They Took My Batteries

Originally published in the Fenton Patch newspaper April 2012

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They took my batteries. I really can’t believe it they took my batteries. Two AAA batteries and they believed I was going to blow up a plane with them. Anyway that was the beginning of my trip to Singapore as well as yet another experience of why American based airlines are constantly rated below those of other countries.

Some people are in awe of what American engineering has done with Bernouli’s Principle and the Kutta Condition. Many of the same and others are fascinated by the renderings of what a well designed and well programmed relational database can do for their air travel scheduling and getting luggage to arrive where they do. However amazing these things are they should not be an excuse for shoddy customer service both from the airlines and associated services.

Though I would be suffering through over 30 hours of the next 36 hours with my derriere encased in the excuse some airlines give for a chair in economy class, I could live without the backup batteries for my voice recorder. My wife and I cleared customs in Bogotá for the trip that would have four legs to it and put us in as many countries. It was of course the Colombian safety people who confiscated my batteries. What amazed my wife was the way then went on and on about how I had backup batteries for the voice recorder and small flashlight I carry with me.

Our first segment required the just over five hour flight from Colombia’s capital city to Houston, Texas on a United Airlines plane. I do not know why, but it seems that airlines save the planes with the absolute smallest seats to fly out of Bogotá. No way did my six-foot, 200 pound frame fit comfortably in the furniture. The person in front of me leaned their chair back and I spent five hours in agony. Even my 5 foot 6 inch, 135 pound wife found them inadequate compared to others. Though in all honesty, I must admit that an earlier flight to NYC on Avianca was worse.
United States customs agent Salasky was our one-person welcoming committee into the USA. I cannot say enough good things about the man. He was polite, cheerful and efficient. Again I was proud to have such a person representing America to those who arrive from other countries.
What bothers me though is why we even had to go through customs when just transferring to another plane to immediately fly out of the country. The USA is the only country that I have hit where that happens. Not to mention that they totally tore apart my suitcase. I did not need the little note they left to tell me they had done so because the disarray gave it away. But in my years of traveling when you arrive from Colombia that seems to be an automatic excuse for rifling through your luggage. Perhaps Americans just do not trust the security authorities in other countries.
I wonder if US based airlines are losing money because of this rule. For instance, I know many South Americans who travel to Europe. However to save on the expensive US Visa and suffer the probability of being rejected, they fly on a foreign airline through other countries.

We constantly hear complaints about the TSA people in America. Over the last year I have met these so-called security experts in over five countries. While customs agent Salasky made me proud – well the TSA people in Houston brought up the opposite end of the scale. My first thought was they were all relatives of the Clampett’s from the show Beverly Hillbillies. In comparison to their counterparts in other countries, personal grooming left much to be desired. I counted two international planes arriving almost simultaneously, with most of these people having to make a connection. For that TSA opened one line moving slow as the employees talked and joked among themselves. It was like a stitch and bitch for them while passengers who had already suffered the indignities of a poor airline stood in line worried if they would make their next flight. For ten minutes my wife and I watched as a TSA lady moved the line stands about six inches, then went back to the beginning and moved them again to their original position, stopping every now and then to look down the line seemingly admiring her work. So while hundreds of passengers were tying to make their transfer, this lady looked busy doing nothing. And I heard mumbling in Spanish about the stupidity of what she was doing. Basically there was little concern by TSA employees for the traveler. They seemed only interested in themselves.

Next step was from Houston to Newark. Not a bad flight. There was some turbulence. But for four hours, not even a bag of peanuts was given out. The airport was much improved from when I last flew into it about 15 or 20 years earlier. My wife and I ate at a restaurant where I was able to get the first excellent Ruben sandwich in over eight years. And since we cannot get sauerkraut in Colombia I had my wife taste test it from my sandwich. But it is not going to be something we make a special effort to return with to Bogotá.

That meal was my single delight before entering the plane for the most uncomfortable flight in my life. Only after booking it did Yahoo news run an article naming it one of the longest flights (17 hours), but it was the only long flight that received bad words about it and the airline not even trying to improve things. Previous passengers had rated the United Airline flight with a 4.1 on a scale of 10. In my opinion they were being generous with such a high number.

The seats were inadequate for such a long flight, earphones given didn’t work and there were fewer meals than I received on a similarly long flight from another airline. The Boeing jet had none of the lighting devices and techniques used by Airbus planes from other airlines to help passengers with the time change (basically we shifted our clocks 12 hours). For the first time in my life it took two days to recover.

We arrived in Hong Kong with just enough time to go through another security check of our carry-ons and make the final boarding to Singapore. The security people were well groomed, professional, friendly and efficient. Even though there were only about a couple hundred passengers there were six checkers. Now compare that to Houston were there were probably over 500 passengers , ten people ran around looking like they were working but only one line screened the people.

Three hours later we arrived in Singapore at two in the morning. The airport is one of the most beautiful I have encountered. Unlike U.S. airports where small corridors herd passengers to customs, the Singapore airport uses spaciousness to do such. We entered into an area of openness. One wall was three stories high and filled with live growing plants. The agent who took care of my wife and I thanked us for coming to visit her country, wished us a good time and offered us a Singapore candy from a bowl full of them on her counter.