London - Ever ready to outdo itself, Heathrow management has taken a page from Disney's book, pulled the plug on boring mega-waits and turned its "security features" into attractions.
Bernard E. Willsson, Assistant Associate Vice Vice-Chief For Consumerism, launched the program after having noticed that mile-long lines were forming with the NON-ticketed. "It was amazing!" said Willsson, fanning his arms to show me the tremendous queues snaking everywhere inside the airport and out. Circus tents crowded the front of the building, and barkers and calliopes drowned out departing jets.
"I started asking the odd [unrecognized pun] person here and there, and found, much to my surprise, that people were coming from all over the UK just to partake of our amusements. By my calculus, Heathrow was drawing a bigger crowd than the Palace, and I think to meself: Why not capitalize on it?" Willsson gave me the grand tour, pointing out the highlights.
"Here we were wagering on how much force we'd have to apply to get each person to submit to the pelvic and prostate exams - for their own good, mind you - and blimey if we didn't have to start selling tickets just for that particular attraction," said Willsson, as we passed by the cordoned off Know Your Body area.
Also contained in this section, once we elbowed our way through the street performers and clowns (physicians in full make-up), was the ScanYou attraction. Willsson: "You would have thought that scanning a person to nakedness was going to be a negative thing. But just look at the crowd! Cor!"
Indeed, it was merriment at its highest. A pitchman was guessing people's weight, net so to speak, and souvenir photos were for sale. Amidst the balloons and confetti one could just glimpse aspiring starlets jostling for the microphone to announce their availability for "parts."
The fingerprinting booth (lovingly titled, The Finger), festooned with hand-turkeys on colored paper, was a huge success. The biggest seller was a T-shirt with your own hand prints covering the breasts. "Honeymooners just LOVE that one," giggled Willsson.
Outside there was a mock auction of shoes, coats and jackets, and other clothes that were shed for the PatDownUK booth. An emcee was moving through the crowd, making corny jokes and joshing with the bidders. The idea, apparently, was to pay as much as possible for your own articles.
The booby prize was having to wear someone else's clothes. But Willsson explained: "It's all in good fun. Right! All the money goes to charity. The hospices are full of the destitute now. A worthy cause, what?"
There was no waiting for the iris scan, the EyeYou booth. According to Willsson people were "just too yellow." Apparently, the booth operators were a bit too aggressive with the Laser, waving it around randomly into the crowd, burning holes in passports, etc., to say nothing of the off-putting primate costumes with cataract-dark glasses.
But the Face Recognition Technology (called FaRT, an acronym, likely) was used to crowd-pleasing effect. The operator was able to morph the "target" (YOU, if you're in line) into various farm animals -the pig was especially popular.
The roving clowns emitted sounds to accompany the morphed picture, adding hilariously to the fun. The "target" would simply look bewildered, causing the crowd to erupt in laughter, the whole effect somewhat like being caught on Candid Camera. Wahoo!
But it was the killer app that had the longest line, the Puff Off booth. The newest technology, it is an open, box-like structure producing air puffs that when applied to parts of the clothing will cause minute amounts of chemicals to be cast off. It, of course, is designed to detect bomb-making materials. But that doesn't stop the fun!
People were contorting themselves in this booth in ways the body was never designed to withstand. Wandering minstrels taunted each subject musically to "get it right!" while the booth operator turned up the air puff to "blow hard" levels.
Explained Willsson, when I looked puzzled: "Think now. Isn't there a part of YOUR body you would like puffed on?"