I have just spent almost two hours trying to escape from Atlanta’s so-called international airport, and have to say that it was without any doubt, far and away the worst experience I have ever had trying to leave an international airport – and I only had hand luggage! The slowness, rudeness, incompetence, inefficiency and downright unpleasantness of the people and machines were unbelievable.
First, we had to queue for well over an hour to get through the passport check, fingerprints and retinal scans. We were herded like cattle through a very slow moving roped off set of alleyways. There were only a handful of officials on duty, with many ‘gates’ empty. It was designed to raise our temperatures, and if I had not been in a hurry it would have been faintly amusing listening to the comments in the queue. The ‘officials’ seemed to be spending as long as they possibly could with each person arriving; there was no sense of urgency at all. Then, nearing the end, when I was in line to be ‘checked’, the officious official who was guiding us to the scanning point ordered me to move one foot to the left! I could not believe it. There was a wide open space and I had to move one foot to the left.
The sense of power and control that these unpleasant people have is quite unbelievable. It is rather like many of those on baggage security checks across the world who take joy in making life as miserable as possible for travelers, ordering them around!
At last, I was in front of the person who was going to take my fingerprints and retinal scan. In the old days – and they were good, very good – only criminals had their fingerprints taken. Just think what the US government might do with all of our biodata. So, I decided to be nice, and got a word in first, asking him what kind of day he had had, saying he looked as tired as I did. It worked! He smiled! He had started work at 5.30 this morning, with a break for lunch, and it was by that time nearly 8.45 in the evening! Anyway, I will give him credit – he processed me politely and swiftly, for which I am very grateful. I certainly had vastly better treatment than many others in the queue.
I was lucky! I only had hand luggage so did not then have to wait for any checked baggage – but I’m sure it would in any case have come through by then! So, next we had to queue to hand in our customs declaration form – just to show we were not bringing in anything that might be against US regulations. Fortunately, I went through that fairly swiftly. Any normal person would expect then to be able to walk out of the airport and get a taxi.
But no, not at Hartsfield Jackson International Airport. Wait for it. Can you imagine what happened next? Yes, another bag check and full body scan. And this was simply to get out of the airport! I had to join yet another snaking queue, to have my bags checked. Yet again, jackets off, shoes off, computers out with everything being put in trays. Officials shouted at us to get in the correct lines. One poor gentleman from India, was totally confused as to whether he was being shouted at or not. And the stench! I have no idea what it was, but it was definitely the most evil smell I have encountered in any airport in the world! And then the body scan. Everything, even handkerchiefs has to be taken out of pockets, and some of us were chosen to be placed in this scanning device. No notices about what it would do, any potential health issues, or what would happen to the images after they had been taken. I was simply forced through.
At last, I thought I was free. But they did not like the look of my laptop and notepad, so back it had to go through the bag scanner. Even then, when of course nothing was found, it took a good 20 minutes to walk to the shuttle train that took me to the concourse from whence I was at last able to get a taxi.
How nice it was to see an Ethiopian driver, who brought with him a sense of history, of culture and of hospitality. What on earth was he doing here in this land of oppression I asked myself. What horrors had he left to make his home in this neo-fascist place I had arrived in.
It made me think of all the other airports I have visited recently. Perhaps the best comparison is with Beijing airport. What luxury! What efficiency! What civility! It is so easy to get through Beijing, and one is treated with dignity and hospitality by the Chinese officials. Perhaps this is a reflection that China has become the world superpower, and because it does not try to impose democracy on other countries at the end of a gun or bomb, it does not have to be so preoccupied with ‘protecting its borders’. In Atlanta, the symbolism of officials shouting and ordering people around, herding them like cattle in pens, scanning them for biodata and personal information, reminds me of the fall of other empires. Petty bureaucrats who get their kicks out of being deliberately unpleasant. The use of machines to control people’s freedom. The sense of oppression and foreboding.
And then, I often hear USAns complaining about Heathrow airport. What absolute hypocrisy and cheek! Heathrow is bliss compared with Atlanta.
You have been warned! Never travel through Atlanta airport if you can possibly avoid it. Better still, avoid Atlanta itself! What a pity, I have such good friends here.