Getting caught in the great Christmas jam-up

This week, for the first time in my life, I found myself in the middle of a national news story—the great airport jam-up in the wake of that failed suicide-bombing attempt over Detroit.

It was early Sunday morning, Dec. 27, and my wife and son and I were in a sea of people trying to get through security at Pearson International Airport in Toronto.

We were on our way home after spending Christmas with my in-laws. We’d heard about the bomber and the heightened security measures, so we’d gotten to the airport by 4 a.m. to catch a 7:10 flight, figuring three hours would be plenty of time.

Things looked good for a while. We got our boarding passes and breezed through customs preclearance. Then we reached security and hit a wall. The lines—there were six or seven of them—snaked across a large, warehouse-like room, and they were hardly moving. After an hour, we’d advanced only a few feet. By 6:30, we were less than halfway to the checkpoint.

The room had no restrooms, no water fountains, and nowhere to sit except the floor. We couldn’t move forward, and we couldn’t go back. I felt like a character in Sartre’s play No Exit.

The Canadian family in front of us—mom, dad and four boys—was on its way to Disney World for a post-Christmas vacation. The boys were getting antsy. “Hey, guys, no roughhousing,” the father said.

“You mean ‘rough-airporting,’ don’t you?” one of the boys replied.

Rough-airporting, indeed.

Finally, at about 7:30, we reached the checkpoint. Every carry-on bag was being scanned and then sifted through by an agent. Every passenger was being hand-frisked. I watched as a mother held out her baby to be searched.

Despite the lines and the palpable anxiety felt by hundreds of people—some of them quite elderly—exhausted after being on their feet for three hours and fearful of missing their flights, the Transportation Security Administration agents were stunningly casual about the whole thing, moving slowly and grumbling about having to do the searches. “This is harder on us than it is on you,” one TSA woman said loudly.

Finally we made it through. Our plane, which had been held, flew out of Toronto at about 8:30. It had been booked solid but was only one-third full, which meant that two-thirds of its ticket holders missed their flights.

We were among the lucky ones. According to news reports the next day, some passengers waited as long as nine hours to board.

During the flight we were told that for the last hour we’d have to stay seated, so if we needed to pee, do it now. And we were told we had to keep our hands in our laps and visible during this time. Our flight attendant was apologetic, saying the rule seemed “kinda juvenile, but we’ve been told to implement it.”

What’s next, I wondered, body-cavity searches?

Postscript: US Airways lost our luggage. We’re still waiting for it to arrive.