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Airport odyssey reveals how awful and annoying we are

By Jessica Ravitz, CNN
Passengers at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport wait at the baggage claim on Friday.
Passengers at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport wait at the baggage claim on Friday.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Thanksgiving pilgrimage marks busiest air travel week of the year
  • Six-airport odyssey offers insight into how travelers are seen and behave
  • We ignore rules, cast blame, forget our bludgeons and strip for no reason
  • Airport employee in Miami: "You never know what you're going to see"

Across America (CNN) -- A family tried to sneak a dead man, propped up in a wheelchair, through airport security in New York. A couple had to be stopped while having sex in the corner of a Phoenix, Arizona, airport terminal. A man flying out of Chicago, Illinois, set a rat free, insisting he had to do this for religious purposes.

These are just some of the tales gathered last week as I traveled 5,900 miles through six American airports just days before millions of travelers started the annual Thanksgiving pilgrimage, making this the busiest air travel week of the year.

What I saw wasn't very pretty. For all our bellyaching about airline and airport employees, watching us through their eyes was, well, eye-opening. And kind of embarrassing.

But before we go there, know this: I'm not here to defend the industry of air travel. I can gripe with the best of you.

Travel tips for airline passengers

On this several-day assignment alone, I experienced delays, collapsed in a seat that wouldn't recline when I needed sleep most and got elbowed in the head during a complimentary drink service.

6 airports in 64 hours

I arrived from Miami, Florida, to a ripped bag in Atlanta, Georgia, and my luggage got to Chicago from New York one hour after I did. A flight attendant snapped at me en route to Los Angeles, California. I was forced to climb over cleaning equipment to get out of a Phoenix airport bathroom, and I paid too much to choke down that falsely advertised "fresh" muffin in a New York terminal.

I know flying is far from perfect, but the truth is so are we.

Most striking and amusing were the stories from Transportation Security Administration agents. They are the personnel whose government-ordered procedures, including pat-downs and X-ray scanning machines, are the subject of ongoing controversy and protests.

These agents, most all refused to be named, have seen everything, including sights they would have preferred to miss. One in Chicago's O'Hare bemoaned those travelers who have spontaneously stripped, even though no one asked them to. Another Chicago agent spoke of the babies she's snatched as parents nearly sent their offspring on conveyor belts through X-ray machines.

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They've chased cats through terminals, watched an escaped bird fly overhead and come face-to-face with pet monkeys and other exotic creatures. One agent, while previously working at Washington's Dulles, opened a cooler to find a live penguin.

A Miami agent counted the Elvis impersonators as the weirdest passengers he's dealt with, but a supervisor in New York's JFK airport scoffed at this one.

"That's nothing," he said. "We once had a dead guy."

About five or six years ago, he said, a family trying to avoid the cost of shipping a relative's body to the Dominican Republic, plopped him in a wheelchair and headed to security. They said he was really sick, and when this supervisor touched the ice-cold corpse and told them the guy was dead, they feigned surprise.

Earlier this year, JFK agents found 14 pounds of marijuana taped to a woman's body.

"The weird part: Guess where she was going?" the supervisor said. "Jamaica. Who the hell smuggles marijuana into Jamaica?"

It seems we are not the smartest bunch.

He pointed to a locked metal bin, one he said fills up weekly and holds the "hard stuff," not the liquids that are simply tossed in the trash. Bludgeons, bullets, brass knuckles -- all items the travelers usually say they simply "forgot" they had. But once a woman admitted the carving knife removed from her carry-on had purpose. She needed it to stab her husband in the eye.

Waiting to pass through security, we grumble about the rules, sigh when we see slow bin loaders and bark at those who seem to cut in front of us. Running late, we might yell from the back of the line that we have a flight to catch.

"And everyone else is just waiting to use the bathroom?" an agent muttered.

The ones who complain the most, TSA agents said, are those who leave their cell phones in their pockets, fail to remove their laptops or shoes, or otherwise ignore the rules everyone else is following. While I had previously smiled at the small victory of sneaking a 7.8 ounce rolled-up tube of toothpaste through unnoticed, now I felt a tinge of guilt.

During my first pat-down, the one I got intentionally by refusing the backscatter X-ray (and because my editor told me not to come home without one), the agent -- who had no clue what I was doing and that I was mentally taking notes -- talked me through her every move.

"I'll be using the back of my hands on your buttocks," she said. "And here's the part everyone's talking about," she continued, moving the back of her hands up my inner thighs to the "point of resistance. See that wasn't so bad now, was it?"

Indeed it wasn't. And the passengers I met along the way didn't seem to mind either.

"Whatever keeps us safe," I heard more than once. Granted, one man -- a veteran to pat-downs, given his replaced hip and knees -- said a Las Vegas, Nevada, agent recently took matters a little too far. But "what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas," we joked.

Cancer survivor humilated from pat-down
Bring your brain. And make sure it's functioning properly.
--Travel tip from US Airways customer service representative
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And passengers can create plenty of mayhem on their own.

Two women conspired in a check-in line to fool agents into believing they had only two carry-on bags.

Passengers cornered clerks manning the "baggage drop only" lines, seeking seat and flight changes, and leaving a long line of eye-rolling travelers waiting.

We might show up without photo identification or, in the case of international travel, expired passports -- assuming we remember to bring them.

We grow indignant when we arrive late and are told our bags can't be checked.

We cast blame on customer service agents for weather delays and unleash obscenities when they refuse to open the locked doors of airplanes that are seconds away from departure.

"I've been doing this long enough to know if someone's screaming and yelling, it's not my blood pressure that's going up, it's his," said a US Airways representative who's dealt with the likes of us for 24 years.

When you travel this holiday season, she begged, "Bring your brain. And make sure it's functioning properly."

The stress of travel can bring out the worst in all of us.

New parents board flights without extra diapers, forcing flight attendants to scramble for alternatives.

We stare airline professionals in the eye and insist that a 30-pound second bag is only a purse.

In Atlanta, after completing paperwork for Delta to fix my ripped bag, I watched a grown man slump to the floor and weep because he'd left his wallet on a plane now halfway to Louisville, Kentucky.

Many of those working in airports love what they do because they're touched and entertained by us.

A 24-year-old woman who works at a jewelry stand in Miami has been prayed for by missionaries, played therapist to the heartbroken and ogled hairy men teetering by in stilettos. She once watched a lady, sitting on a nearby barstool, flash passersby until security took her away.

"You wake up in the morning," she said, her smile wide, "and you never know what you're going to see."

At times, they are reminded of our inherent goodness. A restaurant employee in Phoenix Sky Harbor was nearly brought to tears recounting how whenever a uniformed member of the armed services comes in, other travelers invariably pick up the bill.

About six hours later, I joined others in boarding a red-eye from Los Angeles to Atlanta.

We fumbled with our numerous bulky bags and groaned when we were forced to shove them in overhead compartments further back than our seats or, worse yet, check them because there's not enough room for all that we insist on bringing. Flight attendants said our bags cause delays, and yet they absorb our insults when planes don't leave on time.

Drama unfolded almost immediately after we took flight. A passenger, incensed that the woman in front of her dared to recline into her space, began slamming her hands into the back of that seat, setting off call buttons and forcing an off-duty pilot to intervene.

"Fifteen minutes into the flight, and they're already arguing," a flight attendant said after the passengers had deplaned.

Asked whether they had tips for us travelers as we head into the holiday season, the flight crew's eyes lit up.

"Stay home," a pilot quipped from the cockpit.

"Just check the damn bags," said a tired flight attendant, as she wrapped up a 10-hour work day.

Then this, from another pilot: "Did you say check the small children, too?"

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