In The Cell Phone Lot

Thursday night found us in the cell phone lot of the Columbus airport, waiting for the arrival of a delayed plane at about 11:30 p.m.

When you think about it, the cell phone lot is a pretty weird place.  There you are, cheek by jowl with total strangers, with everyone’s cars packed tightly together.  And yet, while you are in close absolute physical proximity, in the sense that the cars and their drivers are literally right next to each other, there is a strong feeling of near complete emotional separation.  Everyone remains ensconced in their own little tightly controlled, specially heated or cooled vehicular cocoon, typically with their car in park and their engine humming, paying close attention to their cell phones.

In the cell phone lot, no one acknowledges the people in other cars.  No, even eye contact and a simple nod would somehow violate the perverse etiquette of the place.  In the cell phone lot, we’re all just there on our own, waiting for that call or a text, like lost souls in purgatory hoping to be summoned to our final destination.

At the Columbus airport lot, there are two curiosities.  One is a sign that says you can’t stay in the cell phone lot for more than an hour.  An hour?   In the psychically sterile cell phone lot, which gives off the ultimate in transient, leave me alone and get me out of here vibes?  Even 10 minutes in the lot is soul-crushing.

The other is a picnic table located right next to the lot.  I’ve never seen anyone sitting at that table, and I expect I never will.  Leave aside for a moment that a spot right next to a parking lot full of cars in idle, leaking exhaust, wouldn’t exactly be the kind of pastoral setting you look for in picnics — not only does no one in the cell phone lot want to leave their cars, they don’t want to see anyone else leave their cars, either.  If someone exited their car to sit at the picnic table, I’d predict that the other cars would immediately reposition themselves to form an empty buffer zone between themselves and the person who is breaching all perceived rules of modern behavior and is probably an axe murderer, besides.  In fact, the rest of us would probably leave the cell phone lot and take another lap around the baggage claim pick-up zone, just to clear our heads and get away from the unseemly misconduct.

REAL ID

The other day I was in line to pass through security at the Columbus airport when I saw a sign announcing that, effective January 22, 2018, drivers’ licenses from certain states will not be accepted at TSA checkpoints as appropriate identification.  According to the sign, licenses from Maine, Missouri, Minnesota, Montana and Washington are not compliant with something called the REAL ID Act.

REAL ID Act?  Of course, the name brought back memories of high school days, when your more daring classmates would proudly if furtively show you the fake ID they had acquired (featuring, of course, a name other than “McLovin”) in hopes of buying beer at the local carryout.  The TSA sign seemed kind of weird, and I found myself wondering why the federal government has a problem with the licensed issued by the “m” states . . . and Washington. So I followed the instructions on the sign and went to the tsa.gov website to see what it was all about.

It turns out that in 2005 Congress passed something called the REAL ID Act.  The Act establishes certain federally mandated minimum security standards governing issuance of drivers’ licenses and identification cards by states, and if the states are non-compliant, their licenses won’t be accepted for certain federal purposes — like passing through the federally operated security checkpoint at domestic airports.   (You also will need a REAL ID Act compliant drivers’ license if you want to get into a nuclear power plant, in case you were wondering.)  Ohio and a number of states are already compliant, still other states have received extensions to become compliant, and the four “m” states are noncompliant.

Why are some states resisting?  According to a member of the Maine state legislature, it’s because of concerns about privacy and the possibility that the Department of Homeland Security could interlink the information from the state drivers’ license bureaus to create a national identity database.  She also states that, to get a REAL ID drivers license, individuals must have their photograph taken with facial recognition software and have documents like a certified birth certificate and original social security card scanned into a database, where it will be kept for seven years — and, she notes, potentially would be accessible to hackers who are constantly trying to get to confidential personal information.  Her description of the bill, and the reasons for her opposition, ends on this ominous note: “And how much do you trust the federal government?”

I’m as interested in privacy as the next person, but it’s hard for me to get too excited about the REAL ID law.  Obviously, there is a need for identification cards, and all of the information that is collected as part of the REAL ID process seems to be already in possession of the federal and state governments, anyway.  I’m quite confident that the federal government knows what I look like (or could find out with a few strokes of a keyboard), facial recognition photos or not.  And since I have to fly frequently for my job, I need to have an ID card that gets me through security — so I’m glad Ohio licenses are compliant.

