Adventures in Airport Morning Security Theater

The absurdities of security theater continued today as I crossed back into the U.S. from Canada. Security rules mean you have to get to the airport two hours before departure, which meant leaving the hotel at 6am for an 8:30 flight. I got there, printed my boarding passes and prepared to go thru the first of, I think, thirty checkpoints at which someone checked to see if my boarding pass had aged at all since someone checked it thirty seconds earlier.

Having cleared that initial carbon-14 hurdle, I hit a new hurdle. Checkpoint guy 1B says, “What’s that on your shoulder?”

I say, “My laptop bag”.

“You have too many bags”, he says.

“But”, I say, “I only have my laptop bag and my roller bag, both of which fit”.

“Too many bags. Check one”.

I splutter a little. “I just crossed into the U.S. in Toronto a few weeks ago and they had all the new post-underwear guy rules, but they let me bring the roller bag and laptop bag”.

“They may have different rules in Toronto. These are our rules here,” he says.

Great. I turn around and go check  my roller bag. Fine. Montreal has different luggage rules than Toronto. Stupid, admittedly, but it wouldn’t be the first time, even if it’s also nonsensical.

Roller-bag checked, I’m back in the security line. A half-dozen uniformed people in random places look at my boarding pass paper to see how it is aging – all clear, praise to Abitibi-Bowater – and make it to the next stage in security: the scanner part of Security Theater.

First I am asked to step on a rubber mat, while on which someone asks me if I’m on a connecting flight. Surmising that if I say “No” that I’ll be put in another, longer line to my left, I say “Yes” — I reconcile that to myself by telling me that I do have two flights today, so I am connecting, even if, temporally speaking, the connecting part is still in my future.

I am then put in a new line where a bunch of people, many with two bags – women with body-bag-sized purses plus laptop bag; men with sad and squished suitbags plus laptop cases – get ready for the next bit of theater. We must demonstrate that we are none of the incarcerated people that previously menaced airlines, and are therefore unlikely to do so in future (i.e., we take off shoes, submit to a pat-down search, and surrender bodily fluids).

Not being good at keeping to myself, I ask why other people have two bags while I was forced to check one. “Different people have different rules”, one fine fellow tells me, “Like in the same airport?”, I irritatedly asked, pondering the intricacies of regulatory microclimates. He whoompf-shrugs in that Gallic way, and I’m left to myself. Upon his return he probes me intently about having a first-generation iPhone — “You don’t want the 3GS?” – and, my tech late-adopter status clear, he dismissively sends me on my way.

A few dozen more people check how my paper pass is holding up. All looks good. Abitibi-Bowater makes such wonderful paper. Now, however, I have a secret. I am a member of Nexus, a fast-crossing program for getting around the long security lines into the U.S. You just stare into a retina-scanner – one that always insists I need to move more to the left, which for some reason usually makes me go cross-eyed, thus causing the machine to demand I go further left, etc. – and are given a yellow pass. You then zoom insouciantly past the unwashed traveling masses queued up to answer questions and have the quality of their boarding pass paper checked.

The trouble is, that didn’t happen. My friendly border inspector guy raised his hand, flagging me for random inspection. Me? Again? “We check Nexus passholders on a random basis,” a fine and upstanding young fellow told me as he asked for my boarding pass to see whether there had been any paper degradation. (All good.) “Not that I’m objecting,” I said, “but I don’t feel all that random.” Statistical pedantry overcoming me, I continued, “I have had this happen 20% of the time when crossing. Given the number of people with Nexus passes, and given how few people are ever in the secondary inspection lounges with me, this can hardly be random.  There is a sampling issue.” He ignored me, handing my boarding pass to another fellow who immediately checked for paper problems. This stuff is more resilient than the Dead Sea Scrolls. Whew.

Now, I sat in a big empty room. Just me. Okay, one guy at a counter, plus twenty empty chairs and me. I sat in the middle of the room, just so that my OCD compulsions with respect to symmetry were satisfied, and waited. He spindled my boarding pass for a few more minutes, undoubtedly doing complex paper tests using equipment unavailable to the other three or four dozen people who had already checked for incipient paper degradation. “You’re good,” he said, handing me back my boarding pass and sending me to two more people who checked my paper quality yet again. It was still okay, having somehow survived this airport stress-testing program.

Time before flight that I arrived at airport? Two hours. Time before flight that I made it to gate? 20 minutes. Number of times Abitibi-Bowater was shown to make the most awesome boarding pass paper in the world? Too many to count.

[Update] To add to the entertainment, United lost my luggage that they forced me to check because of their bizarre and unpredictable rules.

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  5. Heathrow, the Worst Major Airport in the World