I travel a lot. Like, a lot a lot.
I see people everywhere getting mad at everything, from having to take off their shoes, to boarding in the wrong zone, arriving too early, arriving too late, everything. And I get it. Going to an airport totally sucks. If I could avoid having to enter one of those things ever again, I probably would. But it’s rare that anyone actually *understands* the process involved in airports.
I’m just going to break down the process of airports to you so that you can understand who to *actually* be mad at when shit hits the fan. It’s too often that I hear people boarding a plane out of breath saying “I almost didn’t make it! JetBlue’s security attendants took FOREVER.” That’s not true. Yes, be upset that CATSA (in Canada) and the TSA (in the US) had a long lineup, sure. Here, I’ll break down the four main organizations in charge of your shitty time at the airport, to hopefully help you understand just what is happening, and why. It’s going to be largely from a Canadian perspective, but applies pretty nicely to the US.
1. The Airport Authority.
The airport that you’re flying out of isn’t just a building that the airline you’re flying with owns. This is essential to note. Think of the airport more like a mall. They’re renting space out to airlines, and they’re in charge of maintaining the facilities. Not enough seats in your boarding lounge? That’s the airport. Dining options suck? That’s the airport. The layout of the customs hall is labyrinthine? Airport. Gate numbering? Airport. Placement of departure/arrival screens? Airport. Perhaps you get the point?
People often walk into an airport knowing “I’m flying Air Canada, and to do that, I have to go to this building where Air Canada is, which means this is Air Canada’s building.” But it’s really really not. Airlines have to bid for gate and counter rentals in airports (especially busier ones), and it can cost a huge amount of money. Note that this also factors in to how expensive your ticket is, as airlines have to pay to rent that space. A gate is the place that you go to after security to board your aircraft.
When you go to the mall, you go to the Apple store. On the way in, you use doors and floors and maybe the washroom. Perhaps you need to take a break in a little seating area, but you can’t find one. There’s not enough seating! Does it actually make any sense to then take to twitter and yell “DAMN YOU APPLE STORE FOR NOT HAVING ENOUGH SEATING IN THIS MALL YOU DON’T OWN!!”? No. Airlines are stuck with what the airport gives them, and since gate bids are often competitive, airports don’t really need to do a ridiculous amount to their facilities in order to make money off of those gates. So yeah, if there’s a problem with a washroom, lack of seating, lack of dining options, or anything really effecting your time in the airport, complain to the airport.
The TSA, or CATSA (Canadian Air Transport Security Authority) here in Canada. We’re not here to discuss the effectiveness or need for the TSA/CATSA. That’s another conversation for another person to have. What we’re here to talk about is what *they* do, and who *they* are not.
CATSA is just like an airline in that they are using space in an airport that they do not own. They need to be there by air regulations, but they are also not the Airport Authority. They are there to make sure that all laws and regulations of operating an airport are adhered to. They’re kind of like the police, I suppose. Again, the police do not own the streets, but they have to enforce laws on them.
CATSA searches your bags, scans your boarding pass, and does a personality assessment by having an interaction with you. They’re useful to airline and airport employees because they’re often someone’s first point of contact at the airport. Intoxicated folks cause a LOT of problems in airports and on airplanes, and security can catch those people and tell them to go sleep it off before they become a problem at 40,000 ft. It can be hard to go through security knowing that you’re under scrutiny, but remember that if you know you are not going to disturb shit, just get through it and you’ll come out the other side – back into the loving arms of the Airport Authority.
They also use a randomizer to select folks for additional screening, to avoid profiling people. I’m not saying they don’t ever do it (because they have), but that mat you step on that makes green or red or double green or double red or whatever arrows appear dictates which line you’re going to.
When your knitting needles get taken away by security (CATSA), your knitting needles were taken by neither the Airport nor the Airline. I hear countless folks saying this kind of thing – “JetBlue took away my lighter.” No, they didn’t. Security did. A totally different organization, renting space from a totally different organization took away your lighter. Directing complaints to the right place is *super* important. If you have a complaint that the TSA/CATSA mistreated you, you *need* to bring that forward to the right organization. Writing a full on complaint to an airline about your mistreatment by the TSA/CATSA is not going to change a single thing.
3. The Airline
Here’s the last part of our little jaunt through an airport. Your airline. They are the ones that own (or lease) the airplane you’re about to fly on, hurray! They also employ people in the airport, but these people do not work *for* the airport. They work for your airline. They are the Apple Store employees, so to speak. They work at the airport, but not for the airport. They’re the ones working the check in counters, helping you at the kiosks, moving your bags around behind the scenes (sometimes this is centrally handled by the airport, though, and specific airports have it written that when landing there, an airline MUST utilize its airport’s employees for things like baggage handling and other ramp activities). So I guess that would be like a mall telling the Apple store that they are never to empty their own garbage, and that mall employees MUST come around and do it for them.
Your Airline can totally help you with things like connections and carry on baggage and things like that. They’ll also be the ones to help you in the case of a delay (or not, as my experience with Air Canada and United goes – ohhhhh!). Your airline is in charge of following the rules too. They have to check ID during boarding up here in Canada, and have to obey all kinds of little rules put forward by Transport Canada (more on this in a moment). Your airline is the one that is late or early or cancelled. Your airline is in charge of keeping you up to date on all of these things, though the Airport Authority runs those arrival/departures boards, which are sometimes not super up to date. If in doubt, ask a question. If you’re asking a reasonable question about an airline-specific thing, you should be answered in a reasonable timeframe. If not, complain away about your airline!
All of this also goes for compliments, obviously.
4. Transport Canada/FAA
I specifically know more about TC, so I’ll speak more about my experience with that. TC is the regulatory board in charge of pretty much everything that goes on when you go to an airport. They regulate various parts of airports, they regulate CATSA, they regulate the airlines. They cover it all. Wanna know why you can’t turn on your cell phone on an airplane at certain times? TC does extensive reviews of interference for safety, to make sure that your cell signal actually will or won’t disrupt the safe operation of the flight. If your airline still makes you turn off your device, trust me when I say they’re probably trying to challenge that rule with TC. TC needs to specifically test the specific planes that the airlines uses in the configuration that they use them to see if the interference exists. This taskes months, and sometimes years. And it’s all paperwork. But until that rule has changed, they must be obeyed by everyone that they effect. The rules that they have are literally written in blood from air accidents and disasters of the past. When things went wrong, there were investigations into the incidents, and Transport Canada came forward with rules that would help to preserve life in the case of an accident or incident.
Everyone under TC’s umbrella has to comply with the regulations that they put forward. If they don’t, airlines can lose their operating licenses. That’s right, that flight attendant is asking you to turn off your phone again so that literally thousands and thousands of other people can continue to fly. If there is a TC inspector on board (and there are more than you’d think) and they watch a flight attendant let someone break a regulation, that *airline* can be fined by Transport Canada, and the fees are not small. And guess who pays for that, ultimately? You! So just turn off your phone for like 10 minutes, you’ll be ok. If airlines break enough rules, they can lose their operating licenses, as I mentioned. That means flights cancelled, and people who are WAY more inconvenienced than the person not shutting off their phone.
So that covers it, very generally. Understand that there are processes, take a step back to think about them, and know that air travel just sucks (while it is simultaneously awesome and super super convenient).
Hope you’ve come away with something here!