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The Amazing Race 1, Episode 2 (19 September 2001; rebroadcast 22 September 2001)

Songwe Village (Zambia) - Mosi O Tunya Game Reserve (Zambia) - Mukuni Village (Zambia) - Johannesburg (South Africa) - Paris (France)

Getting back in the race

“The Amazing Race” around the world on CBS-TV has resumed. This week’s episode takes the contestants from Zambia to Paris by way of yet more taxi fu (Leslie and Kim get ahead by cutting in line and kicking Amie amd Paul out of their cab, but bad karma catches up with them later when they learn that arguing over the fare takes longer than paying what’s asked) and a few too many gimmicks for my taste, but also some serious lessons in finding your way.

Lesson 1: Ask local people. Lesson 2: Listen patiently to their answers. Lesson 3: Get a map, and use it. Kudos to David for speaking slowly and simply, and waiting for an answer without suggesting one (and thus only hearing what people think he wants to hear).

Bill and Joe, who lived in Paris for two years, wisely (I think) decide that they are likely to be able to go faster than Brennan and Rob, who’ve never been out of the USA before. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t travel abroad if you haven’t done so before. There’s a first time for everything; most US citizens don’t have a passport and have never been out of the country; and your trip won’t (I hope) be a race. But novice travellers should expect things to take longer than they do for more experienced travellers, such as the people who write guidebooks, and should plan accordingly.

For many of you, however, I suspect that there are doubts about whether you want to follow in the footsteps of the racers, at least just now. Some of you may wonder why I’m still talking about travel at all this week. Let me explain while I’m still along for the ride with “The Amazing Race”, and still eager to travel around the world (again) myself.

Should we still travel around the world, after what happened last week?

Absolutely. Now more than ever.

Last week’s sad events, carry, I think, a clear message that isolationism is impossible in an interconnected and interdependent world. Now more than ever, we need international awareness and understanding; we need to recognize our common humanity — and the suffering that unites us — with people everywhere of all races and cultures; and we need to understand the ways in which, for better or worse, our decisions affect others (and vice versa) around the world.

What greater victory could we hand the terrorists than to allow them to deprive us of our humanity, and to drive us to emulate them in isolating ourselves from world opinion?

But is it safe to travel? And to travel overseas?

Absolutely. Now more than ever.

Last week’s attacks in New York and Virginia have, I presume, disabused us of any notion that staying home can keep us out of harm’s way. Bad things can happen anywhere. And travel abroad is no more risky than travel in the USA — in fact, statistically speaking, it’s often safer. Not that this means people from other countries should stay away from the USA! We have our share of crazies, as does every country, but you’ll find that the USA is still a wonderful place to visit, and on the whole most Americans remain (knock wood) very welcoming to foreigners.

Most of the risks of travel, as I’m constantly reminding other travellers (and reminding myself) are the commonplace risks of our everyday lives at home: car accidents, slips and falls, etc. Most of travel safety at home or abroad is simple common sense, like not forgetting to watch where we’re putting our feet when we’re distracted by looking at the sights and scenery.

Is it safe to fly?

Absolutely. Now more than ever.

Per mile, air travel is a hundred to a thousand times safer than any alternative means of transportation. That safety will only be improved in the wake of last week’s events. Your time in the air is unquestionably the safest part of your trip.

One of the saddest consequences of last week’s hijackings will be if they scare large numbers of people into driving rather than flying. The inevitable result would be an increase in the tens of thousands of people killed on the roads in the USA each year.

Fear of flying is real. It’s common. And it’s understandable. But — as I discuss in more detail in “The Practical Nomad: How to Travel Around the World” — fear is a very different issue from safety. If you’re afraid, deal with your fear, even if that isn’t easy. But don’t assume that airplanes are dangerous just because they are, for you, scary.

What about airport and airline security?

While airport and airline security in the USA has lagged behind the rest of the world, major — but relatively straightforward — changes have already been made toward bringing it into conformity with international norms.

The difference between the USA and most other countries has been that in the USA only selected airline passengers and bags have been subjected to the sort of search that all passengers and bags receive in most countries.

Whether to implement universal or selective passenger and baggage inspection in the USA was a major issue for the Presidential “Commission on Aviation Safety and Security” chaired by Vice President Gore in 1996-1997.

Many experts recommended to the commission, and the commission itself included in some of its draft reports, universal security measures such as more careful inspection all checked and carry-on baggage, and positive matching of all checked baggage with passengers (so that, as is the case in most of the world, flights are not allowed to depart if baggage has been checked in by a passenger who has not actually boarded the plane).

But the airline industry strenuously lobbied against any measures that might inconvenience the majority of passengers. The final report of the Gore Commission, and measures adopted in its wake, emphasized profiling and selective scrutiny rather than universal inspections.

Starting in 1998, all airlines in the USA have been required to pass passenger data from their reservation systems through a government-run Computer Assisted Passenger Screening (CAPS) system each time a passenger checks in. If your reservation fit the CAPS profile, you and your luggage are set aside for “secondary security screening” comparable to normal international screening. The airlines retain the reservation data (and can, and in all probability routinely do, make it available to the government without requiring a warrant and without notifying travellers that the government is reviewing their travel histories), whether or not you fit the profile, creating a massive — and little known — set of dossiers on individual travellers. Those who don’t fit the profile, and their luggage, have otherwise been largely ignored.

This week’s events clearly demonstrate that this profiling doesn’t work. Advocates of security and civil liberties share an interest in abolition of the CAPS profiling system (and, I hope, destruction of the files collected on innocent American travellers) and its replacement with universal passenger and baggage inspection and bag matching. That would be fairer, safer, and less vulnerable to abuse.

Universally more rigorous inspections will slow check-in. The main result will be to make trains more competitive in door-to-door time over longer distances. Improved rail service, particularly on corridor routes such as between Boston and Washington and between Northern and Southern California — where trains are more ecologically and economically appropriate anyway — could significantly relieve congestion at many airports.

But all this is relevant only to flights within the USA. Flights in the rest of the world, and foreign airlines flying to and from the USA, have long been much more secure than USA airlines’ domestic flights.

Finally, it’s important to remember that our safety and security depend most of all on understanding between people around the world, and on mutual recognition of our common humanity across borders and cultures — understanding that is the result, above all else, of the direct personal contact, experience, and learning that result from international travel.

What’s next for Leslie and Kim, eliminated from “The Amazing Race” this week? “We want to do it [the trip around the world] on our own…. We’d do it again in a heartbeat.” Excellent advice for us all!

See you next week, still traveling around the world — whether with “The Amazing Race” or on your own.

P.S. My sympathy to all who have suffered losses this week. And my special thanks to two groups of people — among the many, many unnoticed acts of human kindness — who made special efforts to help travellers:

  • The staff of Amtrak, who kept trains running and even added capacity when all other intercity public transportation shut down in some parts of the country. Urge Congress to recognize the value of railroads as the most dependable part of our transportation infrastructure by including funding for Amtrak in any airline bailout.
  • The people of Canada, and especially the Newfoundlanders, for their typical graciousness in accommodating without complaint tens of thousands of passengers on diverted flights from and to the USA. In some towns like Gander, Newfoundland, the primary diversion airport for trans-Atlantic flights, stranded passengers almost outnumbered local residents, and some of them weren’t able to leave for almost a week. Thanks for the hospitality, eh?

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