The airport security shakedown: Air travel always costs me extra, one way or another

TSA cost me hours of unpaid time and my dignity before I paid up. But somehow there's always a new charge to pay

By D. Watkins

Editor at Large

Published October 21, 2022 10:42AM (EDT)

Travelers wait in line for entering the security check at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in Arlington, Virginia. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Travelers wait in line for entering the security check at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in Arlington, Virginia. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

My wife and I work extremely hard, easily clocking 80-plus hours a week — no idyllic American 40-hour work week for us. We don't ignore each other or our two-year-old daughter, rather we sacrifice typical pleasantries and pastimes — like happy hours and sleep — in our efforts to earn at the level of salaries gifted to white people who have the luxury of only working one job. So when we click our workaholic heads together and say we are going to take a vacation­­ — an international trip, where we eat and drink and sleep in multiple cities — to give ourselves a piece of that American dream of relaxation in exchange for the thousands of hours of labor we deposit a year, the last thing I want to have to worry about is airport security. But here we are. 

The Transportation Security Administration's history and mission, "Protect the nation's transportation systems to ensure freedom of movement for people and commerce" sounds, in theory, solid. Travelers deserve to be safe and to feel safe. Of course nobody wants weapons on board or planes to be hijacked. But we also deserve efficient — enjoyable, even — airport experiences. We spend our hard-earned money to be in these places. That enjoyable experience is not happening. It hasn't even been efficient for me, let alone pleasant, for the last 20 years. How does a third-generation American citizen have such a long history of not getting a fair shake at the airport? It starts with my physical appearance. 

I have a big forehead. I am proud of it because I don't have any other choice. I'm stuck with it. As a kid, they would call me Block Head and Apple Head. My favorite was when the guys and girls used to say, "D, your forehead is so big you basically have a five-head." I took their wisecracks. I made fun of other people, too, mastered the art of clapping back, and even learned to poke fun at myself — the way my head looks like a brown watermelon, the fact that I wear a size 7 5/8s fitted cap.

I promise I'm not traumatized by childhood jokes — we had fun. And it remained fun all the way up to when the digital age of the late '90s fell upon us, giving us the ability to search for any and everything, 24 hours a day. If you wanted to know how many points Magic Johnson averaged in the '87-'88 season, how old Dolly Parton was in 1975, the square footage of the earth, Shaq's shoe size or any other thing else you could imagine, the answers were just a click away. So was a lot of other stuff, like photos of people suspected of or accused of terrorism.

The airport used to be kind of enjoyable. TSA has made it to an anxiety factory. 

When they began to circulate on the Internet, people around me started to say that they looked, well, like me: a skinny brown-complected guy with a big head. And jokes about my "brown watermelon head" quickly turned into jokes about how "D looks like a terrorist." Dumb but harmless to me, until the aftermath of September 11, 2001, which changed how we fly. The 9/11 attacks led to the Aviation and Transportation Security Act, passed by Congress and signed on November 19, 2001, which birthed the TSA. 

I didn't fly much before 2001 because I was a broke kid. My world mostly existed in Baltimore. But basketball did allow me to travel at times, and I do remember the good ol' days when you could get to the airport roughly an hour or so before your flight was scheduled to take off and wait at the gate for your friends to board, and even be greeted by family as soon as you exited a flight. The airport used to be kind of enjoyable. TSA has made it to an anxiety factory. 

In some cities, you have to arrive three or four hours in advance. Only ticketed customers can enter, so sometimes you see kids sitting at the gate and boarding alone. Security lines are long and slow because TSA forces you to take off your shoes and unpack your laptop before branding you as the person holding up the line if you don't repack your items and throw your shoes on fast enough. And then there's the racism. 

Remember the friends who made jokes about me looking like a terrorist? I guess TSA agents were in on the joke. I've been treated like a threat at the airport for the last two decades. I have no record of flight disruption or sketchy behavior. And yet, "Sir, can you step to the side please?" is a phrase I heard consistently in the years since the new security protocols were put in place. It didn't matter if I was flying domestic or international, if I'm in a rush or have time to spare. A TSA guard would always spot me, give me a look over, and then pull me out of line for the "random" search of my body and my bags, unfolding my clothes, violating my privacy, while asking me stupid questions like, "So where are you traveling?" 

