Jennifer Gampell
868/75-76 Soi Vanich 2
Songwad Road
Bangkok 10100 Thailand
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October 18-20, 2002

Personal Journey: Nightmare in the Sky

Rude 'Help' Makes Flying Hell

By Jennifer Gampell

I've always had a high threshold for cross-cultural foibles. Born in the United Kingdom, raised in the United States and Europe and having lived in Asia for the past 12 years, I like to think of myself as one of Pico Iyer's "global souls." Plonk me down pretty much anywhere and I'll adapt (with a certain amount of attendant kwetching depending on creature-comfort levels). Yet my passe-partout mentality was severely tested over the summer while flying within one of the most airline-oriented societies in the world: my former U.S. homeland.

By the time I left Bangkok for San Francisco on Singapore Airlines in late May--on my first visit to America since July 2000--only hibernating polar bears hadn't heard that air travel within the U.S. had changed since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. With two internal flights on my itinerary, I expected long lines and carry-on baggage checks. What I hadn't anticipated was paranoia and randomly applied hyper vigilance.

Traveling to the U.S. only once a year, I'm something of a babe in the airline woods. I usually fly Singapore Airtlines, or SIA in industry lingo despite the extra five hours it adds to the journey from Bangkok because I enjoy being treated like a guest in some aerial hotel. Call me old fashioned, but what's wrong with cabin crew -- even in economy class -- being young, well dressed and anxious to please?

Throughout the 18 hours of flying, SIA inflight service was its usual excellent self. At the two stopovers --in Singapore and Hong Kong--security was slightly tighter than pre-Sept. 11 levels. My wristfuls of silver bracelets invariably set off alarm bells at security gates and this time was no different. The thorough probings of my legs-apart, arms-out-to-the-sides body with the metal detecting wand were identical to similar searches in previous years.

Spoiled by Asian service, I naively assumed that common courtesy was a baseline cabin crew requirement aboard any major airline, pre- or post-9/11. I was wrong. Before the engines started on the 5.5-hour United flight from SFO to Newark, someone on the intercom admonished some people standing at the rear to sit down. In a tone reserved for unruly kindergartners she said we wouldn't take off until the offenders had returned to their seats. Many passengers turned to the back and glared at the hapless standees. Five minutes later, we learned that the captain hadn't actually come aboard yet and takeoff would be delayed for at least 30 minutes.

An hour into the flight, I needed to use the toilet. Though the captain had just announced bumpy weather ahead and illuminated the seatbelt sign, my personal urinary turbulence felt more imminent than his atmospheric one. "The seatbelt sign is on and I will NOT be responsible if anything happens to you in there," screamed the surly hag masquerading as a flight attendant. "If I were you, I'd get back to my seat NOW!" she commanded, scowling. Incredibly relieved she wasn't me yet thoroughly intimidated by her manner, I crept guiltily into the bathroom. A male passenger dutifully followed her orders and returned to his seat, muttering imprecations under his breath. "Goddamn you!" screeched the crone to his receding back.

Opting to fly in post-Sept. 11 America had somehow transformed me from an ordinary happy-go-lucky airline passenger into a potential terrorist. Trust and civility at airports and on planes had gone the way of nail clippers in carry-on bags and metal knives on meal trays. When I turned up at Newark for United's return flight to San Francisco a month later, I was ushered into a small room behind the counter because my check-in bag looked suspicious when it went through the pre-scanner. "Open your bag and then stand against the wall!," barked the uniformed guard. The offending items? A plastic bag filled with ordinary electronic items like a Palm charger and computer adapter.

Admittedly United Air Lines was garnering complaints about it's service long before Sept. 11. (The website is devoted entirely to trashing it.) And the crew on the westbound flight was 100% better than their eastbound cohorts which only means they were polite and friendly. But my other roundtrip flight -- from San Jose, California to Portland. Oregon on Alaska Air -- didn't dispel the anxiety I was coming to associate with flying in the Land of the Free.

When, as usual, my bracelets set off the alarms at the security gate in San Jose, the female guard determined I needed a higher level of body searching than the wand. "May I feel under your breasts?" asked the tiny wizened East Asian. Fairly certain that "No way!" wasn't the correct answer, I acquiesced. How could she imagine I had room for anything beyond a strapless bra within the slinky confines of my nylon tube top? Apparently unconvinced, she made me turn down the waistband of my skin-tight pedal pushers and ran my open-toed flat sandals through the carry-on baggage scanner. Surely no shoe bomber could have secreted anything in those thin rubber soles!

Many American friends were incensed that I complained about my flying travails. Criticism lumped me in with Mr. Bush's "them" brigade. "You think it's bad here, you should try flying El Al," retorted a Jewish journalist friend, pursing his lips angrily. (From what I hear, their hyper vigilance is more focused and universally applied.) Another friend who'd been in New York on Sept. 11 visited Bangkok recently and responded to my grousing by saying she'd happily strip naked at the security gate if that would stop terrorism. Her husband later rang to cancel our dinner plans. My "insensitivity" about their horrific experiences on the tragic day had set his wife sobbing hysterically -- and she never wanted to see me again.

Though I've never flown to Israel and wasn't in Manhattan when the commercial jets slammed into the Twin Towers, I'd like to believe safety and good service aren't necessarily incompatible. "We don't see safety regulations as contradicting our culture of service," explains Claudius Fernandez, an SIA customer relations officer in Singapore. "With or without heightened security, we treat people with dignity and respect." (Maybe that's why SIA routinely tops magazine readership polls in the U.S.: Best International Airline, Conde Nast Traveler, 2001; Best Foreign Airline, Travel + Leisure, 2002.) Meanwhile Air France's recently instituted Inflight Asia training program consists of courses and brochures to educate cabin crew on long-haul Asian flights about the different regional cultures.

As for me, I waited happily in the Singapore Airlines check-in queue at San Francisco, glad to be heading out of a country where everyone involved with the flying industry is either a potential criminal or a self-styled law enforcer. A recent poll of 203 frequent business flyers in Travel Weekly internet magazine found 75% of responders willing to submit to more intrusive personal identification technology if that streamlined the check-in process. Fingerprinting and iris scans as an improvement on body pat downs and shoe removal? My global soul feels lonely and afraid.

Ms. Gampell is a Bangkok-based writer

Copyright 2002 Asian Wall Street Journal/Jennifer Gampell