Jessica Sieff: Fixing the disconnect in securing the nation’s airports

Published 2:59 pm Thursday, January 14, 2010

Jessica SieffI have yet to see director Jason Reitman’s latest film, “Up in the Air,” but I intend to. It combines two things I love: airports and George Clooney.

This is not a column about George Clooney.

The film tells the story of one man logging a lot of frequent flier miles who’s happy to do so but eventually begins to question just how full his life really is.

Reitman has been quoting as saying the film reflects the idea there is a disconnect in society.

“We’re more disconnected than we’ve ever been,” Reitman told the New Zealand Herald. “We communicate on the phone, we have Web chats, but we don’t look into each other’s eyes any more. We feel at home in airports and there’s no sense of community.”

I agree and yet, respectfully disagree. I love airports. I love everything about them and being in them makes me happy.

There is something about the energy. Outside is the world – chaotic, concrete and the color of exhaust. Departing, we linger over those few, precious moments outside on the curb with our loved ones hugging us against the cold, our bags at our feet and strangers in reflective vests directing traffic just a few feet away.

But the moment is fleeting, temporary. And the minute we let go, it’s a rush to pick up those bags, get out of the way, say goodbye before we can really feel it and quickly we’re sucked inside through electronic doors into a bright fluorescent vacuum of a world where everything is portable and in transit.

Even when I’m forced to get our tickets from a machine, as half a dozen airline workers stand idly behind a counter until I need their help and then I become the rapidly vanishing and eventually completely invisible woman. Even after waiting for 20 minutes, cutting into the “cushion” time I set aside for long, winding, cumbersome security lines … even then I’m still happy.

Slightly irritated with Miss Too Busy To Help You maybe, but happy.

When we travel, we are inherently weightless. Everything we own, everything that weighs us down to the worlds we live in and the life we lead, the responsibilities of automobiles and bricks and mortar and foundations and frames are simply left behind. What matters is held in our memory, our mind, our heart and … OK, our technological gadgets, but still.
Airports are just the mascot, one might say, for travel. When we travel – we’re in between.
We’re in between here and there, where we’re going and where we’ve been. We’re in between the people we really are and the guests or the friend or the relative we’ve seen at the conference or the visit or the wedding we’ve just attended. We’re wholly untethered.

I start off each trip with a carefully constructed playlist. Tracks as vast and wide open as the sky itself: Simon and Garfunkel’s “America,” Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ “Learning to Fly.”

I always stumble through security; the lines are never in rhythm. I’m pulling off my shoes and some guy with slip-off sandals cuts in line because he’s not carrying anything but a laptop case, and I’m still trying to yank out my one-quart plastic bag filled with 3-ounce containers of liquid from my luggage.

But then I’m through and there are brightly-lit shops full of things like coffee mugs and T-shirts to remind us of where we are in case we forget, and completely typical things like books and magazines and snacks – but they all seem special in an airport because you’re getting them at the airport.

And there’s Starbucks – like a beacon.

And everyone is in the middle with you. Nobody is exactly where they are supposed to be. They’re in between. They’re reading that paperback novel, the one on the bestseller list for the 900th week in a row because this is the only chance they’ll get to do it. They’re checking in at the office or texting their husbands and their wives because the airport, being in between the places we go, makes us miss the ones that aren’t with us when we’re there that much more.

“Mona Lisas and mad hatters,” Elton John will sing in my ear as I watch people rush past each other, eager to get to the people waiting on the other side of the line. College students sleep sprawled across three or four relatively uncomfortable seats. Kids get mini pizzas all over their face. And all the while we are no one and everyone all at once. We’re not the overworked executive who barely spends enough time with the family. We’re just the person in seat 17A, reading some obscure magazine while we are taxied off the runway.
And somewhere, in between, in the vast and variable sea of faces, in the one instance that makes me happier than many, in the midst of travel, at the airport – I’m reminded that there exists a threat.

A deadly threat to our most vulnerable moments. When we are without. Suspended. In between.

Predecessors have shown us, even in those narrow aisles – there is no running from it. We’ve seen that most recently in the passengers who stopped Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab on Christmas Day in Detroit. And there are the never-forgotten heroes of United Flight 93.
Our government may want to pay special attention to their own disconnect when it comes to security at our nation’s airports. To be free in the air means to have our wits about us on the ground. And if that’s to happen, we need to take a closer look at the art of travel, the art of being sometimes unidentifiable. Terrorism goes beyond body scanners.

We need to question more, look closer, be more careful. And here’s hoping that our government – our hefty department of Homeland Security – will sooner rather than later get the message.

Jessica Sieff is a reporter for the Niles Daily Star. Reach her at