Haaa flying! It’s an inescapable part of travel but one that has become increasingly tedious in recent years, what with the checked luggage fees (and the inability to take more than a small bag of liquids in hand luggage), the security checks, and the lack of decent food to eat on many flights.

To add insult to injury, many of the cheaper flights are with American airlines and thus involve a stopover in a US airport where one has to submit to even more searches, questioning and inconveniences. Of all the international borders I have crossed, the US has given me the most headaches.

I’ve written some rather humorous plane stories before. Today I present you a few horror tales about American airports and customs. (No offence meant to my American readers.)

The mysterious lock-out at LAX

In the spring of 2006, I was returning home after visiting a friend in Las Vegas. I had to change planes (and terminals) in Los Angeles, but with about two hours between my flights, I wasn’t worried.

Almost immediately upon exiting the plane at LAX and walking into the terminal, I heard the announcement. The terminal was locked out until further notice and nobody could enter or exit. No further explanations were given, and no mention of how long this would last.

Not too concerned (yet), I decided to have dinner while I waited. And waited. One hour passed. I enquired to an agent as to what was going on and whether I would be able to make my connection. The agent didn’t seem to think it would last much longer and assured me that my flight would wait for me. I wasn’t so sure…

When, about 25 minutes before my departure time, the lock-out was lifted, I dashed to the exit and asked a guard for the fastest way to reach the other terminal. Waiting for the shuttle was not an option, so I ran across the parking lot with my bags, congratulating myself for travelling light. When I got inside the other terminal, it took me a while to find a way up to the departure level. By the time I arrived at the gate, I was out of breath, and the last person to board the plane before they closed the door. It didn’t look at all like this Air Canada plane would have waited for me, even though I flew them on the first leg as well!

640px-LAX-International-checkin
LAX International check-in by TimBray at en.wikipedia. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons

The endless custom line in Houston

Two years later I was on my way back from Mexico, transiting through Houston. With my incoming plane late by half an hour, I only had one hour left to clear customs, security, and make it to my gate.

Unfortunately, several flights had arrived at the same time, and the coiling custom line was longer than a Disney World queue from the 80s, and moved slower than a snail. I watched families of five spending 5-10 minutes with a customs agent, being finger-printed and interrogated. This didn’t look good. And the whole time TV screens showed images of happy immigrants smiling and waving US flags, while the voice over kept reiterating how “our” safety was important to them.

It took me an hour to get to the front of the line. When the agent asked me how long I was staying in the US, I replied that I hadn’t planned to spend more than an hour, but since my plane was taking off as we spoke, it would likely be one night.

Because Continental Airline couldn’t re-book me until 4:00 PM the following day, I had to spend the night and waste most of the following day in a Sheraton Hotel near the airport. I got a discount on the hotel, but Continental refused to refund my costs, to say nothing of lost income.

Continental at Houston airport
Image courtesy of Michael Bludworth at Flickr. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Commons

The missing address, the ice bitch and the custom form

Three years ago I flew to Charlotte, North Carolina, to visit another friend. My flight was a direct reward flight on US Air. My friend was picking me up at the other end. Nothing could have been easier. But as is often the case when things are too easy, I neglected to acquire some basic information, such as my friend’s address.

Because you pass through US Customs in Canada when flying from Canada to the US, I had to fill up the little custom card before even boarding my plane. One of the fields asks for your address in the US, and they’re not kidding. Leave this field blank (as I did since I didn’t know my friend’s address) and you’ll be denied passage, and asked to return when you have an address!

The lady custom agent I encountered that day was especially nasty. When I told her I risked missing my plane, she replied “That’s not my problem. You should have thought of that before.” Lucky for her, my eyes can’t shoot laser beams.

So I frantically returned to the departure lounge and called my friend (twice) until she picked up and gave me the address. I had to wait another 20 minutes in the custom line, and boarded my plane on the last call, sweaty and breathless.

What you should do

Give yourself at least two hours when transiting through a US airport to increase your chances of catching your connecting flight. Since everyone landing on American soil has to go through customs whether they’re spending three hours or three months, the wait can be rather long.

Making your connection earlier in the day may help, as there will probably be less back-up in the custom lines. And if you miss your plane, you can probably be rebooked on another flight that same day.

Oh, and filling out all the fields on these little US custom forms is not optional.

But it’s not all doom and gloom…

Transiting through the Newark airport on my way back from Bangkok in early 2014, I saw one of those ominous full-body scanner machines for the first time.

“Is this the machine where you see people naked?” I asked the agent. “I never see people naked” she replied. I thought I could hear disappointment in her voice. 🙂

(A similar article appeared in BigTravelNut’s newsletter #12 in June 2014.)


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