Allen On Travel

A 30 year veteran of world travel (but knows nil about Orlando-area attractions), Will Allen III writes about his weekly odysseys by air on business and how the airlines rob him--and you--of time, the most precious commodity on earth. Time: It's all we have, and the airlines routinely take it from us. This blog challenges the airlines to keep their basic promises.

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Location: Raleigh, North Carolina, United States

Born 1948 in Kinston, NC and raised there in beautiful eastern North Carolina, I now live in Raleigh and commute around the country and the world.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Things Bugging Me Now

A miscellany of recent travel issues and experiences make me ponder the meaning of life on the road, including my premier encounter with the TSA's latest advance in security screening, the controversial show-all body scanner.

The unintended consequences of high-tech security screening: traveler delay & tedium

Sunday afternoon, October 24, at Raleigh-Durham Airport (RDU), my hometown air terminal, I discovered TSA had installed the brand-spanking-new full body scanners at security.

No problem, I thought. I am not embarrassed for some TSA person in a distant room to see me naked through to the bones.

But I was dumbfounded to discover how slow and inconvenient the new process is. Now I must add belt removal (yes, EVERY time) to my excursion through the TSA security portal. And every last thing in my pockets, including ballpoint pens from my shirt pocket, boarding passes, Kleenex tissues, gum, throat lozenges—literally everything must be removed. And, of course, shoes, outerwear, and the clear plastic bag with small quantities of creams, fluids, pastes, and ointments.

Having been stripped to just my clothes and underclothes, and with the pile of my personal stuff languishing on the belt after being X-rayed, I was directed to step into the new scanner, to turn ninety degrees with feet planted on the little foot marks painted on the floor of the scanner’s interior (so that I was unable to watch my belongings on the belt), and to raise both arms high.

The scanner then made a cheap sci-fi movie noise as it moved up and down. After a short interval, a TSA person wearing headphones authorized me to step out of the scanner. The delay, they told me, was due to waiting to receive a verbal OK from TSA staff manning the scanner monitors in a remote location that my body looked safe to fly.

Only then was I allowed to retrieve my many belongings from the belt: briefcase, laptop, suitcase, shoes, belt, wallet, keys, cell phone, loose change, money clip, boarding passes, tissues, and the odd lozenge or gum. Slowly I put everything back into its proper place: belt on trousers, various stuff in appropriate pockets of pants and shirt, shoes on feet, laptop in briefcase; toiletries in suitcase, jacket on body.

Yes, it’s a tedious, time-consuming process. Strangely, even the newest-of-the-new high technology (the spiffy full body scanner) has the unintended consequence of making our passage of the security portal slower and more aggravating than it ever has been. I predict longer lines and wait times at busy periods unless TSA is staffing these gates with more personnel to account for the slower individual transaction time.

Traveler speed and convenience through the airport security barrier are not part of TSA’s mission, only safety.

Have visas become profit centers?

My family is planning a trip to China and Vietnam soon, and we naturally applied for visas to both countries. I knew already that the Chinese Embassy requires would-be visitors to show up in person to apply for a visa, or to hire a surrogate agent if that’s impractical. Of course it IS impractical for 99.99% of us who don’t live close to their embassy in Washington. Agents charge a modest fee per passport. The one we use, called the Assistant Stork, specializes in helping Americans seeking to adopt from China, and charges $50 for one visa, dropping to $35 per passport for two or more. In other words, not too bad.

What I DIDN’T know is that China charges $140 per visa for Americans, while charging only $40 per visa for most other nationalities. In other words, visas are a profit center for the Chinese Embassy. Strangely, single entry and multiple entry visas are priced the same, which makes me wonder why anyone would ever ask for a single entry after finding out the price. Vietnam visas are more reasonable.

Altogether, therefore, for our family of four, including the agency fee, visas to China and Vietnam cost over $1,000. And that’s before we spent the first dollar on airfare. OK, we ARE four people, but I think that’s a lot to fork over just for the right to enter their countries. I would think it makes the cost of international travel out of reach for many Americans.

Not all airline club privileges for Amex Platinum Card holders are created equal

Like many travelers, I suppose, I dropped my Delta and American club annual memberships when my Amex Platinum Card granted me entry to them. But we Amex interlopers are not allowed full and equal membership privileges after getting into some clubs.

