Thursday, March 10, 2011

LOFT LIFE: Travel traumas

Looking forward to my early March trip from CT to IL, I had worked up not a little stress. Between concern for the unpredictable weather of late winter, and warnings and horror stories about getting through security with dignity, I really considered not traveling at all by air.

But, duty calls. I have clients to see, columns to write and interview for, and friends waiting to offer me their considerable hospitality. So I booked it.

As so often happens, the stresses I prepared for didn’t happen at all, and the ones I wasn’t expecting did.

First, I have to tell you that the TSA agents at Bradley have to be the nicest in the country. Not only are they helpful and kind, they smile and relate to people as though they are human. 

I began by quizzing agents on the way to the gate on how to avoid radiation. Since my CAT Scan, equal to 400 X-rays, I have decided not to do the new scanners at all. I do not want additional, cumulative radiation permeating my body every time I fly. But, at Bradley, I had no worries. The scanners were not on, and I merely entered my body through the old-fashioned metal detectors, business as usual. I do have to wonder about the actual security this provided, however, since neither my gold bracelet, nor the quart-sized plastic bag containing my personal items, that I forgot to get out of the luggage, set off any sensors or alerts. I understand from reports that security detection is actually failing 70 to 100% of the time. Box cutters, yes, shampoo, no. Hmm.

I wasn’t so sure about what my experience would be at O’Hare for the return trip. I stood in the security line with some nurses returning from London after a medical missionary trip to the U.K. or somewhere...didn’t eavesdrop soon enough to find out where. Anyway, they were discussing the scanners, and said, “Do you know how much radiation it takes to picture your internal organs?” Answer, “A lot!” Not to mention the time standing there is way longer than we would stand for with x-ray treatments at a hospital or dentist office. And, no lead apron for the airport ones. And, no trained radiologists operating the equipment, which may leak or malfunction before passengers would even know it. I expect some day they will say, “Oops. We didn’t know they would be that invasive.” Or to put it in the words of the nurses, “Sorry about your cancer. We didn’t know.”

In any case, I elected the pat down. Now you know the horrors being told about this process. Talk about invasive. Body parts and undergarments explored to a degree that some have reported is not only humiliating, but so personal as to be compared with groping and assault one would report to authorities. But, these ARE the authorities. Flying is a choice that involves submitting to this or the radiation.

I decided a pat down was better than cancer. I do agree with the comedian who suggested maybe they should allow us to have the opposite sex pat us down, so we could at least enjoy the humiliation somewhat. But, no. Not an option.

I didn’t realize the pat down agents are not readily available. When requesting this procedure, they have to call for personnel. 

“Female,” they yell, and everyone in line is now informed that I will be awaiting a pat down. My agent arrived a few minutes later, making me realize that extra time to make it to the gate will have to become a part of my planning. This option could add twenty minutes to the security thing. I was asked to step into an area. I had requested my purse and luggage be in my sight, and not sitting unattended. They complied and moved me to the other side of the metal detector so that I could see my things had been placed on the counter. Then Nicole, Agent T, I promised her I would not print her last name, proceeded to begin explaining what she planned to do to search me.

“You’re just doing your job,” I assured. “I don’t need you to explain things, just go ahead and do it.”

Nicole raised her eyebrows, and frowned a bit. I think she was supposed to give the narration as she searched, but she was taken aback. She began by putting on her plastic gloves--an omen to be sure--and starting the physical patting along my outer frame. Then she had to explain that she would be feeling along the waistband of my trousers. 

“Okay,” I repeated. Then she had to explain that she would be feeling along the bra-line where the underwire is. Geeesh. I never thought of people hiding things in underwire. 

There was no invasion of undergarments, or private parts. And, Nicole was very businesslike about the whole thing. 

Frankly, if this agent were typical, I can’t imagine anyone complaining or being humiliated. The full body scan is much more revealing than this experience for me was, not to mention, again, the health risks.

In any case, this was nothing to fear. I will be much calmer now about flying.

What did happen unexpectedly, however, was in my car rental experience. As I drove the Mazda out of the Rockford Enterprise lot, the car was chugging and dragging, and I had to keep putting it into gear. This was a semi-automatic. 

Now, now. All of you know I should not have gotten a car that requires any kind of mechanical, visual, or coordination skills, right? If you don’t know this, see Finding My Way, or the DMV story.

In any case, not only did they give me a car with semi-automatic controls--which I think means I have to manually override the automatic settings sometimes, but it also was a smoker car, reeking of smoke. Enterprise claims all their cars are non-smoking, but this is the third reeking one I have had, so, um, I don’t think so.

So here I am chugging up to Roscoe, with the car going from gear 2 to 1 to 3 as it tried to find one that worked, all the time, wondering if I should just stop driving and find out why this was happening.

By morning, as I turned on the ignition, there was a picture of a car with lines under the tires, like it was dragging--which I didn’t need a picture to tell me, from my experience the night before. I don't really know what the picture meant. 


I pulled out of the driveway, finding the chugging, the dragging and the picture still there. I thought maybe after I got from the broken up roads of the subdivision to the main street--smoother, but narrow, it would all be better. Not. The ride became bumpier. Oh dear. Flat tire. Why didn't it have a flat tire picture? I had to go forward until I found a shoulder area wide enough to get off of the road, but it was sloped and gravelly. 

I called Enterprise and they said they would be happy to swap out the car, but they didn’t do tire changing and the car would be my responsibility until the spare was on.

I called AAA, and thankfully, this was covered by my membership. Frustrating anyway, since I could see a Mobil station less than a half mile from where I had pulled over. My appointments for the day were booked non-stop from 9:00 am to 3 pm, and I could have walked to the first appointment faster than waiting for AAA; but, of course, I stayed with the car.

AAA arrived 45 minutes later, actually not bad, considering i was not their first call. The guys assessed that even on the slope with the gravel, they would have to chance it, rather than moving the car. The tire had already separated from the rim. After removing it, they showed me the rusty nail, and told me most likely that had been in there when I picked up the car. Unfortunately, the spare was also separating from the rim, and I was told not to hit any potholes and to drive under 50 mph. Right. No potholes, in Rockford.

Luckily, Jessica’s, where my breakfast appointment was still waiting, was less than two miles away. I avoided potholes. And, as soon as I arrived, I talked to my media rep, Roz and said, “You know, I bet you know about cars.”

She did. Her analysis was that the car didn’t know what gear to find because the air was leaking out of the tire, making the ride uneven. So the tire was probably going flat from the time I left the car rental. That sounded right. Later they claimed they didn't need to check for pressure, because Tire Pressure Monitoring Systems are now in place on all tires. What I think they don't know, is there is a threshold before the monitoring system kicks in. Or, maybe there was a little light on, Omega shaped, that I had never seen before. Oh oh. My husband pointed that out when I told him the story. Well, it didn't have a picture!

So, back to breakfast. I called Enterprise from my breakfast meeting in Roscoe, and here is where I have to say that in spite of the problem: I would NEVER use any other car rental company than Enterprise if I have any choice at all. They sent an agent with a swap car, a PT Cruiser, who came into Jessica’s, handed me the keys, no questions asked, and told me I could return the car to the other location, no problem. Now that is service! My morning continued, seamlessly, with no more problems. 

The Cruiser was fine, except for I never did find how to open the trunk. Oh well.

So, lessons learned: Choose pat downs and get an agent as kind and respectful as Nicole; join AAA; always choose Enterprise for car rentals for trauma free travels; and notice that little Omega sign if it lights up.  Bon Voyage!