Fortress America: Heightened Security for Flights to the USA

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John BantinIn the first three months of this year I have travelled from the UK to the farthest reaches of Indonesia via Singapore and Manado, to Cebu via Hongkong, to Marsa Alam in southern Egypt, to Malta and to Spain, so I guess you could say I was well travelled even if you didn’t include the countless trips I have made in a twenty year career as a travel writer.

Nobody in their right mind wants to be blown up during a flight especially happily-married old-age pensioners with paid-up mortgages like me but we are all aware that there are very gullible people that are preyed upon by evil men, so we all happily subscribe to airport security measures as and when they are developed.

We now have to take off our shoes at airports thanks to the half-witted Richard Reid who attempted to set fire to his plimsolls on a flight to America. He had obviously failed to eat sufficient burgers and beans to make his farts potent enough to cause an explosion and carried on into history as the man he had always been, a dismal failure.

Last year, a young Nigerian, one Umar Mutallab, feeling disillusioned and emasculated presumably because he had failed to get anyone to respond to his e-mailed entreaties to send him the contents of their bank accounts in return for a share of the money a dead relative had embezzled, decided to try to emasculate himself by setting fire to his shorts. This was during another flight to the USA. We now have to endure the close examination of the inside of our trouser waistbands by security people who themselves would have problems if were they to introduce racial profiling.

None of us would mind any of this if it were effective but alas the quality and training of the people in whom we are expected to put our trust leaves something to be desired. In April I travelled to Fortress America from London Heathrow for the first time since the Nigerian ingrate had been apprehended, balls on fire. Enhanced security measures are now in place.

This entails a hand-search of everyone’s carry-on at the gate plus the aforementioned intrusive body search. Additionally, one or two passengers are selected to have their hold-baggage brought up to the departure gate and hand searched in front of them. Obviously wishing to avoid any allegation of racial prejudice, the security personnel select a number of passengers at random and this inevitably includes passengers who are elderly or infirm.  A cynic might think that they avoid the bags of solitary young men because they wouldn’t want any nasty surprises.

Naturally, a 63-year-old male travelling with his 34-year-old-son seemed a safe bet but not the younger man. Obviously that might be far too risky! It was I that was asked to wait while they found my bag and brought it up to the departure gate from the aircraft. They asked me to open it and were rather surprised when I told them I could not. The bag was sealed shut with a plastic cable-tie and I suggested that as a checked-in passenger I had no knife, no scissors and not even toe-nail clippers to cut the tie. This resulted in an impasse.

None of the security staff carried any tool suitable either and gawped at each other hopelessly. Nothing seemed to be happening so I helpfully suggested they might call for the services of an engineer from Virgin Atlantic but that seemed to be something they were patently unwilling or unable to do. This scenario had obviously not come up during their extensive training in security procedures.

Eventually one of the security people was found to be carrying a sewing kit and by dexterous use of a needle we got the cable-tie undone and they were able to examine the contents of my bag item by item.

Out came the wetsuit. Out came two towels. Regulators with hoses were examined with knowledgeable expressions but none that fooled me. My BC was withdrawn and inexplicably held up to the light. They examined my extending emergency flag. My fins were found to contain very ominous looking masks. They examined my hexagonal wrenches, my spanners and my diving knife until they finally found something really suspicious. Inside a wetsuit boot they found a torch concealed. Why was it concealed? Well, it was formerly concealed with everything else in the bag, wasn’t it?

Bear in mind that while all this is going on there is a 747-400, fully loaded with passengers, at the end of the jetway waiting to depart.

Finally, the gathered group of a dozen or thereabouts security personnel decided they had done enough to warrant their day’s pay and attempted to repack the bag but of course none of them had done a PADI dive-bag-packing specialty. After some time, they asked me to do it instead.

I then enquired how they intended to re-seal the bag since there was now no cable-tie. They didn’t have any. It’s not part of their training. I used to carry spare cable-ties in my carry-on but during a previous encounter at London Gatwick these had been confiscated because it was alleged I might have tried to restrain an aircrew member with them. Meanwhile the delay to the aircraft was building up. I assume delays have a cost-element. We’ll all be paying for that. Eventually I found an odd cable-tie in the lining of the bag.

It was at this point that my amazement turned to incredulity. To save delaying the departure of the aircraft any further they invited me to take the bag into the aircraft cabin as carry-on! I was disinclined to face arrest by the security officials at Miami for carrying illegal items in the cabin. I insisted they put it into the hold delaying the departure still further.

