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September 2005 Vol. 20, No. 9   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Security Screeners and Divers

we get no respect

from the September, 2005 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

When Undercurrent polled subscribers about recent travel problems, the flood of complaints about baggage screening, both here and abroad, stunned us. To many travel screeners, an empty pony bottle might look like a grenade and a camera strobe resembles an explosive device. In this issue we'll recap some problems and pass along tips from savvy travelers that might help you avoid the packing hassles on your next dive trip.

TSA Makes Packing Difficult

A recent article in Cond Nast Traveler states that problems with missing, damaged and pilfered bags have grown markedly since 2002, when the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) assumed responsibility for baggage screening at U.S. airports. Dive gear seems to attract special attention from screeners, and they don't treat it well.

Sharon Weber (Salem, OR) and her boyfriend carefully rolled their dry suits and packed them in hard tubs to protect the fragile zippers for a trip to Alaska. The TSA screener unpacked each tub, unrolled the dry suit and tried "to fold it back like a T-shirt," says Weber. When they protested, the screener told them to be quiet and not to approach too closely. However, after additional protests, a supervisor finally let them roll the suits themselves.

Mike Oelrich (Fairfax, VA) says, "After a return from the Bahamas, I found that my BCD hose had been disconnected (to find the Cuban cigar I had stashed?)." If TSA fiddles with life-support equipment, "it brings new urgency to the predive checklist," Oelrich says.

Dive lights often trigger baggage inspections because batteries are considered hazardous materials. At the Maui airport, a TSA agent broke Melissa Paschal's expensive dive light trying to remove the batteries, and TSA would not pay to repair it. Says Paschal (Reno, NV), "I tried to show the guy how to open it, and he curtly informed me that I was not allowed to touch any of my stuff on the table."

But confusion reigns. Janet Czapski, owner of Dive Travel Services in Farmington Hills, MI, tells Undercurrent that a hand screener in Grand Cayman "first told me that a new rule did not allow any batteries in checked baggage," then relented. Walt Brenner (Wayne, PA), says, "One inspector told me it is best to have batteries in lights so they can be checked. However, another inspector on this trip told me that all lights must be empty."

"One inspector told me to have batteries
in lights so they can be checked. Another
told me that all lights must be empty."

When it comes to American carriers, TSA defers to the FAA for battery policy. The FAA website (http://asi. faa.gov/Docs/HAZMATByPassenger.pdf) says: "Electrically powered (battery- operated) equipment such as underwater diving lamps" are permitted on aircraft "when the heat producing component or energy source (battery) is removed. However, an FAA spokesperson told Undercurrent that individual airlines have the right to refuse specific items.

Our advice: remove your batteries before traveling.

More Light Problems

Subscriber Fred Drury (Wheaton IL) carried aboard two lights with rechargeable batteries and outfitted with switches that prevent them from inadvertently being switched on. During his Hong Kong security check, he was told that Hong Kong's rules prohibited carrying such devices and they would be confiscated unless the captain of his United Air Lines flight permitted them. At the gate, the United supervisor was unaware of the regulation, and Drury carried them on.

On a trip to St. Lucia, Jim Reilly (Wyndmoor PA) had his dive lights in his backpack. A TSA staffer at the Philadelphia airport unscrewed the housing to look at the batteries and verify it was a light. Reilly asked them to screw the housing back down, which started the strobe. "You would have thought I pulled a gun and fired a shot," says Reilly. Up ran a TSA officer in a civilian suit who confiscated the strobe. Reilly told the agent that strobes were not on the TSA list of prohibited items (www.tsa.gov/public/interapp/editorial/editorial_1012.xml). Still, the officer told Reilly that had he turned the strobe on during a flight, he "would have had a U.S. marshall sticking a gun in his face."

The officer told Reilly to give up the strobe or put it in his luggage, then directed him to the front of the check-in line, where US Airways would give him a box to check the strobe as luggage. Nevertheless, there was no box and his own bags had already been checked, so the airline agent agreed to pack the strobe in his buddy's bag, though it had already been X-rayed. The strobe "was in the bag when we got to St Lucia, along with a note that TSA had hand-checked the luggage," says Reilly, adding, "So much for security."

Get Smart

Ingenuity and flexibility may salvage a bad situation. One subscriber told us she carried her regulator on board a TACA flight to Roatan, Honduras; however, she inadvertently put her diving tool packet in her carry-on. Security caught the tools and told her to either surrender them or go back to TACA and check them. When TACA told her that they could not retrieve her baggage, she bought a small suitcase at the airport, put in the tools and checked it as luggage. It arrived three days after she did.

