Richmond's business elite is very concerned that a drop off in passenger traffic at Richmond International Airport could leave us with high cost fares and make the airports spiffy new terminals a white elephant.
Could be, but one problem that crops up might be more manageable -- the sometime Gestapo like tactics of the Transportation Security Administration.
This week, I was on my way to New York for a series of meetings that had taken months to prepare. My fare at U.S. Airways was good enough and I had hoped to perhaps get an even earlier flight, fearful as I was that a coming weather front might delay flights.
The line at the TSA security checkpoint int he north terminal was Dali-esque.
There were at least a dozen or more TSA agents milling about. But only about four seemed to be involved with the long line of passengers waiting to be screened.
One TSA official, kept barking. "Take off all of your belts and all items from your pockets. Any personal squeezable or liquid item, in your bag more than three ounces will be confiscated. Take your laptops out of their cases and put them in the white plastic boxes. Take your wallets and keys and put them in a safe place like your luggage. Any problems could result in a pat-down search."
The middle-aged businesswoman ahead of me shook her head and sighed. We waited 10 or 15 minutes for the line to move. We were busy unzipping and stripping down for the search. The businesswoman complained. They ordered her to the left for a pat-down.
I, however, was OK. They ordered me into a full-body detection machine which looks like a giant, plastic bong. Richmond has had these machines, which the American Civil Liberties Union describes as a "virtual strip search" for two years.
I've been through the bong before, but never with this much hassle. "Make Mickey Mouse ears," said a TSA agent. "What?" asked. She told me to hold my arms up and spread my fingers above the sides of my head to make Micky Mouse ears.I finally got it, did it and was released, but not in time to get the earlier flight.
Out of the corner of my eye, I watched the businesswoman continue with the pat-down.
Funny thing was, when I departed New York's LaGuardia airport a couple of days later, I didn't have to go through any of this. The TSA people were polite and cheerful. There was no bong. No pat down. Just a quick X-ray of my gear and a thank you.
The Richmond business elite is right to worry that the airport could go back to enormous airfares if the coming merger between low cost Southwest Airlines and AirTran formalizes just as passenger numbers drop off. JetBlue has already canceled helpful flights to New York JFK. One reason for the drop is that the recession has been especially hard on Richmond's economy. As Circuit City, LandAmerica and Quimonda went belly-up, business travel went down.
Yet one has to wonder why the approach of TSA is so different in different cities. Is Richmond more of a terrorist target than New York, where the World Trade tower destruction occured? Why is the TSA experience so unpleasant here?
There are plenty of complaints going into the heavy Thankgsiving travel season that TSA is too heavy handed. The fact is that air travel in the U.S.-- and especially in Richmond -- is just becoming too much of a hassle. But if you are going to New York, you either have to take your chances on Interstate 95 or on Amtrak, where on time rates in Virginia are less than 50 per cent.
Hell of a choice.