Never mind. I joined the plane to the cheers of long-suffering passengers and crew, reflecting that, although none of us mind enhanced security if it works, what a pity these specially trained security people missed what to me was obvious. There they were examining the contents of my bag, the bag of a passenger travelling on a long-haul flight. What none of these specially trained security personnel spotted was the fact that I appeared to be embarking without any clothes or personal effects in my bag. That was in my other checked bag, the bag they failed to spot; the other bag of the potential 63-year-old white middle-class potential suicide bomber; the one with the spare cable ties and my weapon of choice – my pen. It’s mightier than the sword!

God help us all.

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18 comments for “Fortress America: Heightened Security for Flights to the USA

  1. Dave
    April 22, 2010 at 9:34 am

    I got back from a recent trip and was emptying my carry-on bag and found that my foldable titanium dive knife was in a side pocket. On a previous trip that bag had been checked. Twice the bag went through security; twice I carried it on, illegal knife and all.

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  2. Alan
    April 22, 2010 at 12:51 pm

    I am constantly amazed at the poor training that American security agents receive. Although I have been fortunate enough to have never been hassled by TSA, I have had diabetic patients complain that they were required to dismantle their insulin pump to prove that it was not a dangerous object.
    As you say in your article, people wouldn’t be nearly as annoyed or troubled by the inspections if the agents actually proved to be competent, but the unfortunate reality is that the agents in charge of checking our bags are ill trained or equipped to effectively do their jobs.

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  3. Bret Gilliam
    April 23, 2010 at 6:41 pm

    Ah, John Bantin has touched a nerve and all of us feel a twinge. I don’t think anyone objects to a reasoned approach to legitimate security but what we have now seen evolve in the U.S. has reached the level of absurdity. We experience it everyday that we travel by air. Most of the rules simply follow no pattern of logic or common sense. I don’t even need to give you the everyday examples.

    But here’s one that exemplifies total contradiction. I recently returned from a business trip to the Virgin Islands. After passing through security in St. Thomas, I was greeted by a huge selection of retailers offering duty-free liquor that I could carry aboard the plane. (Remember: you can’t bring a tube of shampoo larger than four ounces aboard… but you can buy a case of rum or Scotch in the U.S. airport under TSA control and bring that onboard.) Well, I did by a $150 bottle of champagne as gift for my wife and carried it onboard. No problem. Then when I arrived in Newark, my connecting flight was canceled forcing me to overnight.

    I went back to the airport the next morning and went through security. I had only one small carry-on bag and my champagne bottle was in it, along with its receipt. It was promptly confiscated. I protested that I had followed all the rules, bought it after going through security in St. Thomas, had the receipt from the duty-free shop, and the bottle remained sealed with the cork in it. It’s pretty hard to fool anyone in an attempt to make an opened champagne bottle look like its original seal.

    The numb-nuts at TSA acknowledged that I had acted within their rules by buying the bottle and carrying it onboard the plane. They further admitted that this was common practice and that it was obviously still sealed and had not been tampered with. They also admitted that I would not have been stopped from boarding my connecting flight from Newark to Maine with it in my carry-on.

    BUT… my flight was canceled and therefore the deal was off once I left the airport. They wouldn’t even give it back to me so I could mail it home.

    I presume someone in a TSA uniform enjoyed a bottle of vintage champagne that night at my expense. Utter nonsense!

    But you can board with a metal cane that could be used as a weapon. And they now give you steak knives in first class and serve you champagne with the meal. Go figure.

    I’m glad I did my duty to keep our skies safe from terrorists bearing duty-free liquor bought from an approved TSA security vendor…

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  4. John Bantin
    April 24, 2010 at 1:15 am

    It gets worse: When I arrived in Miami and finally found my bags in the tercero mundo baggage hall, I got pulled over by US Customs and asked for the ‘paperwork’ for my diving equipment.I guess they don’t get much of that coming through Miami.

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  5. May 1, 2010 at 3:56 pm

    This past Fall I was returning to Seattle from a dive outing in Dubai and Oman. No problem on the Dubai to San Francisco leg: did a quick check of my camera gear and dive bag, everything OK. Off to the domestic terminal for the San Francisco to Seattle leg.

    I pick up my luggage in Seattle, and notice my camera case was not closed properly: one open latch and a sprung hinge. Tough to do with a Portercase. Get home and find out my prescription mask had been taken out of its case, but back next to mt dive knife, which had scratched the **** out of it.

