In 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.