Airline security, last minute plane tickets, and you
I’ve Ben Thinking is a twice-weekly newsletter-blog hybrid from Ben Testani about a thing he couldn’t stop thinking about recently. If you like what you read, please consider forwarding this email to a friend or sharing the post on any platform. If this is your first edition of IBT, please consider subscribing.
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about travel. I first left the United States of America in 2018, when I visited Colombia. That trip only affirmed what I had known about myself since I was a little kid, playing with the LeapFrog globe my parents put in my room - my dream is to see the world.
Like the rest of the society, I put these dreams on indefinite pause in March. No matter how cramped my apartment feels, nor how low flight costs drop, a global vacation would be wildly irresponsible right now. To cope with the wanderlust and temper my stir crazy attitude of late, I have turned to travel videos on YouTube.
Travel vlogging on YouTube is not a novel concept. Humans have documented their travels since language was invented, only today, vlogging about your trips can earn you $100,000 a year and get you banned from a hotel. Like any saturated market, quality travel vloggers are hard to find, but I have gravitated toward Indigo Traveler. His niche is solo travels to countries that are perceived as dangerous in Western media, such as Iran or Pakistan. However, what sets Indigo Traveler apart in my opinion is the respect he shows toward each locale he visits. He seems to travel without preconceived notions, but rather with a genuine passion for the region he is touring. Because of his focus on countries assumed by the West to be dangerous, a lot of his videos are made in the Middle East.
So Why Have I Ben Thinking About SSSS?
During my undergrad, I completed a concentration in Arabic. As part of my studies, I completed a semester abroad in Amman, Jordan, where I easily fell in love with the country. I was also an American college student studying abroad, so I was determined to pack in some fun weekend trips.
Unlike my classmates in London or Barcelona, however, I did not have access to RyanAir or a Eurail pass. When I attempted to see the Pyramids at Giza, for example, I was dismayed to find out the brief, 90 minute flight from Amman to Cairo cost almost $300. The heavy cost of travel, even between neighboring nations, forced me to select just one other Middle East destination to visit by May.
At the end of the day, it wasn’t a particularly hard choice. Along with my best friend from my program, I set off for a weekend trip to Beirut, in Lebanon, where Indigo Traveler recently landed to document the aftermath of the horrific August explosion that rocked the port region of Beirut. A city of contrasts, seemingly full of people primed for both conflict and partying, I had no idea what to expect over the weekend. Little did I realize that a weekend where I tasted fried frog, almost fell asleep at a club under the stars, and had to use eduroam WiFi at the American University of Beirut to call an Uber back to my Airbnb would have such long reaching consequences on my future travels.
The view from my Airbnb in Beirut. As far as I can tell, that white building in the center left is the building that exploded in August.
For financial reasons, I waited to visit Beirut until near the end of my semester in Amman. This meant that two weeks after taking a weekend trip to Lebanon, a country the State Department classifies as “Level 3 - Reconsider Travel”, I would be flying back to Syracuse, New York. And laying-over in New York City’s John F. Kennedy Airport. Furthermore, to better coordinate with my travel companion, I didn’t book the tickets with Middle East Air until relatively close to the weekend we departed from Queen Alia International Airport in Amman.
Roughly two weeks after my Lebanese getaway, I was on the last shuttle back to Queen Alia with all my belongings in tow for a red eye flight that would eventually take me home to Syracuse for the first time in over 4 months. Exhausted, I loaded my Lufthansa app on the airport WiFi, only for the app to deny me my boarding pass. I groggily wandered to an agent, who briskly printed out a physical ticket for me. Across the top, in the style of old dot matrix printers, were four letters. SSSS.
Gathered with fellow students from my program who were on the same connection as me, I asked if anyone else had issues with their boarding passes. One student, who had visited Turkey the same weekend as I was in Lebanon, told me he also received the SSSS designation. Together, we turned to Google, where we quickly learned that SSSS stands for Secondary Security Screening Selection and is a cousin of the infamous No Fly List. Presumably because of my quick jaunt to Beirut, the United States government had deemed me worthy of extra scrutiny at the airport before I would be allowed to reenter the United States.
At my layover in Frankfurt, I showed my boarding pass and passport to a German immigration agent. He scowled at me, radioed a colleague, and informed me I had been randomly selected for additional screening. Unlike past random screenings for domestic flights at the hands of the TSA, this was not a simple case of walking through the metal detector a second time.
I was directed to a cordoned off area of passport control, where my entire carry-on bag was sanctimoniously emptied in front of me. The German authorities peppered me with questions about where I had been, why I had been there, and for how long. They threw out my toothpaste, dooming my family to horrible breath when they picked me up from the Syracuse airport 20 hours later. Ultimately, I was cleared, and I hastily stuffed my possessions back into my bag and found my terminal, where I purchased and consumed a duty-free bottle of wine to ease the ordeal.
A few months prior to leaving for Amman, I had applied for and received Global Entry status from Customs and Border Patrol. In theory, Global Entry is supposed to function like an enhanced PreCheck, where I would not only receive PreCheck status for domestic flights, but be able to skip customs after returning from abroad. Indeed, flying from Syracuse to JFK to leave for Amman in January, I was granted PreCheck for the first time in my life. I smugly sauntered past the 6 people in line for regular security at Syracuse’s “international” airport, congratulating myself for finally having made it.
Once back stateside after my semester, however, I realized I had certainly not made it anywhere other than in the cross hairs of the federal government. It took almost a full year months after my return from Jordan until I would be granted PreCheck again. In the same time period, I was pulled again for a “random” screening on a domestic flight, despite not receiving the SSSS badge of dishonor this time around.
Both inside and outside the classroom, I learned a great deal in the Middle East. I also dealt with a lot of hassles. Hot water that lasted for two minutes in an apartment shared by three people. A washing machine that electrocuted me every time I touched it. Taxi drivers that would gladly double your fair if you didn’t pay close attention. But all of those experiences paled in comparison to the hassle of returning to, and flying within, my own country, once I had been labeled “suspicious”. Maybe the federal government could learn something from travel vloggers. A region’s portrayal as dangerous on cable news should not consign all of its people to a lifetime of suspicion.
Indigo Traveler is raising money to help Beirut after the disaster this summer. Donate here.
What else I’ve Ben thinking about this week
Indigo Traveler’s tour of Iran
Coronavirus - Mohamed Ramadan (guarantee this is not what you expect)
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The FBI’s Terrorist Screening Center
United States State Department - Lebanon