    Next I took my housing and strobes out for a good, overnight clean water soaking. The next day I remove the equipment from the water and notice one strobe feels a bit heavier. I turn it over and water starts pouring out. The Homeland Security contractor at SFO had removed an “O” ring on my Ikelite 125 strobe, and apparently tossed it out.

    Total damage about $900. It’s not their fault: bad backing on my part. Sure hope the airlines are safer with gorillas checking gear!

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  6. John Lewis
    May 2, 2010 at 2:48 am

    This is ne of the reasons I’ve started advoctaing shipping luggage and gear ahead of you whenever possible using as shipping service like FedEx or The Luggage Club.

    Sure, It’s pricy, but I van track my items through their internet reporting system–and most important, INSURE the contents for actual value–which you cannot do through the airlines.

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  7. John Lewis
    May 2, 2010 at 2:50 am

    This is one of the reasons I’ve started advocating shipping luggage and gear ahead of you whenever possible using a shipping service like FedEx or The Luggage Club.

    Sure, It’s pricy, but I can track my items through their internet reporting system–and most important, INSURE the contents for actual value–which you cannot do through the airlines.

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  8. Carey Trost
    May 3, 2010 at 6:18 pm

    My favorite part is that they found your dive knife in the bag but then encouraged you to take the bag into the cabin as a carry-on, knife and all! Did the cable tie search dumbfound them so much that they forgot about the big knife they had been looking at? With them looking out for me, I feel safe.

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  9. Emry Oxford
    May 4, 2010 at 5:08 am

    my first venture to a blog. interesting ;-)

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  10. Skip Wilson
    May 4, 2010 at 1:18 pm

    What more could you expect from the government, which is filled of good intentions and poor decisions and implementation. Hell if they hired and paid TSA employess that would stay there or had any smarts they would have to settle for the same benefits as the rest of us civilians and the Speaker might have to fly commerical instead of a private 747. The rules only apply to you and I if the inside the beltway group had to travel as we do do you really think it would be this painful and sad ?

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  11. Mark
    May 4, 2010 at 2:55 pm

    Thank you for the laugh this am and a reminder of the absurdity of another “branch” of our gov’t doing its job protecting us.. I am 5 days away from my dive trip and am anxiously awaiting my strip search and interrogation of the dive gear I am carrying onto the aircraft. I will be scrutinizing the passengers for possible terrorists, knowing that the 80 year old lady is the prime suspect. Of course if I watch too closely the younger, middle eastern descent passenger, I may be arrested for racial profiling. I have it on good source that the FBI is reviewing video of the car bomb left in Time Square for elderly woman who were noticed in the vicinity of the vehicle scurrying away with their walkers…

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  12. May 4, 2010 at 4:40 pm

    On a recent return trip from Honduras in April, the Hondurian airport security was VERY thorough checking my carry-on. I had the nerve to pack a first aid kit (very well marked, red cross and all) with a pair of tweezers (gasp) and a pair of surgical scissors – both which were taken abrubtly! Good thing, I might have tweezed someone to death on the plane.

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  13. John
    May 4, 2010 at 5:57 pm

    It just goes to show that we have ‘dummied’ down our systems to accomodate all of those left behind on the ‘Darwin’ scale.

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  14. May 5, 2010 at 1:10 am

    I am interested that you also had a cable tie confiscated because you MIGHT ‘tie up’ the cabin crew with it. I thought I was the only one! Mine was confiscated by Quantas… it was about 1mm wide and maybe as much as 120mm long. I did try to figure out which of the flight crew was small enough to have that matter. Actually the flight crew (who got a huge giggle out of the story) suggested that I would tie them up 2 fingers or 2 toes at a time.
    As far as TSA agents go, ‘Ya gets what ya pays for!’

