Airport Lines and the Survival of the Finest

With the summer travel season in full swing, the anticipation of warm waters and far-away sights comes tinged with the less pleasant prospect of long lines at the airport.
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With the summer travel season in full swing, the anticipation of warm waters and far-away sights comes tinged with the less pleasant prospect of long lines at the airport. From check-in to security, passport control and boarding, an hour or more of stand-and-drag time has become the standard precursor to that moment when we can sit down, relax and ponder the endless sky.

For most of us, that is. For most of us, the imposed downtime provides ample opportunity to watch a privileged not-so-few glide through a roped and red-carpeted check-in, priority lanes for screening and immigration to a comfortable lounge from where they are "invited" (as if they might choose otherwise) to board the plane first.

From one side of the ropes, it is an ease of lifestyle to aspire to. From the other, it is a mildly luxurious little peacock strut; "Walk tall, dear, they're watching you." Either way, it is another example of how, as Frank Bruni writes, "the places and ways in which Americans are economically segregated and stratified have multiplied, with microclimates of exclusivity popping up everywhere."

And it is that "everywhere" that is the kicker. It is normal that customers who pay more should expect and receive better service. But at what point does that commercial imperative turn into social injustice?

A few years ago, I was waiting to have my passport stamped at Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris. While the whole phalanx of border control agents were checking passports for the main queue, the one on the far end would stop every time a passenger walked up in the priority lane, and only check those passengers until the lane had cleared. This struck me.

While the airlines set up dedicated counters for their high-paying and other VIP passengers, surely a government official should be playing by a more egalitarian set of rules. What's more, this was not a dedicated lane -- though that would have been striking enough -- rather, it was an example of a public official not only conferring privilege on a select group, but actually doing so at the expense (the extended waiting time) of the general population. I have since become aware of this model replicated at every airport I've been to, from Bangkok to Boston, and at both immigration and security, which are ostensibly public functions.

The disparity was given increased poignancy in a recent warning by Philip Baum, editor of Aviation Security International, that passengers waiting in line for security are actually sitting ducks for terrorist attacks like those that happened in Rome and Vienna in 1985, and in Bourgas, Bulgaria in 2012. "While I am not expecting an imminent attack," Baum writes, "experience of suicide bombings -- particularly in Israel and the Middle East -- shows that it is often people queuing at the checkpoints themselves who are targeted."

Suddenly, airport waits, more than a necessary evil, are presented as an existential challenge. And, increasingly like taxes and access to quality healthcare, education and economic opportunity, one borne unevenly by a large majority.

I don't know what the solution is. And I don't think that many of you reading this would thank me for campaigning against priority lanes. In fact, I think a simple and civilized, frictionless airport experience should be available to everybody. But we can't all be in the priority lane. So while we wait, we can think about how the very things we aspire to might be contributing to what is holding us back.

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