William Schlegel (Jefferson City, MO) advises: "Tell the TSA people what you have in your bag and tell the airline ticket agent. Especially important for those who have rebreathers and pony bottles and lots of batteries/computers/strobes and other stuff that may look dangerous."

What scuba gear is allowed? TSA guidelines for flights on U.S. carriers say: "Regulators, buoyancy compensators and mask, snorkel and fins are acceptable as checked or carry-on baggage . . . A compressed gas cylinder is allowed in carry-on or checked baggage only if it has an opening to allow for a visual inspection inside. . . . If the valve is still attached, the cylinder is prohibited . . . Knives and tools are prohibited from carryon luggage. Any sharp objects in checked luggage should be sheathed or securely wrapped to prevent injury to screeners."

Special Problems for Photo Gear

Photo and video rigs are typically packed in foam-filled cases, customized to fit each camera, strobe, lens and attachment. Yet many screeners don't seem to notice or even care. One of our subscribers said that transferring from Air Pacific to American Airlines in Los Angeles, he rechecked his bags to catch an earlier flight. At luggage X-ray, TSA agents set aside his camera case for inspection but "instead of just swiping each component in place, they removed them all." He asked them to repack the case to refit the components in their allotted spaces, but they denied the request. So he asked TSA to return the case and the unpacked components so he could repack it and carry it on board for the final leg of a 23-hour trip. All this with an arm injury, which is what caused him to check the camera case in the first place.

Don Stark of ScubaVision Productions, in Boston thinks his Pelican hard case, which is too large and heavy to carry aboard, looks suspicious when it goes through X-ray: it's a "big aluminum container with wires and some very dense-appearing objects, the batteries." Returning from a recent trip, Stark found the case upside down on the baggage conveyor. He picked it up, "only to have the lid open and the entire contents of the case dump out." Stark also reports that another videographer friend "had his housing arrive at his destination disassembled by TSA agents who obviously didn't know what they were looking at."

When Jeff Krause (Elyria, OH) arrived in Roatan, Continental Airlines called to tell him that TSA had confiscated his strobes. He checked and "the lights were indeed missing, and the remaining contents (camera housing, video housing, video monitor, etc.) were poorly repacked." The dome ports on the video and camera housings were both scratched as well.

When he said that strobes were not on the prohibited list on the TSA website, Krause says, "the agent became rather snotty," stating, "not everything can be on the list." Even when confronted with the $2,000 value of the strobes, TSA showed no empathy, claiming that the hardware would be destroyed because it was "suspicious material." Eventually Continental managed to retrieve the strobes, which the grateful Krause says was "beyond the call of duty for customer satisfaction."

And what about film? The TSA advises: "Put all undeveloped film and cameras with film in your carryon baggage. Checked baggage screening equipment will damage undeveloped film." But even then they're subject to inspection.

On a trip to Micronesia, Charles Menbeck (Chicago, IL) carried 30 rolls of film that he had to pull out for a roll-by-roll hand check at each airport. "No problem if you have one or two flights," he points out, "but how about 14." One more reason for going digital.

According to Joe Danzl (Chicago IL), "Cozumel does not have mechanical means (X-ray, bomb sniffer) to check luggage, so everything is hand searched at check-in." He says it goes fast if you arrive at the airport early and follow the TSA guidelines. Danzl says if the lines get long and it's close to take off time, the checkers allow passengers to go through without searching any checked luggage. Passengers still have to pass through a metal detector and carry-on luggage is X-rayed.

When leaving Bonaire, Roger Brooks (Olympia, WA) found airport personnel looking into his toiletry kit for the word "flammable." Brooks said, "Anything with that word on it got confiscated, including hair spray, styling mousse, and deodorant. I travel 25 days a month, and this is the only place in the world where I've seen that."

Undercurrent asked Darrin Kayser of the Department of Homeland Security's public affairs office if they were making any efforts to standardize screening policies internationally. All he could say was: "We continue to work with foreign entities to ensure they meet basic security requirements." In other words, don't bank on it.

But that leaves another problem. In some countries, a couple of bucks will move things along faster. It's not our advice that you offer it, but you might be asked. Kris Manion (Littleton CO) was departing Belize when the screener hit their traveling companions and others up for a $5 tip. Some people forked over, although her friends did not. Our suggestion? Smile, gather your bags and keep your money in your pocket.

Next month: Airport Thieves

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