Airport “Security”: Reflections on Our Times

After all the fuss in the UK last week about terrorists toting Gatorade bottles, we faced our return flight to Italy with some trepidation. Not because we were afraid of being blown up, but because the “enhanced security measures” widely reported in the media promised hours in line waiting to be pawed over by TSA agents of questionable competence, for no increase in our actual safety.

I worried a great deal about how to pack. Not what to pack, because I didn’t have much choice about that – we had arrived in the US with two iPods, a laptop, and a digital still camera. Once there, we picked up my videocamera (which had been sent for repairs), and Ross got a new digital SLR for her birthday. Everything else might be expendable, but I was damned if I was going to pack a brand-new and expensive camera in checked luggage. And we had done a lot of other shopping, so our two large suitcases were already bulging (and tempting).

I checked the TSA and airline sites daily, and was relieved to see the former being frequently updated with new information. By a day or two before departure, it was clear that, as far as TSA was concerned, I needn’t worry about carrying on the electronics. But I still stressed about it, wondering if overzealous airline staff might give me a hard time – US Airways’ site had not been updated after the first day of fear, so I had no way of knowing if their policies had changed.

I was relieved to find that the new suitcase locks I had bought were TSA-friendly (meaning that security agents have keys to open them). Normally I prefer to use non-TSA locks and accompany the bags myself through the initial scan, but, under the circumstances, I didn’t want to give anybody any excuses to get paranoid about my luggage.

We flew from Baltimore BWI to Philadelphia to Milan last Thursday. On the advice of US Airways, we arrived at BWI three hours ahead of flight time – which turned out to be totally unnecessary. Check-in was smooth, once I had figured out that I was supposed to do it myself on a touch screen terminal – I guess this is increasingly common in the US, but it’s still fairly new to me. Then it took the agent a while to figure out how to ring up our $100 charge for overweight luggage. In light of everyone emptying their usually heavy carry-ons (on advice of TSA and the media), it would have been a nice gesture on the part of the airline to add a little to the checked baggage weight allowance (though my own suitcases were heavy for other reasons).

We dutifully drank our bottles of orange juice before heading into security. First stop was an air-puff bomb sniffing machine, then the usual “everything off/out” x-ray and metal dectector. The line was minimal, the TSA staff efficient and seemingly competent. We ended up with way too much time to hang around in the terminal (and then the flight was late).

My large new backpack contained my laptop, videocamera, still camera, books, non-liquid toiletries, and iPod. In addition, I was carrying a nearly-empty purse, for easy access to my wallet, tickets, passports, etc. Weirdly, it was the purse they decided to swab for bomb-making chemicals. The TSA agent apologized for the delay and said it was “something about the way things were laying in it.” Possibly the metal coil on a small spiral-bound notebook had looked strange on the x-ray.

At the gate there were recorded announcements that you couldn’t take liquids etc. on the plane, but no one was actually looking at bags, so I could easily have gotten away with buying something in the terminal and carrying it on.

We had a three-hour layover in Philadelphia – plenty of time for a security check which we didn’t actually go through. Depending on what terminal you switch to in any given airport, you may or may not have to go through security again when transiting between flights. We had gone through security in Philadelphia on the way in, but didn’t on the way out.

At the gates, again there was a recorded announcement about liquids, but no actual check. I noticed that duty-free bags were being handed over at the plane door. Though I did not look closely at what was in them, some of it may have been cream-type cosmetics. I guess this is okay if you receive it at the door and it’s in a sealed package, though I wouldn’t absolutely rely on this, and would not myself risk buying expensive cosmetics in the duty-free just now.

I usually like a strong finish on my articles, but perhaps it’s best that I refrain from any flippant remarks about how easily anyone with half a brain could circumvent all this “security.” In America these days, you never know who’s reading your mail…

One thought on “Airport “Security”: Reflections on Our Times

  1. Dan

    We had a remarkably similar experience. We flew from Milan Malpensa on August 12th and Malpensa was a zoo. It took an hour and a half just to check in (Continental), I think mainly due to a lack of staff at the check-in counter. Then another 50 minutes to clear security as part of a massive crowd that wound all the way back to the stairs from the upper level. Like us, some people had seen the reports on TV and showed up with a clear plastic bag as their carry-on, containing only passport, wallet and a book. Others showed up with full carry-on gear, but no liquids or gels. There didn’t seem to be any consistent set of rules about what you could carry on, apart from the ban on liquids/gels (by the way the SEA Web site for Malpensa had absolutely nothing to say about the new security restrictions). Despite arriving at Malpensa 3 hours in advance only 2 of our 4 pieces of luggage made it with us to Newark. And those two didn’t make it onto our connecting flight. When we reached our destination I promptly filed a report with Continental on our missing baggage. The two bags that made it with us to Newark arrived the following day, but the two pieces that had remained behind in Milano weren’t sent until August 14th and arrived on the 15th! I think that the new restrictions on carry-on luggage caught the airlines unprepared, and maybe they don’t actually have enough storage space in the hold if everyone checks everything.

    Newark was at least as chaotic as Malpensa, especially the second pass through security on the way to our connecting flight. I noticed that while most Europeans seemed aware of the liquids/gels ban, most of the Americans were not and there were howls of protest about hand cream, lip balm etc. that were confiscated. Everyone had to take of their shoes. It was very slow because the same guy that was monitoring the X-ray scanner was also searching carry-on bags. Despite a layover of 2 hours 10 minutes and clearing passport control remarkably quickly in Newark, we almost didn’t make our connecting flight.

    In contrast, our return flights from the US on August 19th were remarkably smooth. We arrived 3 hours in advance, again, but it wasn’t necessary at all. No need to pass through security again before getting our connecting flight back to Italia. No problem having cell phones in carry-on luggage.

    What does it all mean? (1) As usual in Italia, there are no consistent rules, i.e. one set of rules that applies to everybody. (2) The security restrictions seem to primarily reflect a concern with flights to the US, not nearly so much going the other way. (3) Flying in general and particularly to the US, which has become a progressively more miserable experience over the past 5 years, will soon become unbearable. I predict a total ban on carry-on luggage in the mear future.

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