage claim, suitcases are already on parade around the carousel.
  9. After my wife drops my suitcase on her foot for no explainable reason, we cross the street, wait 3 minutes, then board the just-arrived Alamo rental shuttle bus. We are the only passengers aboard when it grumbles off.
  10. We’re the only customers in the Alamo rental office. They try the typical upsell for insurance, but the guy behind the counter is young enough to not care that I’m not going for it. They’ve already gotten our rental Prius (more on the Prius in a future post, perhaps) parked under the canopy so it’s cool; the keys are in it, it’s been freshly washed, and the interior surprisingly doesn’t smell horribly.
  11. We weave our way out of downtown towards the 15, and zip to Temecula easily.

If the above happened every time I flew somewhere, I’d fly way more often. Hell, taking the Amtrak is even easier; we just…got on the train. No TSA, no metal detectors, and since our stop was in Burbank (the station for which is, literally, just a concrete pad in the middle of the parking lot), we got to keep our suitcases with us. They don’t even take your ticket until the train starts moving and the conductor, who still wears a full suit and hat, makes his or her way through the cars and punches tickets and issues seat tags. Since it’s both retarded and useless to hijack a train since they don’t leave the ground nor are easily steerable, security on Amtrak can remain lax.

The problem is, the above rarely happens. As with my luck, my week-long (and much-deserved) vacation got screwed up on the way home. We made it to LAX with plenty of time to spare, and the agent at the Sun Country counter was even gracious and let me check my suitcase which had accidentally become 3 pounds over the 50-pound limit. We got our suitcases on the baggage X-ray as usual, then proceeded to stand in line for the security checkpoint. LAX runs multiple lines for security (they pretty much have to, considering the volume they face), and we picked a line that closed just after we entered it. It was refreshing to know we’d be able to go through the line with nobody behind us waiting. Then a lady with the TSA came over and asked if I had a laptop in my bag. I said yes, I did, and offered that the bag was checkpoint-friendly and showed her a demonstration of how it could be zippered open. She said that sending the bag through the machine like that would be just fine, and I felt relieved that my investment in a new laptop bag was not a waste.

Until the second TSA agent came up a few seconds later and said I could proceed through the metal detector. I hadn’t pushed my bags onto the X-ray belt yet, and verbally confirmed with him that he’d do it. When I got through to the other side, I slipped my shoes on and grabbed my just-emerged camera and laptop bags, but immediately noticed that my Commute 2.0 was much lighter now. I paused for a second and then another bin exited the X-ray scanner, with just my MacBook in it. The TSA agent had, without my knowledge or consent, and despite the blessing of the previous agent to not have to, removed my laptop from the bag and sent it through separately. If I was running late and had dashed off to make it to my gate on time, I could have left my MacBook behind without realizing it.

I should have taken that as an omen of things to come. Our flight left on time, but it was quite full, and despite being a night flight (which in my experience are typically quite relaxed and quiet), everyone on the plane was pretty rowdy. We encountered minor turbulence a few times, yet even with the fasten-seat-belt light on, people were walking around the plane all the time. The flight attendants had to remind everyone several times to, basically, sit the hell down.

We landed in MSP at 10:45pm local time, 15 minutes early, and exited the same gate my wife and I had entered a week before. We were the last flight of the night; all of the stores were closed and the airport was quite empty. We watched the suitcases roll down the conveyor from the bowels of the airport, and I snatched my wife’s suitcase without repeating the same foot injury she had suffered in San Diego.

Then we watched for my suitcase to come down the conveyor.

Then we watched for my suitcase to come down the conveyor.

Then we watched for my suitcase to come down the conveyor.

Then my phone rang; it was the driver of the Town Car waiting to pick us up. He just wanted to let us know he was there, and we could find him across the street. I thanked him, and told him we’d be there in a few minutes, as I had to fill out a lost baggage report.

The Sun Country agent was polite and friendly; he had been hovering around the baggage claim offering help where needed. We followed him around the corner to the airline’s lost baggage office and filled out a report. He said they’d call when Los Angeles found the bag, and when it arrived they’d have it couriered to our house. That will do, I told him, and resigned myself to the fact that I’d have to run to Target the next morning to buy a new shaver, toothpaste, et al.

Most lost bags are located within 48 hours, I’ve read. Only two percent are lost permanently, supposedly, but it’s been 48 hours since our flight home landed and I’m still without my suitcase. I figure that 75% of the clothes I own were in there, some of them having been bought specifically for that trip (including several pairs of jeans and a new suit jacket). I have all my work clothes, but had to buy more undershirts and socks at Target today. I now only own two pairs of jeans, one pair of which I bought at the mall last night. I had to go for a run in my walking shoes yesterday, and bought a new pair of running shoes today. My $100 tripod was in there, as was all of the stuff I had bought at Kinokuniya in Little Tokyo. And all of my wife’s pastries from Goldilocks were in there; I don’t want to know what they’ll look like if the suitcase ever shows up. My shaver, Sonicare toothbrush, and only pair of dress shoes were in there too. And worst of all, all of my Woot shirts were in there, most of which are no longer for sale. I figure I’m out at least $1500 to replace everything, and have already spent $250 just to get me through this upcoming week.

I could go off on another “you can have security or you can have liberty; pick one” kind of rant about how the TSA is useless and careless, but instead I’ll resign myself to the fact that I can’t do sh-t about their existence. I am, however, convinced that it’s the TSA’s fault that my suitcase is lost; it never made it onto my plane at LAX, because if it had, it would have come off in MSP. I’m quite certain that they decided to perform one of their random checks on my suitcase, and decided they needed what was in it more than I did. And I say that I “did” need the stuff in that suitcase, because I no longer need it — mentally, I’ve written all of that stuff off. It’s been two days; if it was a simple matter of the bag being misrouted, it would have been thrown on the next flight here. That suitcase, and everything in it, is gone.

Instead, perhaps a simple, logical suggestion. If the TSA is so worried about dangerous stuff in our luggage, and X-raying every item isn’t good enough, perhaps it could perform the random inspections on the front end? Baggage inspections happen somewhere deep in the airport, where there’s no accountability. Perhaps they could X-ray your luggage while you wait, then if they decide to search your bag, randomly or otherwise, you and the inspector could step aside and go through your bag together. After the search is complete, the passenger could perhaps then be allowed to lock his or her suitcase with a key that everyone in the TSA doesn’t have a copy of already. There would be some great benefits to this approach, both for travelers and the TSA:

  1. After a search, travelers would have the peace of mind that their suitcase is indeed on its way to be loaded on the same plane as the traveler, never to be opened again by anyone until it reaches its destination.
  2. The TSA would gain a little credibility, as well as be able to shirk liability — passengers could no longer claim that airport security stole items from their luggage, as all luggage searches happen while the passenger watches.
  3. If the TSA does find something of suspect in a bag, the passenger could explain; no, sir, that’s not a missile launcher, it’s my camera tripod. See, the legs unfold like this, and you mount the camera here.
  4. And if someone really was stupid enough to put a bomb in their suitcase, when the suitcase gets flagged for searching, the culprit would be standing right there, making an arrest easy.

See, not such a crazy idea, and relatively inexpensive to implement too. As for me, I’ll patiently wait the week or 10 days or two months or whatever it is, then go after Sun Country for reimbursement for all the items I lost. But knowing my luck, the check will get lost in the mail.

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