“Ma’am, step this way please”, says the serious looking TSA official.
I’m at McCarran Airport about to start my 16 hour, two-stage journey back to NZ. I’ve negotiated the check-in procedure, and am just passing through security screening. But, an item of interest has shown up on the x-ray machine.
“We need to take a look in your bag”, he tells me.
“Ok”, I say.
He rummages through my bag, spilling my belongings onto the table, but this doesn’t satisfy him.
“We’ve detected a suspicious looking tube in your bag”, he states.
“A tube?”, I say perplexed.
Suddenly it dawns on me, and I pull out a plastic bag containing my toothbrush and paste.
There is a sadistic sparkle of delight in the official’s eye. I’ve been caught red-handed.
“Um, Ma’am”, he says, “you do realize you can’t take any gel or liquids on board that are more than 3 ounces.”
“Ok, sorry”, I say, as politely as possible.
“Did you not read the regulations?” he asks menacefully
“Yes, I did”, I say. “I’m sorry, I just forgot about the toothpaste”.
“Well, you can’t take it on the flight. It’s more than the allowed amount. We’ll need to throw it out”.
“Oh, I say”, and manage to take the toothpaste off him. “In that case, I’ll just squeeze out the excess toothpaste, so I can still take it with me”.
The TSA agent’s face goes blank. Surprisingly, it seems his protocols haven’t prepared him for this scenario. He takes the toothpaste back off me, and discusses the situation with his superiors.
Finally, he returns and tells me they’ll make an exception. I’m allowed to take the toothpaste with me. He proceeds to give me a stern lecture on the TSA’s safety regulations before sending me on my way.
I make it aboard the flight for the first leg of my journey. Sitting next to me is an Australian, and we soon strike up a conversation.
He’s as frustrated about airport security as I am.
“They always give me the full search”, he laments.
“Oh,” I say sympathetically.
“But then, I guess that is because I have a gun.”
“What?! You’re carrying a gun?”, I ask incredulously, hoping we’re not sitting in vicinity of the air marshal.
“Yeah, it’s in my luggage. It’s fine as long as you carry the gun and ammunition separately.”
My seat-mate is a gun-hobbiest, and he complains about how difficult it is to transport them around in Australia, while in the US they don’t seem to care and are more worried about toothpaste.
“It’s a complete joke”, he says loudly. “Once you check in the luggage, there is no further control to ensure it doesn’t get tampered with by any of the cleaners, or hundreds of other airport staff”.
“Think about it. What do you think can do more damage? Your toothpaste, or my gun? You could draw a white smiley face on the window, I could blow a hole right through it”.
“Hm”, I say quietly slinking back into my seat, hoping that none of my fellow passengers are overhearing this. I reason our accents are probably protecting us.
Still, I am relieved to find out, that for the second leg there are two flights to NZ that evening, and he will be on the other one.
I survive the rest of the flight to LA for transfer, and once again find myself queuing to pass through security.
There is an intimidating man with a megaphone barking at passengers to remove their shoes and laptops. Overhead there is a giant LCD screen displaying instructions on how passengers should be packing their luggage in a TSA approved manner for future flights. I’m be willing to bet that within a year, in order to fly in the US, it will be mandatory you pack your bags according to their protocol.
The video informs us that we should use a suitcase, and pack our belongings such that we have a layer of clothing, followed by a layer of electronics, and other personal items, followed by another layer of clothing. I look at my over-stuffed back-pack containing a spaghetti of cables, electronics, clothing, food, and miscellaneous other stuff. They’re not going to like this. I pull out my laptop and notice that I still have my water-bottle which I had filled prior to boarding the previous flight.
There is nowhere to empty it.
This is going to get interesting I think to myself, as I re-watch the anal video outlining packing instructions.
Finally, it’s my turn for screening.
“Ma’am”, please step this way”, says another over-zealous official.
“There’s a problem with your bag, we detected a water bottle. You can’t take that on the flight”, he says with a hint of glee.
“Ok”, I say, and discard the bottle.
“We just want to keep everyone safe Ma’am”, he says. “You can’t take any liquids on the plane”.
“Ok”, I say, unsure as to what is about to happen next.
But he sends me on my way. The screener was so excited with spotting my illegal water bottle, that he didn’t even notice my suspicious-looking tube.
I make my way through the terminal with a minor adrenaline rush, as I realize I’m inadvertently carrying a highly banned substance.
I can’t help but feel that the entire screening process is a facade with a success rate that is questionable at best. It seems to be more about humiliating passengers than about actual security.
What if my fellow Australian passenger was correct? Airports are incredibly complex systems, and I could imagine there being any number of loopholes making it possible for lethal devices to be smuggled aboard the flight deck.
But heaven-forbid should a passenger carry more than the legally permitted amount of toothpaste. Now there lies the real danger.