Kafka Haunts the Airport

The Devil himself had probably re-designed Hell in the light of information he had gained from observing airport layouts” (Anthony Price)

Did you ever notice that the first piece of luggage on the carousel never belongs to anyone?” (Erma Bombeck)

While the Czech, German language writer Franz Kafka (1883-1924) lived and wrote during the last days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, his spirit seems to live on within modern airport experience. This author of surreal stories such as “The Trial” and his unfinished “Amerika” with its working title, “The Man Who Disappeared” was a master of emotional suffocation and existential dread. Kafka’s stories evoke a struggle for existence in a mysteriously antagonistic world where one is likely to be suspected of some undetermined crime by some remote, inaccessible authority. His themes of frustration, alienation, and futility in ongoing attempts to engage absurd bureaucracies became vivid reality during my own attempts to obtain a much needed boarding pass at the check-in counters at the airport in Buenos Aires. As it turned out, this was only the beginning of yet another Kafkaesque travel adventure.

My return ticket to the USA involved a LAN Chile flight from Argentina to Santiago de Chile where I was to catch a connecting flight with American Airlines to Dallas-Fort Worth, and then two more connections via U.S. Airways. At the LAN counter they checked my baggage all the way through to my final destination, while refusing boarding passes for any flight other than theirs to Santiago. While American and LAN have supposedly merged, LAN refused to issue a boarding pass for my American flight which they claimed could only be issued by AA. And so, I patiently waited in line at an American Airlines counter only to be told that their boarding pass could only be issued by LAN. And so, I flew to Chile in the hope that the airlines there would be more co-operative. While the American agent was willing to issue a pass to board my flight to Texas, she refused to issue passes for any remaining connections. As compensation, I was issued a small square of paper resembling my luggage receipt, which this agent assured me would allow me to obtain a boarding document at the US Airways departure gate.

After a total of 15 hours of flying, and infernal airport queues, I arrived at Dallas-Fort Worth feeling somewhat disoriented and looking a lot like my passport photo. With less than an hour to catch my next flight, the TSA lady at the head of a security line, apparently channeling Kafka, just laughed when I showed her my “document” issued in Chile. Needless to say, she refused any attempt to approach any gate from her well-guarded post. Even worse, I soon learned that US Air was actually located in a distant terminal that would require a trip by shuttle bus. My next challenge in this labyrinth of frustration was to find the airport shuttle stops and the right bus. After being given a series of wrong directions I found myself in an elevator with a kindly soul who offered to help.

Dressed in the Hunter Green sport coat of an airport volunteer he was one of the many angels in human form who donate their time and energy to assist countless lost souls who find themselves wandering in this Stygian nightmare of modern air travel. My celestial guide knew how to locate the right route to my terminal shuttle bus. As we boarded together he explained that the terminal at our destination was under construction and therefore we would need to walk the final quarter mile. With clock running, my pulse racing and blood pressure rising, we arrived at the US Air counter where my angel moved me right to the head of the line. The majority of these airport angels are senior citizens with enough life experience and acquired patience to enable them to deal effectively with overwrought travelers.

Precious boarding passes were quickly issued as I took off on an angst-ridden dash toward my departure gate and those inevitable proto-military protocols of our supposedly patriotic Transport Security Administration. This much reviled, dystopian agency appeared soon after the still controversial events of 9/11. TSA’s inflexible, inquisitional, interactive style, apparently designed as a form of obedience training, has won few admirers within the traveling public who have vociferously complained to their congressional representative, and to no avail. Just recently, John Pistole, head of TSA, a congressionally funded federal agency, refused to appear before a congressional investigating committee while stating that his agency was not subject to their federal oversight inquiries. Kafka would have understood both the mindset of congress and Pistole’s reasoning. .

As a general rule, I have avoided TSA’s naked body, back-scatter x-ray machines since I receive more than enough radiation flying through jet streams in this post- Fukushima world. Claims that these scanners are “safe” have failed to convince. Medical x-ray devices have been known to seriously malfunction, with lethal results, and I don’t see why these airport machines, operated by marginally trained personnel should be any different. As much as I dislike this “above the law “federal agency, I am concerned for the health and welfare of their low paid workers (and their offspring and other loved ones) whose job requires them to remain in close proximity to these potentially cancer causing and fertility damaging x-ray emitters. After a substantial public outcry these infernal devices are being removed from major airports only to be inflicted on smaller local installations. In their place, we now find the latest scanning device which is also purported to be “safe”, as I soon discovered on my dash to a seemingly elusive boarding gate.

Dallas-Fort Worth has installed one of these newer scanning devices which looks something like an oversize glass telephone booth. Travelers are expected to approach these millimeter wave imaging machines with shoes removed, along with belts, jewelry and pockets emptied. Inside the booth one is ordered to stand, raise arms above the head in the universal gesture of surrender, while being subjected to low energy radio waves similar to cell phone emissions. Normally I would choose the “opt out” option for an intrusive pat down, since I am more willing to be groped than x-rayed or in this case microwaved. However, time was of the essence and I agreed to be scanned for the first and I hope, last time by this insufficiently tested device. As it turned out, I made it to my US Air departure gate just as they were boarding my flight. While I would like to believe that the spirit of Franz Kafka is limited to airports, in the USA, aided by surveillance drones and hidden cameras, TSA is busy expanding their “security operations” to bus ,subway and train stations as well as random check points set up along our highways. 

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