Monday, March 22, 2010

(No.84) Street theatre in the sky [locked in the loo]

The December 2009 Detroit bound flight carrying the 'bomb in my crotch' terrorist who had boarded in Amsterdam made the already tightly wound American Homeland Security people even more paranoid than usual about terrorists conspiring to bring down US planes. In order to placate the Americans and minimize negative effects on Canadian flights
our authorities quickly added extra layers of security for flights originating in Canada with U.S. destinations.

Like many air travellers Pat and I learned long since that saying anything at airports even slightly sceptical or disparaging about any aspect of security is unwise. Billions of dollars have been spent on convincing airline passengers here and in the U.S. that security is so very tight (while unscreened or only randomly screened checked baggage as well as commercial cargo are loaded into the holds of the planes on which these same passengers will travel).

Taking a flight on a U.S. airline recently from Pearson Airport Toronto to San Juan, Puerto Rico via Newark involved the usual multiple checking of IDs and boarding passes by the onsite U.S. Customs & Immigration officers and then at security checkpoints for passengers and their carry on baggage. Once through security we stopped for something to eat and then headed for our gate.

Subsequently, along the way to our gate, we encountered tables set up almost as if those behind them were selling charity lottery tickets in a mall. We were required to clear our previously cleared carry on luggage and have our hands checked for explosive residue in case, presumably, we had been slipped something nefarious when we stopped for coffee.

My immediate reaction, a verbal one expressed before Pat could give me 'the look' that says "shut up and don't be foolish", was to note that security had been carried out by their colleagues not half an hour previously before we could even get as far as this point in the terminal. Not surprisingly these security folks seemed to be aware of that fact and by then Pat had reminded me to shut up -- which I did.

She was right of course. One can cause unpleasant pushback from security people and in any case there is nothing whatever to be gained beyond momentary satisfaction from complaining or arguing about any security measures with security people. They are doing the job they have been assigned and, having encountered more than a few surly passengers, have notoriously small reserves of humour for extemporaneous comments about security measures of dubious worth.

The flight we were on was full. As the pilot prepared to descend for the landing in San Juan for which, as all but the wilfully thick appreciate, requires passengers to be in their seats and buckled up. We noticed that first one and then several flight attendants were trying to persuade a passenger in a lavatory to return to a seat and buckle up. The passenger, who turned out to be a young woman, refused to open the locked door and return to her seat. The flight crew pounded on the door repeatedly and became increasingly vehement in their demands but without success. They then advised the Captain and proceeded to remove the door to the lavatory, having informed the passenger that police had been called to meet the plane.

I was close enough to this performance of street theatre in the sky that I could hear the dialogue and, if I looked over my shoulder, watch some of the action. The passenger seemed unimpressed by the crew's demands and accompanying threats of serious action if she did not emerge. Once the door to the lavatory was removed she was revealed, as if proudly occupying a throne of gold, seated on the toilet from which she refused to rise until (she declared) she had the privacy provided by the door being put back more or less in place. This was, she declared, nothing more than that to which she was entitled since she was a "doctor" (of what she did not say). "I deserve respect," she said several times, a desire somewhat at odds with her refusal to do other than sit on the toilet when asked to return to her seat.

By this point in the drama the attendants were routinely being addressed by the passenger as "bitches". She did not seem to be intoxicated and her demeanour appeared -- under the circumstances -- fairly unexcited. Her unusual behaviour may well have been caused by drugs or by some sort of mental disorder or by boredom or perhaps by a combination of all three. At no point during this drama did she offer anything remotely like an explanation, sensible or otherwise, for her refusal to leave the lavatory and resume her seat during landing.

She did finally emerge and was escorted back to her seat and the lavatory door was reinstalled. By this time the plane was close to a landing and afterwards the plane was stopped a bit short of the gate for a few minutes to allow, we assumed, for the police to arrive at the gate for a meet and greet with the passenger in question. Inexplicably the pilot did not keep the plane back from the gate until informed of the arrival of the police. Instead he took the plane to the gate, the door was opened, the passengers unbuckled and (as room permitted) stood up. And that is how everyone remained for at least 15 minutes with nobody allowed to exit.

Finally a policeman arrived at the aircraft's door (it was now after midnight local time). At that point passengers were allowed to begin leaving and, one assumes, the 'doctor' from the lavatory street theatre in the sky was taken into custody. Arrested? And if so, for what? Possibly for having endangered the security of other passengers although she could hardly have threatened the pilot from her position atop a toilet.

An episode of street theatre played out in the skies over San Juan, Puerto Rico. Still, in the wake of the crotch bomber terrorist, nobody on the plane was laughing.

Alastair Rickard