Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Leaving and arriving

There are two things every international traveller rediscovers every time they begin a trip: First, travelling is awful. Second, the main reason for that is the inhuman way people are treated for “security” and border control purposes. It’s enough to make anyone want to swear off ever travelling again—even to “friendly” destinations.

Because all travel begins and ends at countries’ borders, that seems like a good place to begin these travel recaps. For me, the experience of dealing with various officials was truly awful most of the time and it made me feel that international travel was just too much trouble to bother with.

The first experience was with check in, a system that’s now totally “automated”—a misnomer that actually means airlines have fired real people and installed machines to make passengers do for themselves what human beings were once paid to do. This didn’t exist when we last went to Australia eleven years ago, and back then we got actual stamps in our passports.

Now, we stuck our passports into a special reader, and it called up our flight information. Once we figured out how to use the machine, it worked well enough—but we had to figure it out first, and the presence of roving employees helping similarly confused passengers showed this is not unusual—nor an “automated” process. At all.

We also had to print our own baggage tags and figure out how to attach them to our suitcases, before going to another machine to print our boarding passes. We couldn’t get that machine working right, and needed help.

Next, we had to place our bags on the conveyer, and we saw one with a human being standing next to it. Sick of hassles, we went to that one.

Ah, but the hassles weren’t done yet: Security was next. Now, most of what we’re compelled to do at airports is what critics call “Security Theater”, or showy stuff that does absolutely nothing to make a flight safer, but, because it’s showy stuff, supposedly makes passengers feel “safer”. While I doubt it actually makes anyone in the real world feel safer, it certainly stresses them out and annoys them—on top of the stress and annoyances they’ve already experienced to get that point, and what they’ll experience on the flight.

The drill is well known: Place all electronic devices in a tray, along with a one litre plastic bag with liquids, gells, etc. (only of a certain size, of course!). We’d packed our toothpaste and other toiletries in our checked bags specifically so we didn’t have to deal with that nonsense. But I did have a small spay bottle of medicine in the event I ever get angina (I never have). I didn’t put it in a bag—it was the only liquid I was carrying.

We went through the metal detector. Nigel had no problems. I did. My jacket had a lot of extra zips, and I had to walk through again and then be hand scanned. My stress levels were even higher by then.

Next, border control. We have to place our passports in this machine thing again, and if successful, one continues on. Nigel had no problem. I got something about please see an agent. So, I went over there and the lady let me pass. I found our later that my sin was that I was looking down at the screen for instructions when I was supposed to be looking up so the computer could scan my face and compare the biometric data with what was stored in my passport. I never saw anything telling me to look up—no signs, nothing on the screen I was actually looking at, nothing.

We were finally through, and eventually boarded the plane. We found three seats on each side, plus three in the middle, two narrow aisles up each side of the plane. Nigel and I were a window and middle seat, and we immediately raised the armrest between us for more seat room. Air New Zealand planes are reputed to have among the most room for passengers flying “economy” (i.e. cattle) class. I’m sure that’s true: If every passenger was a ten year old child. We were squished into narrow seats, and there was nowhere near enough room for me to extend my legs even a little. I guess I should be grateful it was only a 3+ hour flight (I should add, the staff on the plane were all friendly and attentive, as always, though Nigel hated the “scrambled eggs” he was served).

So: After the stress of checking in, the stress of mostly theatrical security screening, the stress of border control, and the stress of being packed in like sardines, we were off. And I had a new-found understanding of why there is this thing called “air rage” on the rise.

Australia. We arrived to all sorts of signs warning us not use phones or take photos, picked up our bags and headed to boarder control. New Zealanders and Australians (among some others) can use the “ePassport” aisles, similar to the ones we met leaving New Zealand: Put the passport in, it opens some gates, stand on the yellow printed footprints, look at the camera, the second set of gates open, and you’re admitted to Australia (kind of). This worked well for me—not Nigel this time (he had trouble with the first gate).

Next, another snaking line to the agent who collects the arrivals form. They check it over and can direct people for a search, or agents standing around can do the same (that happened to me two decades ago when I arrived in Australia for the very first time; it was an awful experience). We both got through and were finally in Australia for real.

The next flight a few days later was to Gladstone, further north in Queensland, so it was a domestic one. It was similar to when we left New Zealand: Electronic “self check-in”, as they like to call it so we won’t think about the people who lost their jobs. We did better with these. We then put our checked bags on the unattended conveyer, and that worked okay, except that my tag was twisted and the computer scanner couldn’t read it, and I had to straighten it out for the computer.

Security consisted of the usual, plus a metal detector. My jacket was in my carry-on (I learned form experience!), so I had no problems. However, we had to give our carry-on bags to someone on the tarmac who stowed them in the hold for the flight.

The plane, a small propeller plane called a Dash 8, was tight, but seats were two across on each side of a narrow aisle, so it wasn’t as bad, in some ways, as the jet. The Qantas flight crew seemed tired and disinterested, and one even a bit grumpy. Fortunately, the flight was only about an hour.