It’s troubling to think that people are so distrustful of the federal government that they would be concerned about a database that included photos and basic identification information, like Social Security numbers, that people routinely disclose on things like tax returns.  It says something about the fraying relationship between the government and the governed that the question of appropriate identification could be so controversial.

Dinner Of Champions (Travelers Division)

Lately I’ve eaten a lot of dinners in airports.  It’s not a good thing.  Airport food has definitely improved over the years, but it’s still significantly burger/pizza/chicken-centric and often loaded with sodium, and eating a heavy, salty meal doesn’t exactly sit well when you immediately stumble onto a plane and then sit on your butt for hours.

So, I’ve started looking for these do-it-yourself yogurt/fruit/granola combos when I’m required to eat an airport dinner.  They seem reasonably light and reasonably fresh, they’re relatively low in calories and sodium, and they don’t leave you feeling like every ounce of moisture has been sucked from your mouth and a lead ball has been lodged in your stomach.

As airport dinners go, those are pretty high standards.

That Overcrowded Feeling

There are some airports that always seem to be incredibly overcrowded.  The Ft. Lauderdale-Hollywood airport is one of them.  Is it because it’s the end of “the season”?  Is it because the airport just hasn’t kept pace with the growth of the surrounding community?  Is it because airport planners think it’s hilarious to cram people into concourses like sardines in a tin can?

Who knows?  But it’s not a pleasant way to start, or end, a trip to the Sunshine State.

Pet Stop

It’s become increasingly common to see people traveling with pets these days.  Whether it is service dogs or dogs taken along for comfort or company, canines are a much more frequent sight on airport concourses than they used to be.

All of which leads to the question of what the pooches do when they feel the call of nature.  The Philadelphia airport answers the call with a small astroturfed area complete with retrieval bags and a bright red fire hydrant.  

Armed Travelers In An Armed Nation

In 2016 the Transportation Security Administration found 3,391 guns being carried by passengers going through airport security checkpoints.  That’s a new record, and represents a 30 percent increase over the number of guns found in 2015.

Oh, yeah . . . and 83 percent of the guns found at checkpoints were loaded.

art-tsa-checkpoint-afp-giOf course, as a percentage of the millions of people taking flights from United States airports — the TSA screened 738 million passengers last year — 3,391 obviously isn’t a big number.  Still, it’s a surprising statistic, and disconcerting to those of us who travel frequently for business and pleasure.

Since airport checkpoints became ubiquitous after 9/11, any cognizant person has got to know that you can’t carry guns and ammunitions onto planes.  Can thousands of people really be unaware of this rule, or are those people just testing to see whether it’s actually enforced?  The story linked above suggests that at least some of the apprehended travelers claim that they did not intend to carry the guns found at checkpoints — that they simply grabbed a piece of carry-on luggage without checking to see whether it included a gun.  That seems wildly implausible to me.  Can people actually not be acutely aware of where they are storing loaded firearms in their homes, would they really not hear or feel a gun rattling around when they retrieved a suitcase from the closet, and wouldn’t they find the gun during the process of packing?

The recent shooting at the Fort Lauderdale airport baggage claim area by a guy who apparently had a gun in his checked-in luggage is scary precisely because airports are, by definition, impersonal public places where you’re surrounded by total strangers whose intentions are completely unknown to you.  It’s bad enough to think that the person next to you at the luggage carousel might pull out a Glock and start blasting, but in some ways it’s even worse to think that thousands of fellow travelers are so stupid or careless that they are trying to bring loaded guns through the TSA checkpoints.

In The Atlanta Airport Swamp 

Walking from Concourse B to Concourse A at the Atlanta airport takes you through this walkway, which features leaf-like objects overhead, subdued lighting, and the sounds of a swamp.  At least, I think it’s supposed to be a swamp, complete with croaking frogs, buzzing insects, and chirping birds.  It’s a nice change of pace between bright, bustling concourses.

Just another reason to walk the big airports, rather than jamming onto generic underground trams with a hundred of your closest friends.