What it’s like to transit at LAX with Air New Zealand’s NZ2 from Auckland to London

The Air New Zealand service NZ2 (the first leg of which I reviewed last week) is a rare flight at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), with the airport serving as a transit point for the plane: with the plane continuing on to London. But not before you have to deal with the airport’s infamous security measures. While the airport has improved its entry procedures for those arriving from Australia and New Zealand in recent years, its transit procedure for NZ2 seems to have gotten even more complicated. It’s all a bit of a nightmare, to be frank. Here were my recent experiences doing just this… I’m not even sure where to begin! 

You have just over two hours at LAX before continuing on to London, rejoining the same aircraft.  The process at LAX used to be very simple. Passengers were herded into a waiting room, then called forward by flight class to go through the biometrics and questioning by Homeland Security before having your fingerprints taken and your passport stamped.  You got a ticket to hand to the staff member at the door and then were free to enter the airside terminal until your flight.  All this has been changed and it is probably the most confusing, prolonged, and draining part of the whole journey.  Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely understand and appreciate the security processes required.  I have no issue with TSA/Homeland Security staff doing their job.  I do, however, have an issue with a two hour security screening process for passengers IN TRANSIT, particularly when you have a two hour and five minute transit period.

Coming off the flight you are ushered into a queue and handed a Transit Card.  Do not lose this.  If you lose this do not bother passing Go.  You may well spend the rest of your natural life roaming the corridors of LAX.  With the sacred Transit Card in hand you are sent on a long walk to US Immigration.  There is no separation from departing passengers so you all move in a confused cluster towards a very imposing processing area.  When called, and only when you are called, you step to a kiosk where you are required to scan your passport and answer a series of questions onscreen.  You also have your fingerprints scanned.  I like to think I’m pretty computer savvy, and certainly very good with processes, but there’s something so inherently intimidating about LAX that my brain turns to custard.

I had to call an attendant over to help me complete the process.  It was very telling when I got my authorisation document printed out and my photo, taken at the time of said processing, looked like I’d seen a ghost.  When processing at the kiosk is complete, you are ushered another million miles to join the queue to talk to an actual Homeland Security officer.  All documents are handed over, the same questions you’ve just answered are asked, and, all going well, your passport is stamped.  Once you have your documents in hand you think you’re getting close to the end and it should just be screening time.  Nope.

Off along another corridor that puts Willy Wonka’s myriad of corridors to shame and you find yourself at a desk manned by an Air New Zealand staff member.  Here you hand over your passport, boarding pass, and your printed-out haunted portrait.  It was reassuring to hear others talking about their photos here, and how they were all startled to see how alarmed they looked.  Not just me, then.  The attendant marks your portrait and keeps it, stamps your boarding pass with “Transit”, and checks your name off the manifest.  She then very politely repeats the exact same instructions she’s issued to every single other equally-baffled passenger about where to go next.  She tells you that the “transit” stamp on the boarding pass gives you priority at the screening.  Awesome!

It’s also important to mention that you don’t need to pick up your bags at LAX, so at least that’s one step you get to miss. Anyone else connecting to another flight – even when ticketed through with a partner airline – will have to collect their bags.

Up the corridor, then right, then left, then up the stairs and you find yourself in the nightmare of LAX general security screening. Sure, you get sent into the priority queue, but it seems pretty redundant when the priority queue merges at the end with all the other lines!  It’s just like cutting up the shoulder on the freeway in a traffic jam only to end up sitting there with your blinker on because nobody (rightly) wants to let you in.  I stood in this queue watching the boarding time of NZ2 grow ever closer.  I think if you knew it was standard security it wouldn’t feel so stressful but you just know it’s going to be a clusterfuck.

If you are lucky enough to reach security before your flight departs this is how it goes from here – hand, again, your passport and boarding pass to a TSA agent.  Wait whilst they stare at you and discover, thanks to all that has just occurred, you are now a true match to your godawful passport photo.  Take possession of your documents and join the queue for screening.  Here you are ‘urged’ to remove your belt, jacket, scarves, loose change, loose items, and shoes.  You are to place all items on the conveyor belt but not to let anything be haphazardly placed or you need to return to step one and start again.  I removed all the things, put them in the trays, and slowly moved all my things down the conveyor belt towards the machine.

Everyone in front of me had left their things to join the body screening so I just pushed mine along and theirs moved too.  When I got very close to the machine I stepped away to join the queue.  A Very-Scary-Woman came to me and informed me that “under no circumstances do you LEAVE YOUR STUFF. GO TO YOUR STUFF”.  I, for a fleeting moment, thought of explaining to her that I had pushed everyone’s stuff all the way to the front and now the crown had moved to the people behind me, but I really didn’t fancy a cavity search.

I returned to my ‘stuff’ and pushed it so far into the machine that I think it became constipated.  When feeling brave enough, I re-joined the queue for the body scanning.  I really, really, really hate the full body scanners.  I don’t hate them because they scan me, I just hate them because you stand in the middle of a rotating cabinet, with your arms above your head, and god help you if you don’t move yourself off those painted on footprints fast enough.  The door had just opened and I was turning to exit when a different Very-Scary-Woman barked at me to “STEP OUT”.  Ugh. A third Very-Scary-Woman pulled me aside and informed me she was “going to touch” me.  I thought she should buy me a drink first, frankly.  Anyway, I got the pat down and it was determined that I was not actually a dangerous entity and was allowed to get my things.  After gathering all my possessions and trying to put my shoes on whilst being sent on my way I looked up to see that my flight was boarding in five minutes.  That whole process took two hours, and I’d already been screened by two different governments.  I still don’t know how the good folk in economy who had to wait further back in the queue even made the flight.

One thing I need to mention – I always feel that the employees at LAX genuinely appreciate you saying thank you to them when they are assisting you.  It makes it a little easier to endure.

Stay tuned as Jennifer reviews the final leg of her NZ2 journey.

The author flied NZ2 on her own expense in June 2016.

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