The flight back to Brisbane, also on a Dash 8, was sort of old fashioned: A human checked us in and checked in our bags (Gladstone is a very small—and quite nice—regional airport). Security was the same, though I was stopped for “explosives screening”: They take a wand-like thing and run it over parts of your clothes, then your carry-on bag (which you open for them), and they stick it into a machine that supposedly senses explosives residue. We took our carry on bags on the plane with us this time, and the flight crew was friendly and nice.

One side note: Brisbane airport (BNE) has a LOT of work to do: In the domestic terminal, there’s very little food available before security, even though some 11 million domestic passengers go through the airport every year, and some of them will want food on the public side of security (as might anyone meeting them). The ambassadors (or whatever they’re called—volunteers there supposedly to help people) told us that a single place with no cooked food was the only food place there was, and while they must’ve meant outside security, they didn’t say that. When we were leaving for the flight home, an “information” person didn’t ask the right questions when we asked, and so we paid $5 each for the train to the international terminal when we could have taken a free shuttle bus. It’s just not good enough—although at least we used up some of our Aussie money, I guess.

We flew back to New Zealand on China Airlines, a Taiwanese company, and they had human beings checking us in and processing our checked bags. It turned out to be the lull in the process.

We entered a long queue to go through security with hundreds of other passengers. This was the first time we saw little plastic bags left out for passengers, so I grabbed one and put my single bottle of spray into it, then into the tray—along with my phone, iPad, belt, wallet, used tissues, coins, handkerchief, tiny luggage keys, pen, glasses—and any other thing on my person (we were allowed to keep our passport and boarding pass in our hands).

The reason for this is that Australia, which always does as the USA demands, uses those “porn scanners” which conduct full body scans. There were big signs claiming that the image they see is a stick figure (I didn’t believe them), that the images aren’t stored or transmitted (I didn’t believe them) and that the machine emits less electromagnetic energy than a cellphone (I definitely didn’t believe them).

So, you’re forced to go in, stand on the yellow footprints, raise your arms (so the other waiting passengers could see I’d been sweating…), then the doors open and the guy on the other side (who’d been holding the passport and boarding pass) then gives a quick check with a hand scanner. Now, if these damn contraptions are really as awesome and great as the government claims they are, why do they need a hand scanner, too? What’s the point of using a porn scanner that’s not perfect, if not for mere “security theater”? I also wondered what they do about people with claustrophobia, because it feels very enclosed in there.

Once through that, we collected our trays and carry-on bags, I quickly put things back where they belonged (belt back on, phone and wallet in my pockets, tissues and the rest shoved into my bag because I just couldn’t be bothered by that point). Apparently some people are taken aside for more searches (we weren’t).

Finally, passport gate machines again. We knew what to do and got through them easily.

Nigel said to me, “It’s easier to get into Australia than it is to get out of it!” and he was absolutely right.

We had a bit less than two hours to chill out, and it was needed after all that stress. We’d taken an earlier flight from Gladstone than we’d planned, and we were glad: We had NO idea what a big drama Australia’s security was, nor how very long it takes. We’d still have had enough time, but it was better having more than than our original two hours between flights.

Our flight back to New Zealand was better than the flight over in that the seats were two on each side plus four in the middle, a much better arrangement because no passenger is more than one seat away from the aisle. We were on the outside of the plane, and it was better.

The food was the best we had on any flight (chicken and rice), and the flight crew were all nice, but as a Taiwanese airline and crew, I felt out of my element. This wasn’t a problem, but I was aware of it because everything was geared toward Chinese travellers, and accented English was sometimes a bit of an issue.

The inflight entertainment was positively antique: An old-fashioned extremely low resolution LED screen of the type that was put into cheap portable DVD players more than a decade ago. It was really impossible to watch anything on it—it was far too hard to see. The remote was counter-intuitive—such as, pressing the left arrow moved the selection down—and the whole thing was geared toward Chinese travellers (which made me wonder if that accounted for the odd remote). The music available was mostly Taiwanese, with some other Asian offerings (like K-Pop), and the Western music was odd, I thought. There was also a lot of Taiwanese TV and film offerings, but not much interesting Western stuff, I didn’t think. But, I wasn’t their target market, and I couldn’t actually see anything, anyway, so it didn’t matter.

Arrival in New Zealand was easy enough. We went through the “ePassport” lines, which worked easily and well, then we went to pick up our checked bags; it was the longest we waited following any of our flights. I went through the “nothing to declare” line, and was out in a hurry (not counting waiting in a queue to see the human being). Nigel was in the longer line because we had a wooden tray painted by an aboriginal artist to declare (because it was wood), but they were okay with that and waved him through.

And that was that.

Overall, the trip was great: We really liked Brisbane, caught up with our friend Scotty there, then headed off to a fun family party (norovirus notwithstanding). We saw parts of Australia we’d never seen before, and we enjoyed our first holiday anywhere in some 8 years, and our first overseas trip in 11 years. It was getting there and back that I thought was truly awful—and I suppose maybe it’s something we’ll forget about until the next time we travel overseas. But they make it so awful that it’s something I’d really rather put off; maybe travelling around New Zealand would be a better option.

See the world, broaden your mind! Yes. But just be prepared to endure a whole lot of stress and crap on those overseas journeys. Whether it’s worthwhile or not is something people must decide for themselves. For us, this trip was worth it. Other trips? We’ll see.

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