MyNorth Reflects on Boarding a Plane to Amsterdam at Detroit Met on Christmas Day

I have been on a book tour off and on for the past two years, traveling from my home on Walloon Lake to points all across the U.S. on what was often an overly ambitious schedule.  Sometimes, I did book signings or lectures in two different cities—two different plane rides—on the same day. Before that, for almost two decades, I was a reporter with ABC news stations in San Francisco and Los Angeles, and, most recently, at the CBS news station in New York, covering breaking news in the U.S. and in other countries. Airports and airplanes have been a part of the landscape of my professional life. I have a collection of those unattractive travel slippers that never quite fit right, earplugs, and various dark-colored eye masks flight attendants hand out routinely on overseas flights. My bathroom is filled with teeny-tiny travel-size tubes of almost anything you apply to your face, teeth, hair and body. When I was working as a reporter in San Francisco, I kept a pager placed on my nightstand while I slept, and I had a bag packed with a duplicate cosmetic bag and everything I might need to cover a breaking story (including a week’s worth of clean underwear and socks) next to my bed in case I was suddenly flown to another state or country. I kept my passport and press pass with me at all times.

When I was sent to New York to cover the aftermath of  9-11—the first flight allowed out of San Francisco after the attack on the World Trade Center—I knew air travel might never be the same.

But since 2001, though air travel has changed in many ways, the new scrutiny has simply become part of the rhythm of my life. I leave early for flights. I pack only small amounts of liquids in my carry-on.  I have become used to the bag searches and scanning machines. I submit to pat downs when the buzzers go off, or if TSA screeners randomly select me.  The only routine I can’t adjust to, still, after all these years is the mandatory ritual of removing my shoes to go through the metal detectors.

As the book tour winds down, and I travel less, I must admit: I haven’t missed the crowded airports and long lines at security checkpoints. But my family and I decided to take advantage of the good deals available these days care of “the new economy, ” and take a trip to Europe for the holidays. We scheduled the vacation to Vienna and Prague so we would depart from Detroit on Christmas Day and return on New Year’s.

For the first time in many years, as I packed my bags, I didn’t slip my laptop into my backpack.  I decided to leave my recording device at home, too. No press pass with me, either.  This would be one of the first real vacations I had had in a very long while. I was free to enjoy my travels and be a tourist for one entire week.

I walked into Detroit Metro airport and noticed how few people were traveling, yet another reason I have often enjoyed flying on Christmas day. We went through the usual machinations at the ticket counter, checked our suitcases, then headed off to our gate almost three hours early (we had planned it this way.) Our flight from Detroit to Amsterdam was on time. We took a leisurely walk with our carry-on bags to the security checkpoint. A man wearing a TSA uniform with dark sunglasses stood at the entranceway, checking us out. I couldn’t remember seeing someone stationed at the security checkpoint entrance to just leer at people before.  He made me a bit uncomfortable. I glared at him. He glared back.  As we waited in line, I watched two men who looked like police officers pull a man out of the line who looked to be of Middle Eastern descent. The two officers pressed their faces close to his as they asked him questions and then I watched them look through his bags. This disturbed me.  But not enough to make me think something big was going on. We went through the security checkpoint, and it was actually more lax than other times I’ve traveled recently:  no TSA agent demanded to go through my cosmetic bag.

There was a rather jovial mood in the airport as might be expected: holiday greetings, even from the TSA officials, and lots of folks – including airline workers – wearing Santa Claus hats. We got to our gate with too much time to kill, the way we planned it.

We decided to have dinner in a restaurant near our gate.  I saw that the television was turned to a business channel, which I thought was odd because Wall Street is closed on Christmas Day. I asked the waitress if we could please change the channel to CNN.  She paused for a moment and then said, “OK.” There were only a few people in the restaurant, two of them flight attendants. As we watched CNN, the screen suddenly filled with the words “BREAKING NEWS”. Then I saw the words scrolling along the bottom of the screen: “DETROIT METRO AIRPORT.”  I began watching with great interest, eventually getting out of my chair to move close to the screen so I could hear what was going on. The rest of the people in the restaurant got out of their seats to stand next to the screen as well. There was a hush in the room as we watched footage of what looked to be police and FBI agents moving in on a plane on the runway and a man being taken away in handcuffs. But around us in the airport, all was calm. No sign of any of the action we saw on the TV screen. I went back to our gate to find out more. Delta officials didn’t acknowledge anything about the incident. I ran into a flight attendant, however, who said police had met her flight from Milwaukee when it landed in Detroit, and had escorted two men of Nigerian descent off the plane.

We continued to eat our dinner. But of course the reporter in me kicked in.  I began asking questions of Delta workers who were now beginning to admit an incident had occurred, but they were not able to give me details about it, and because I had no press pass with me, and was about to board the flight, I couldn’t pursue the story the way I would have if I was a working reporter anyway (this was frustrating, to say the least.)  I asked the Delta worker at our gate if the flight we were about to get on was the one the suspect had been on when the botched explosion occurred. He said,  “That’s a negative” and explained another plane had been brought in to take us to Amsterdam. Though the Delta workers at our gate were quite serious – no laughter or jokes –  they didn’t seem nervous or worried. And no one in the airport officially conveyed the news of the failed attempt to explode an incendiary device aboard the inbound flight to any of us who were traveling that day. There were no announcements over the loudspeakers, and nothing about it was written on monitors or at the gates.

