LAX and the TSA

     “We at LAX hope you have an excellent experience.”
     The disembodied, slightly metallic voice over loudspeakers outside the Los Angeles International Airport sounded like something from a science fiction movie about an off-world colony in a dystopian future.
     Because the anodyne message in a soothing voice has no connection with the blood-pressure boosting obstacle course a passenger must fight through in order to get to the airport and then get through it — it is not “an excellent experience.”
     For years, the L.A. airport has ranked just off the bottom in customer ratings for U.S. airports. But I never thought it was so bad, until now.
     And the deterioration over the last few months is linked directly to incompetence at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
     Only a year ago, it was pretty swift to pass through the security screening section of the airport. I marveled at the Japanese business men who came to the All Nippon Airways counter a half-hour before the flight for Tokyo boarded at 12:50 in the morning.
     I remember some of them distinctly.
     There was a group of three Japanese men in rumpled suits, the leader, a number two, and a clear junior. There was also a single Japanese man in a neat business suit and a shiny new Samsonite suitcase that an airline agent ostentatiously wrapped in plastic so it wouldn’t get scratched.
     I saw the group of three meandering in the duty-free area about 15 minutes later, having passed through the security screening with plenty of time to spare.
     I had bought a last-minute ticket from ANA in an unsuccessful effort to get back to Ishigaki Island before my girlfriend’s father died. And I too proceeded efficiently through the security screening.
     Almost exactly one year later, this February, I took the same flight for the year-on ritual commemorating the father’s death. But this time, I hit a massive line to get through the security screening section. It took me an hour and a half.
     While in the line, I saw about five security officials with white shirts and epaulettes, nominally watching the lines but mostly standing around and talking to each other.
     What is the hold-up, I asked one of them, an Asian-American official who seemed friendly.
     “Daylight savings,” he said.
     That was pretty predictable, I noted.
     “It’s rush hour,” he added, referring to the large number of flights departing for Asia in the late evening.
     That too was not a surprise, since it happens every night. And a whole bunch of screening lanes were closed.
     “Not enough employees,” he finally volunteered.
     “But you are an employee, right.” He was not.
     “No,” he said. “Government employees. Screeners.”
     The screeners are direct employees of the TSA and, without replacements, a number of them had walked away from their machines at 10:30, squeezing the folks who had been standing in line into fewer, longer lines.
     Since that trip, the issue of airport security lines has exploded as a national news issue, replete with congressional hearings. While knowing that the number of travelers was increasing, the TSA had allowed the number of screeners to drop by roughly 2,000.
     The LAX media site, for example, predicts more than 24 million passengers this summer, a record.
     So the screening traffic jam could be seen coming months ago, as screeners were laid off and as the number of travelers increased. And yet nothing was done to deal with a hellish bottleneck barreling down on the U.S. traveler.
     In the meantime, a top official at the TSA, since fired, was given roughly $90,000 in bonuses, as the wait, aggravation, wasted hours and missed flights mounted for millions of people.
     So this Sunday night, I was back at the ANA counter with my girlfriend who was checking in for the 1:50 a.m. flight to Tokyo.
     I wondered if all the attention given to the TSA shortcomings had made any difference. So I asked the manager who we have come to know a bearish, thoughtful and skillful administrator if the security lines had reduced.
     He shook his head, saying it would take 40-50 minutes at least.
     “A lot of the screeners leave at 10:30,” he said, the exact same problem that was evident months ago. He added plaintively, “This used to be such a good flight.”
     As I left the parking area outside the Bradley International Terminal, a small, old, black man took my ticket and my five bucks.
     The way into the airport had been a battle. I ran into a mile-long back up on the 105 freeway before the airport exit, then inched through the traffic jam at the airport itself and then had to go into across-the-border driving mode to push through taxis and get to the curb at the international terminal.
     I said to the attendant, “It’s like driving in TJ out there.”
     He waited a beat and laughed.
     When he handed back my change, I asked him why it was so bad.
     He paused, leaned very slightly back, and answered in a faint voice.
     “I think it’s seasonal.”

%d bloggers like this: