In and Out of Airports

I was very surprised on this trip to find out how much easier it was getting in and out of Germany than it was doing the same thing out of my very own country.

The lines through the security checkpoint at SFO were long and slow-moving and person after person had to virtually disrobe: off with the coat, off with the glasses, off with the shoes, bags and everything into a crate. No liquids, not even toothpaste, and those with computers had to prove it could boot up and work. I walked through the metal detector with my hands up and my passport and boarding pass in view. After that, I considered myself lucky that not to have to undergo any more checks.

When I arrived in Germany, the line to get in was surprisingly short, possibly because lots of my fellow passengers were simply using Frankfurt as a transfer hub to other destinations, such as South Africa or India. I only had one person in front of me, and when I got to passport control, he simply looked closely at my picture, stamped it and waved me through. I ended up catching the Lufthansa mini-bus to Heidelberg an hour earlier than I thought I would, and that included time for me to get some euros and buy myself a German tabloid newspaper.

The return home was quite a different experience. Sure, Germany’s security checkpoint had me take off my jacket to get x-rayed, but I was left with the dignity of keeping my shoes on, and I saw others were able to bring in small bottles of water. The metal detector must have been highly sensitive, because it went off just on my bra’s underwire and the rivets of my jeans. I got a metal detector wand scan, which included the bottoms of my shoes, and that was that. Why can’t we just do it like that?

I was a little confused that I had to go through passport control on the way out of Germany, though I had no objections to getting another stamp on my passport. I told the passport control agent that we only check passports on the way in. “Yeah,” he said, as he stamped my passport, “but we don’t fingerprint you.”

“That’s just weird,” I responded, and we both nodded. You all know how I feel about taking fingerprints without due cause, and the rest of the world seems to be on the same page with me. My Lufthansa seat mate told me Homeland Security could only drown in the volume of information they were collecting, like the Stasi did. He also told me the Brazilians had protested by collecting “fingerprints” themselves from American visitors to Brazil: but they only took a “print” of the back of the finger, and they only did it for three weeks. That’s so Brazil!

To get into US, we all, American or not, had to fill out a customs form, complete with arrival address and the value of our souvenirs. I failed to fill it out in all caps, but luckily for me, my own countrymen let that pass.

And OMG, were the lines for US Passport Control ever long. I’m used to zipping into my own country, but even with at least a dozen stations for citizens to get it, the lines were long and slow. I have the new electronic passport, but I have the impression it doesn’t make much of a difference, if it does at all. In both cases, my passport was opened and my photo given a good look. And if anything, it slowed things down on the American end. The agent looked at my passport picture, then at me, then (after sliding my passport through a card reader), at her computer screen. That’s three steps, not two. There were the ominous-looking fingerprint machines at her desk, but happily she didn’t fingerprint me. The thing I didn’t get was an entry stamp.

The passport agent quizzed me about my customs form, but I still had to go to another line. And that line was the line of Soviet proportions and personality, that stretched through the airport and which people kept cutting into, just to hand our stupid little form to someone at the head of the line. Like, this couldn’t be done at passport control? The vast majority of people had nothing to declare; why couldn’t the ones who did have something to declare (or looked suspiciously like they had to) get sent into customs, and the rest of us allowed on our way.

It used to be that when I arrived back in the U.S., the passport control agent would always say “Welcome home,” and I was actually looking forward to it. They’re not saying it any more.

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