We kept watching CNN, and it wasn’t until we were about to depart the airport that reporters on TV conveyed the fact that the man had enough explosives to bring down the plane. It wasn’t just a curious incident anymore or something to joke about.  Something potentially disastrous had occurred in Detroit on the inbound leg of the flight we were about to take to Amsterdam. And yet no one waiting to board the flight sitting in the seats and none of the airline workers around us seemed affected by this news.

It wasn’t until we were safely in our seats aboard the plane and ready to take off that the first official acknowledgment of the incident occurred.  The pilot urged us over the intercom to get into our seats as quickly as possible, and then said “Due to the ….uh….. (long pause)… security incident, we are asking everyone to remain in their seats for a half hour after take-off.” (Presumably, this is so you could have some time to think about igniting your underwear during the beginning of the flight?) 

We got to Amsterdam easily. I saw no noticeable difference or increased security once we arrived at the gate. We boarded the connecting flight from Amsterdam to Vienna with no problems.  Three days later, when we left Vienna and took the train to Prague, we experienced no unusual security measures, either. But one week later, when we left Prague for the flight to JFK to connect to a flight to Detroit Metro Airport—that was a completely different story. We were told by the airline to get to the airport at least three hours early.  Special checkpoints were set up with airline workers who were there simply to ask us questions before we checked our bags and to look over our passports. We were grilled like the Inquisition.  Why were we flying to the U.S.? What were we doing in Prague? How did we get from Vienna to Prague?  Who were we flying with? What were we taking with us? Had the bags been with us at all times? Had anyone touched these bags? Is there any way someone could put something in these bags?

Four dogs—two German shepherds, and two German short hairs—sniffed around us and circled around  our bags. One officer was with each dog. Half a dozen other officers watched us at the security gate as we checked in and answered questions. Finally, we got to the ticketing area. A few more questions, and then we were allowed to head to our gate. We went through yet another security checkpoint, and endured a full body pat. At this point, passengers had apparently already gotten used to holding their arms straight out from their shoulders and submitting to having their entire bodies scanned.  (I can’t remember my underwire bra ever being examined so thoroughly. But hey: first, it was exploding tennis shoes. And now, it’s undergarments.) I didn’t resent it. Neither did the rest of my family. We knew why it was being done, and we knew it was necessary. But it made us weary. Oh, so weary. And I had this new sense of the invasiveness of it all, something I hadn’t experienced before, not even after 9-11.

On board the flight to JFK, there was no mention of the incident or even of the new security measures. Everyone seemed to take it in stride. When we got to JFK, we were once again asked many questions at customs about where we traveled, why, and with whom we were traveling.  More bomb-sniffing dogs circled us, too.  We picked up our bags and transferred them to proper conveyor belt so they’d be loaded on to our Detroit flight. 

We took the long hike down to our gate. Almost there.  OK, by this time, we were all getting sick and tired of the security crackdown. And yet we all knew an incendiary device had come close to being detonated aboard an incoming flight to Detroit, and all the people aboard could have been killed.

That’s when I realized: this isn’t fun anymore.  Something in me started to snap.  Does it really have to be this difficult? Do I really have to open my purse, my carry-ons, my luggage, remove my shoes, and submit to a pat down on every trip from this point forward? For the first time, I thought: If the world is this dangerous of a place, perhaps we shouldn’t even travel by air anymore.

When we landed in Detroit, there was definite evidence of more security personnel, more TSA and police officers patrolling and checking people out, even people who weren’t boarding planes. We grabbed our luggage at baggage claim  and rode the shuttle to the parking lot to pick up the car.  I relished the power and control of driving my own car out of the airport and to my home in Northern Michigan. No security checkpoints in Flint, West Branch, or Gaylord.   I could drive straight on through on I-75, and even stop at any exit I chose along the way, without anyone asking me why, or searching my bags.

When I pulled into the driveway, snow filled the birches and conifers along the lane. As I had hoped, the deer I had been feeding next to the pine tree by the back door was there to greet me when I got home. (Before I left for Christmas, I left a Brussels sprouts stalk I had bought from a local farmer and decorated it with Michigan Cranberries as a special edible Christmas tree for him. He ate it all and it appeared he had flung the eaten stalks around him as a sort of celebration of this holiday food.)  I am always happy when I see he’s devoured what I’ve left.  He often looks stunned when I arrive, as if I am an invader in his territory. But this time, more than ever, I wanted him to know: this is mine. I belong here. I am not a visitor from another country. And I wanted him to know, more than ever,  that I mean him no harm.

He bounded off as I got closer to the door, and I hauled my bags inside.

I unpacked my clothes and put them in the drawers with a definite sense of relief. And I decided it will be OK if I don’t take these clothes out of my drawers to pack them in a suitcase for some time.

As I write this, the fire I made is crackling in the fireplace as the snow flies outside. It is warm and cozy as I look out on the frozen lake, and the moon reflects on the blue-white surface of the ice.

Fasten your seatbelts: I’m staying home.

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