For instance, both Delta Sky Clubs and AA Admiral Clubs offer free wifi Internet for members, in both cases offered by the same provider. Amex Platinum Card holders will find the complimentary wifi works just fine for them in the Delta clubs, but not at the American Airlines clubs. There, one has to enter one’s Admiral Club number to gain access to the network.

Thanks for making me a second class citizen at your clubs, AA. With every visit to your clubs, I remember that inconvenience, and yes, it is influencing my booking decisions. For instance, this week, I chose Delta to a market well-served by AA.

Checking handguns: Who knew how simple and routine it is?

Without going into details, I’ll just say that I had a first-in-a-lifetime opportunity to check a handgun at my home airport. My carrier, Delta, like every other U.S. airline, is very happy to let passengers travel with weapons as long as they are in checked luggage and meet certain conditions (e.g., must be in a locked case approved by TSA). To my surprise (surprise because I never before needed to bring a gun with me), the information is on most airline websites if you look, and TSA has posted rules and regulations as well.

I read all the rules, and I complied, but when my wife dropped me off at RDU for my flight, I still asked her to park somewhere close by until TSA and Delta had cleared the luggage containing my pistol. Frankly, despite the helpful info I had read, I feared I might be arrested for bringing a handgun into an airport.

But it went like clockwork. Delta issued me a special form to sign, and they notified TSA. I then took my bag to a special TSA door for testing. TSA personnel had me stand behind a line while they checked my bag and its contents with special equipment. I was then cleared to leave while the bag went through additional screening that I was not allowed to witness.

And when I arrived at my destination, the bag popped out on the conveyer belt with everyone else’s overdue luggage—to my very great relief.

Delta devolves

I mentioned this in a recent post, but I must repeat how galling it is that Delta has stopped making on-board announcements prior to arrival for connecting gates at hubs like Atlanta. Arrival gate and connecting gate info was very useful, especially for tight connections due to late flights.


Blogger Jon said...

Love your column, but I disagree on the onboard gate connection announcements. Frankly, the information is outdated by the time we take the to skies, and the rambling on is just annoying. I really wish that US carriers would take a cue from their European counterparts and scale back the number of announcements to what's really essential. Between the browbeating at boarding about where to put your luggage, the electronics/no electronics blather, the on-again off-again seatbelt deals and the flight attendants' conviction to welcome me to every stop and tell me the local time (like I went through some black hole and lost all sense of reality), it's just too much. Stop talking already! :)

10/29/2010 9:38 AM  
Blogger Phil at the Beach said...

I noticed the escalating visa fees several years ago when I was still flying planes for a major airline. I think that the US actually started the fee battle by charging visitors to the US bigger visa fees, and other countries started reciprocating, probably because of being annoyed by the actions of the US. You might be interested in knowing that a tourist visa to visit the US is now (drum roll) $140.00

10/29/2010 11:30 AM  
Blogger TT said...

Regarding visa costs - a lot of countries are apparently retaliating against the US's high costs and entry hassles. I don't think it's a coincidence that China is charging US citizens the same price that the US charges for its travel visa ($140).

10/29/2010 2:01 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think you will find that a number of countries have increased the visa price for US citizens. They now charge what the USA charges their citizens. Some are now making it harder to obtain a visa - requiring either Consulate or Embassy visits in person. Brazil, for example, has charged $140 for a visa - good for multiple years - but one has to go to the Embassy or Consulate in person with plane ticket in hand. I am not sure if one can pay an agent to do this. Argentina is now charging the same fee - for US Citizens. It is tit for tat - also the finger printing, photographing, eye scan etc.
And now TSA is doing a very up close and personal groping if you do not like the bare-naked deathray machine. They will grop your private parts as well as give you a massage just where you do not like it.

10/29/2010 2:05 PM  
Blogger Arnold said...

I'm with Jon on every point!

10/29/2010 5:54 PM  
Blogger karrl said...

After getting a pacemaker in 2007 I have had to have a pat-down when I fly. On a recent flight from RDU-ORD I went through the full-body scanner, and I LOVE it. In busy airports I have had to wait 4 or 5 minutes until a TSA person has been available; it took about 30 seconds for the full-body scan. In addition, some of the TSA people who patted me down have been less than gentle. I will be veryt happy to have a full-body scan every time I fly.

11/10/2010 3:12 PM  

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