Air travel has become increasingly unpleasant over the past few years. While we all understand the reality of terrorist threats, it seems to me that the air transport industry has become bogged down in surreal attempts to protect us. I don’t pretend to understand how their decisions work, but I will dutifully carry five 100ml bottles of liquid on board rather than one 500ml bottle, and refrain from using the washroom for the last hour of flight. I can only assume that our safety mavens have figured out a way to keep potential terrorists from a) mixing together said liquids, or b) using the washroom for their nefarious activities prior to the last hour.
I recently found myself boarding a small plane at Toronto’s Pearson Airport. My brother Scott and I were on our way to Savannah, Georgia, with a stopover in Atlanta. We’d already cleared US Customs prior to boarding, so now all we had to do was enjoy the trip.
As we sat on the tarmac watching the minutes tick by, we began to wonder why we were late for takeoff. The answer suddenly arrived in the form of blaring sirens, flashing lights and several cars full of severe looking authorities swarming out little plane. The plane door swung open and numerous determined officials piled aboard. Their leader opened his mouth and uttered the words every air traveler wants to hear just prior to takeoff.
“Is there a Mohammad Khan on board?” he inquired. Silence on the plane. Before anyone thinks our cause for alarm was simply because the person they sought was named Mohammad Khan, let me say that a quick internet check located 1,063 similarly named individuals in Ontario alone, all of them no doubt fine people.
However in my experience sirens, flashing lights and authorities banging your door open are rarely the result of anything good, like your table being ready at a restaurant.
Eyes began darting suspiciously around the plane. Everyone knew the drill, and began digging for their passports. Our Inquisitor repeated his request.
“Is there a Mohammad Khan on board?” Still no reply. My brother and I reached for our passports as well, assuming the entire plane would be searched. Unfortunately such an extreme line of defense was not deemed necessary, because at this point the authorities simply exited the plane, apparently satisfied that if their prey had indeed been on board, their simplistic attempt at Soviet-era interrogation techniques would certainly have rooted him out.
A palpable sense of fear settled over our little plane family. A few minutes passed and the pilot’s voice came over the intercom.
“Now that we’ve averted that crisis, we’ll be taking off.”
Averted? Crisis? A perceived threat to our safety was thought to be aboard our plane and they decided to track him down using the honour system? I’ve experienced more intense I.D. requirements when entering a nightclub. Our subsequent flight to Atlanta, while comfortable and trouble free, was rather tense.
Once on the tarmac in Atlanta we were informed that the American authorities would now be paying our merry little band of travelers an on-board visit. In spite of our Canadian officials’ intense application of safety measures (show of hands, please) the Americans felt they needed to apply even more extreme methods.
“Please have your passports ready as you leave the plane.” Apparently their terrorist identification training is a notch above ours, for unlike their Canadian counterparts they understood the value of actually requesting identification.
Although I would have preferred that this action been taken prior to heading 30,000 feet in the air, I showed them my passport and quickly proceeded up the ramp towards the terminal. A few seconds later, I heard my brother’s voice behind me.
“They took my passport!” he shouted as an official pushed him up against the wall. It only took a split second for the magnitude of this situation to fully sink in. How could I have been so blind? It was all so clear now. My brother was Mohammad Khan! I was astonished; how had he hidden this fact from me all these years? Did our parents know?
Suddenly the real issue at stake became apparent. Guantanamo Bay aside, I was more concerned with missing our connecting flight. I briefly considered waving goodbye and yelling, “See you in Savannah!” but apparently I was raised better than that. By parents who neglected to tell me my brother was a terrorist, but nonetheless...
Strangely, the officials soon identified another suspect, then another; apparently there were numerous dubious characters on board, as within a few minutes more than 20 individuals were lined up against the wall, passports confiscated. Men, women, children, people of every ethnic persuasion; it was a United Nations of Mohammad Khans.
A phone call to Toronto soon revealed the problem. In spite of intensely rigid border regulations, the US Customs officials at the Toronto Airport hadn’t bothered stamping half the passports that morning. If your passport isn’t stamped upon inspection, you are assumed to have entered illegally. Our plane had been a flying galleon of potential security threats, all thanks to border officials who seemed confused as to the proper use of a rubber stamp.
One by one each person was checked and cleared. Sadly, no amount of shoe x-rays and full body scans can ever make up for the sheer inept attention to detail shown by the US Customs officials that morning.
I’ve always thought that the worst part of any trip is the traveling. I love visiting places, I just don’t enjoy the process of getting there; so kudos to the US Customs officials for providing a thrilling way to make an otherwise boring plane trip memorable.
However as each and every passenger on our plane was eventually cleared, one question continued burning in my mind. Who the heck was Mohammad Khan?