Patience is a Virtue

Airport lines are a modern horror story

Words: Lee Tulloch

Patience is a virtue.

I’m repeating this adage in my head as I’m standing in line at security control at JFK airport, New York. It’s not the longest security line I’ve stood in by far but it seems to be moving at glacial pace due, I can see if I crane my neck, to almost every person who approaches the x-ray machine having some problem with unlacing their shoes, or forgetting to take out their liquids or spilling the contents of their pockets all over the floor.

It’s not a big holiday weekend, when airport lines can rival bread queues in Communist-era Russia, but still there are toddlers escaping, pushers that won’t collapse and surly teenagers going back and forth through the machines because they haven’t taken out their nose rings or removed their studded belts. Just about everyone ahead seems to be a person who has never flown before and is befuddled by the drill. I long for those commuter flights in the evenings when frequent business flyers remove everything so briskly they’re like automatons out of Metropolis.

Patience is a virtue.

Once again, I’ve chosen the wrong line. The lines beside me are picking up pace, while ours is stymied by a number of roadblocks, such as their being no plastic trays to send our belongings through the x-ray and a conveyor belt that has stopped while its operator goes away to do something or the other. Finally, when it moves and I’ve deposited my slip-on shoes (no pesky laces), my neatly-packed plastic bag of liquids and my easily-accessible iPad, I’m held up at the body scanner by the gentleman in front of me, who can’t speak English and is confused about something, the poor thing, but is getting no sympathy from the brusque, bored guards. Finally, after minutes that seem like hours, his family have to be located and he’s whisked off, somewhere safe I hope.

When I finally get through the scanner I am, naturally, stopped by an officer who wants to subject me to explosives testing because the system requires that blonde women be examined as often as people of ‘middle eastern appearance’ to avoid accusations of racial profiling. This over, I dash to the gate only to find our plane has been delayed.

Just about everyone ahead seems to be a person who has never flown before and is befuddled by the drill.

Patience is a virtue. I find I’m repeating this mantra to myself more and more, as every trip starts with an obstacle course that requires the forbearance of a saint. It begins with the wait for the taxi to arrive at home, followed by the line for checking in at the airport (or the line for the check-in kiosk followed by the line for the bag drop) and then the line for passport control, the line for security, the line for extra screening at the gate at airports like Singapore, the line for boarding, the line in the aisle while you wait for people to try to fit their impossibly-large carry-ons into the overhead compartments, and, hopefully, finally, the line your aircraft sits in on the tarmac waiting for permission to depart.

When your plane doesn’t depart and you get offloaded and have to go through the whole procedure again – well, that’s a modern horror story.

At the pointy end of the plane you get Express Path Cards, which sometimes are handy reducing the wait, but nigh on useless if you land at night as Sydney airport when three A380s arrive with dozens of Business and First class passengers in each. I should add that my biometric passport only works every other time, which means I have to divert to the assistance lane, full of people requiring assistance.

We modern 21st Centurians have cushy lives compared to our forbearers so perhaps this is the punishment we have to endure for having the freedom of flight (in a literal as well as a metaphorical sense.) If you’re fit enough to stand, there’s no real hardship in shuffling along in lines for ninety minutes. And you can do some useful daydreaming, or make Christmas shopping lists in your head.

It’s useless getting frazzled by the experience. Learn to like it. Get to the airport hours ahead (Qantas now allows early check-in on some international flights) so that delays don’t frustrate you. Find a seat, a book, a Kindle, a game and wait …patiently.

It is a virtue.


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