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  15. Bob
    May 5, 2010 at 8:32 pm

    I have had very similar experiences, particularly with the lack of training and consistency of the TSA agents. I generally carry a back pack on board with my Notebook Computer, a couple of dive computers, a regulator rig, digital camera housing and perhaps 1 to 3 dive lights including a sinister looking canister light. I know – thats a lot of weight for an old guy like me, but …
    I generally tell the screener that my pack is full of SCUBA gear. Some of the screeners say ok and you can tell they have no idea what you are talking about but they let the bag go through with no questions. Others seem to have a fair idea what they are looking at and let it go through with few if any questions. Then there are the ones who pull out and examine each piece, have me turn lights on, remove batteries, activate computers and then do an explosives test on some of the least likely components.
    Then there is the checked baggage checkers – I have been paged and sent to TSA baggage screening to remove batteries from a dive light (they had already taken the light out of my bag and determined it had batteries in it but were unwilling (unable) to remove the batteries themselves rather than risk delaying the flight, waiting for me to get there, remove the batteries and get back to the gate – note, this happened in Maui, HI where they see LOTS of divers. Same place that showed the least experience with my carry on back pack.
    Also of interest is how often they open my checked bags. I have found that when I put TSA locks on my bags the frequency of opening is less than when I do not. Also, they are more likely to open the bags which just have clothing in them rather than my dive bag which has all sorts of odd looking stuff in it – strange and sad, but true.
    Bob

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  16. Jim Rogers
    May 6, 2010 at 4:33 am

    Coversation at security: “Sir, what is this” “It is an underwater camera housing” What are all these buttons” “They operate the Camera in the housing” ” Do they come out” “No” ” Please assemble this and show us it in operation” So I pull out my camera and assemble it in the housing. While doing all of this the continue to go through my bag. So I assemble the camera and turn it on and snap off a shot and show it to the TSA brain trust at the gate. “Sir that is a security violation you are not allowed to take photos of the security area” ” Ma’am you instructed me to assemble the camera in the housing and show you it’s operation, I was just complying with your direction” ” Sir are you getting smart with me” “No Ma’am just trying to comply” “Sir what is this” ” That is the housing tray and strobe support arms” ” They assemble to the Camera” ” Yes Ma’am” ” Please assemble and show us the operation” ” I will assemble it but do you really want to see the operation again” ” Sir are you getting smart with me ” ‘No Ma’am”. So I assemble the camera , tray strobe arms and strobes. “I am finished” ” ” That looks like some thing from Mars, show us the operation” ” Okay” So bam, I hit the button, My two DS-51′s fire like the sun, this woman almost falls over herself in suprise. It was all I could do not to roll over in laughter. “Sir I told you not to take photographs in here” Now I am getting pissed. “Lady, I assembled the camera as instructed and I asked you if you really wanted to see it operate and you asked me if I was getting smart with you, so following your direction I operated the camera” ” Sir please disassemble and put it back in your bag and step over here” So I tear it all down and put it back in the bag. ” Sir you have been selected to have a full body scan so empty your pockets and step into the booth, your ticket and passport are to be placed in your shirt pocket.” So I get in the “nekked” machine and get radiated. Step out and get “Sir step over here and raise your arms” So I do and get the “Complete” touchy feely body wand job. I am now free to go but I had to ask. ” I am not being a smart ass but I thought the full scan monitor was suppose to eliminate the body wanding and speed up the process” ” Well it normally does but you had something in your shirt pocket.” God I love Houston International.

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  17. Bret Gilliam
    May 15, 2010 at 12:07 am

    Lordy, Lordy… Bantin has truly opened the mother lode of TSA anecdotes and the list keeps growing. My favorite so far is “Bob” who had to endure assembling his camera gear in the housing and then demonstrating its operation, only to be reprimanded for taking photos in the security area. Is there no end to TSA inanity and nonsense? I mean, would let these idiots house-sit for you or even walk your dog?

    Here’s two valuable piece of advice if you actually get “body cavity searched” with the full rubber glove treatment:

    1. Never, ever say, “Oh Baby, that’s the spot!”

    and

    2. Never tip the TSA gloved agent more than $10 following the probe.

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  18. Paul Beckett
    May 27, 2010 at 10:03 am

    Just got back from the Cayman islands and because of the BA strike I had the most unpleasant experience of having to pass through the armpit of the worlds most unpleasant airports – “Miami”. The TSA Security staff are all gun toting inbred yokels with the IQ of the exterior of an afghan cave in midwinter. They made us go through 3 lots of shoes and belt off exercises. Once on the way in, once for the usual measure and another one for the fact that somewhere in Venezuela hasn’t got the same security procedures as the USA????? WTF?!

    And then when I tried to transfer my baggage from AA to BA to come home they go and lose my luggage and all my dive gear. Pathetic!

    This whole experience has tarred my entire view of America and will avoid visiting there, like I might try to avoid catching a dose of Ebola Brahma.

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