Fun Experiences at Airport Security

For a while I've been thinking about writing something about interesting times I've had at various airport security checkpoints; security theater, as they have come to be known. There is the obvious shoe removal arguments and the ill-defined rules on electronics (my camera is larger and has more electronics than most laptops, but that can stay in the bag, laptops can't), but there have been more interesting stories. Got any of your own? Share them!

Around November 2001 a colleague of mine and I flew to New York on business. On the way back we went through Kennedy airport. I was wearing a pair of boots, which the TSA (was it even TSA then?) required me to remove, even though shoes were not normally removed at the time as airport security hadn't yet figured out that you could bomb a plane with them. The lady scanned them for explosives and then handed them back saying "these are OK." I was so relieved because I had explicitly asked for the non-exploding boots when I bought them.

Not TSA related, but still: the same year I was traveling through Boston with my competition shotgun. It was broken down into three pieces and stuffed into a very solid, and quite short, aluminum case. When I went to check in I told the check in agent that it needed special screening. She asked me to open it and then asked what it was. I responded that it was a shotgun. She took two steps back from the counter, threw her hands up in the air, and exclaimed "Is it unloaded?" I felt like answering "What? It has to be unloaded? But what if I want to use it during the flight?" Fortunately for me, I didn't.

Several years later I was flying from Seattle, this time with a rifle. Firearms require special screening so after checking in they called a sky cap to carry it for me over to the TSA because I am no longer allowed to touch it at that point at Seattle Tacoma International Airport. Note that at other airports I am perfectly well allowed to touch it as they usually make me hand carry it to the checkpoint. Once I got there the Transportation Security Officer (TSO) asked me for the keys and then struggled with the case for a while before opening it. I offered to help, but he refused as I were not allowed to touch it. He poked around the foam in the case for a while, but all the while refused to lift the rifle. I informed him that the foam is removable and he was welcome to do so as it would make it far less likely I would try to sneak a bomb on the plane. He ignored me. When he was done with that I asked if he was finished and he said "not quite," which turned out to be nearly the only two words this friendly gentleman said to me the entire time. He then turned around, grabbed the explosives swab – and proceeded to swab my rifle down for explosives! I tried asking him how he thought the bullets come out of it! Unfortunately, the airline agent that was with me was laughing so hard I couldn't make myself heard. We both stopped laughing when the TSO explained that he did not find any explosives. It turns out that the Explosives Trace Detection (ETD) units used for explosives swabbing can evidently only detect ammonia-based explosives. Lesson: I wonder when the TSA will realize the giant hole in failing to detect smokeless gun powder?

This year, again with a rifle, I asked why the TSO was so careful not to touch the rifle. Apparently, they are not trained in handling firearms and are afraid they will explode if they touch them. Silly me, I thought they were federal law enforcement officers. Now I realize they are not. They're mostly just people like you and me, except they save lives; and I work in real security.

Shoes again: apparently kid shoes are no threat. I travelled with my three-year old a few years ago. As we went through the check-point they made me remove my shoes for screening, but she could keep hers on. I'm not sure if they were too small to pose a threat (presumably if they were actually bombs there may not have been enough explosives in them to blow a hole in the plane?) or whether they just figured I would be willing to blow myself up but not to sacrifice her. I asked them what size shoes must be to pose a threat, but they refused to answer, citing national security concerns.

A year or so after September 11, I went through Minneapolis airport. Going through the security checkpoint I asked the TSO if he wanted me to put my clothes and underwear in a separate bin or whether I could put them in the same bin. He went beet red and disappeared. The replacement officer told me to take this very seriously and make sure I remove even the smallest piece of metal, like my neck chain, because the scanner was so sensitive this time. I went through without incident. When I got comfortably ensconced in seat 47 E I stuck my hand in my pocket and discovered the three-inch pocket knife I had forgotten to remove. I contemplated briefly calling the TSA and asking if the machine was actually plugged in but decided that would just cause them to empty the whole airport and then arrest me so I figured I'd better let sleeping dogs lie. Amazingly, even with this incredible breach of security, I got home safely.

There are probably more stories. What's your most outrageous one? I've heard of many, like the federal marshal who was permitted to fly with a loaded hand gun but had his nail clippers confiscated, and the TSO that held a leatherman knife and failed to recognize it. If you just want to read some others, read Jeffrey Goldberg's article in the Atlantic Monthly.

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