Flying to U.S. isn't worth the hassle

March 28, 2007|By Rebecca Helm-Ropelato

ROME -- The tall Steven Seagal double standing just beyond the security check at Beauvais Airport outside Paris earlier this year spoke to me as I picked up my purse from the conveyor belt and motioned to me to open it. I lifted the flap on the front pocket and removed the first thing my fingers touched. It was a glossy, gold-colored tube of lipstick I had paid extortionist rates for a couple of months before.

No, he shook his head. I pulled out the next thing. It was a glass vial of throat spray for my allergies. I had forgotten it was there. Smiling at me as if I were his pet Doberman, he gently plucked the bottle from my hand and deftly tossed it over his shoulder into the plastic disposal container behind him. Imperturbably genial, he waved me on.

How pleasant it is to fly these days. The perfect touches still missing, perhaps, are free fingerprinting and a nice, face-front snapshot with a row of numbers across your chest.

Still, I've been luckier than many. I haven't even had to remove my shoes yet. And I haven't had to stand in the middle of a crowd of strangers stripped to my La Perla, as in the firsthand accounts I've heard from some relatives and friends.

May we have our dignity back, please? No? Ah, you say - it's over there in that trash bin, confiscated. Never mind.

But apparently quite a few do mind, especially when it comes to traveling to the United States these days, according to a Reuters story published this month. The article quotes statistics from travel industry experts showing that the number of travelers to the United States has dropped by 17 percent since 2001. Last year, according to the article, the number of visitors from Western Europe fell almost 3 percent from the previous year.

One of the chief reasons? Treatment much less amiable than mine at the hands of the Seagal stand-in who didn't give a hoot about my allergies. At least he smiled. The Reuters article quoted people surveyed about travel to the United States as objecting to the unpleasantness of their obligatory encounters upon arrival with humorless, gun-carrying immigration officials.

Another travel industry survey mentioned in the article also brought bad news. Two-thirds of the respondents were a little spooked about possible zero tolerance for fill-in-the-blank mistakes on official forms, or a verbal miscue that might result in being held back at the airport. And in an it-would-be-funny-if-it-weren't-so-real-life depressing revelation, half of those surveyed said they were more scared of those dutiful but rude guardians of U.S. safety than they were of the bad guys.

We all know it's a dangerous world, and steps must be taken. But it's looking more and more as if the baby has been tossed out with the dirty H20.

Rebecca Helm-Ropelato is an American writer living in Italy.

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