It happened to me so often I used budget time for random security checks into my traveling schedule. (Using that time to squeeze in a little more work at the airport would be nice, but that hasn't been an option.) And when it happens on a rare vacation, it's a buzzkill. When most of your life is spent working, and you rarely get to set aside time for fun, every one of those extra minutes lands extra hard. 

"Why do we have to get to the airport so early?" my wife would say back when we were dating and we first started traveling together.

"You'll see," I'd say.

They always select me for the extra pat-down, the same way cops always pull me over and clerks follow me in stores. That's the system at work, and in the system, racism will prevail. 

"Baby, meet me at the gate," I've had to say on more than one occasion. 

I'm working ten times as hard as others just to afford travel. Time is precious. 

Book tours used to be a thing back in 2015 when I published my first essay collection, "The Beast Side." Schools, nonprofits and other organizations would fly me to their cities so I could give talks on education, politics, racism, the modern Civil Rights movement and other subjects I wrote about in the book. I was hitting the airport at least twice a month back then, and I hated it every time because of the random swabs and searches. During that time I reconnected with RC, a friend from high school who worked for TSA, who'd see me being yanked out of line every for the "random check" and laugh every time. But he also started telling his coworkers, "I know him, let him go, that's my bro." I used to be elated on mornings I had to fly out and found myself at his security gate because I knew I would be treated like everyone else.

I should acknowledge there hasn't been an attack against America since the creation of TSA, but that doesn't mean the agency, with its commitment to profiling, is fully effective. In 2015 — the same year I endured all those extra searches — Homeland Security sent "Red Teams" with undercover investigators to some of our nation's busiest airports, where they were able to "smuggle weapons, fake explosives and other contraband through numerous checkpoints." That same year, ABC News reported that TSA failed 67 out of 70 experiments designed to test how well agents could actually detect security threats. My carry-on was probably being swabbed because of racial profiling while the Red Team's armed investigators sailed right past me through security.

"D, you need PreCheck," RC told me one day. "It's cheap as hell and worth it because they gonna keep bothering you." 

RC never said why they were going to keep bothering me, but he was right. Once I bought myself TSA PreCheck ($85 for five years) and CLEAR ($189 per year) my domestic trips instantly became easier. My bag has been searched a few times since, but the 100 percent chance of me being "randomly" searched stopped. But RC didn't tell me to buy Global Entry ($100 for five years), another pay-to-play airport service that offers expedited re-entry from international travel. And that kicked me right in the neck with a four-hour wakeup call when my wife and I tried to reenter the United States after our recent overseas vacation.

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Maybe it's the worker shortage. Maybe it's poor management. But we walked into a line that looked like a thousand American passport holders trying to reenter the U.S., and there were only two windows staffed among dozens of empties, at a major international U.S. airport. People were exhausted, frustrated, falling out, and fighting to control rowdy kids. This time I wasn't discriminated against at the customs window when we finally reached a person. There were simply too many people in line. No time for racism. 

During our four-hour wait, I could not help but remember how quickly I moved through the customs line at Frankfurt's airport — how well-staffed, professional and efficient they were. Or in London, where I didn't even have to talk to anyone asking, "So why are you here?" I just scanned my passport on a machine or e-gate and made my way to my flight. I know there are many Americans who have been discriminated against in other countries, but that wasn't my experience on this trip. I didn't need any extra pay-to-play services in those countries because their airports actually work.

I'm working ten times as hard as others just to be able to afford to travel. Time is precious. So is dignity. They shouldn't carry an extra cost. 

By D. Watkins

D. Watkins is an Editor at Large for Salon. He is also a professor at the University of Baltimore and founder of the BMORE Writers Project. Watkins is the author of the New York Times best-selling memoirs “The Beast Side: Living  (and Dying) While Black in America” and "The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir," as well as "We Speak For Ourselves: How Woke Culture Prohibits Progress." His new book, "Black Boy Smile: A Memoir in Moments," is out now.

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