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Bag Blog final: Airlines & airports score well; Dulles customs not so

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As I’m now back home in Washington DC, this is the final “bag-blog” covering the last leg of my European work trip. Essentially, both security screening and the flights from Dublin to London Heathrow then to Washington Dulles went well, although it ended on a very sour note at US Customs & Border Protection (CBP). More of that later.

The IATA AGM in Dublin ended. Hosted by Ireland and Aer Lingus, it was a very well organized and exceptionally welcoming event. You were in no doubt of our hosts and their hospitality; emerald green everywhere, Irish dancing at the opening reception and a final gala dinner at the Guinness Storehouse.

The aim of this “bag-blog” was to track security screening lines and record whether or not my bag kept up with me as I traveled through multiple airports and airlines when there is heightened security and the US TSA essentially failed the public by allowing huge queues to form at several major US airports.

Security queues at all the European airports I visited or transited – London, Paris, Hamburg, Dublin and Barcelona –were short. Dublin wins the prize for friendliest security staff; I breezed through the screening process in maybe two minutes while smiling, cheerful officers assisted everyone with their bags.

London ATC and Heathrow Terminal 5, for once, also got it right. The BA A319 went straight into LHR with no delays, the second screening at T5 was fast and efficient, and I was through to the shops and gates area with plenty of time before the next flight almost two hours later.

That flight too, a BA A380, was clockwork. We departed on time, the aircraft was spotlessly clean, there was friendly service and we arrived at Dulles early.

I am signed up with the TSA Global Entry expedited system – for which I paid a fee, provided personal information and attended an interview – so it’s a very quick process to scan your passport and fingerprints at one of the designated kiosks. But Dulles also has “fast” kiosks on arrival that the public can use and this appears to be working well; the immigration queues were short.

And voila! There was my bag on the carousel, completely a 100% bag delivery performance. The airlines did well across this entire trip, making connections, delivering bags and friendly service throughout.  Yes, things do go wrong and air travel can be frustrating, but I honestly believe that’s the exception and what I experienced is the norm. We don’t give the airlines enough credit for that; around 10 million people fly every day and the vast majority experience good flights and minimum hassle.

However, as I pushed my cart with bags through the Global Entry CBP line at Dulles, I was pulled aside and told to report to a desk in an adjacent room. The officer examined my passport and then told me to sit and wait until I was called. He took my passport and did not reply when I asked him why I had been pulled out.

Others were being pulled out too, including a middle-aged businessman who also had Global Entry, and an elderly Albanian couple – I’m guessing in their late 70s or 80s – who spoke no English and were clearly confused.

We sat and waited while CBP officer chatted among themselves, patrolled somewhat aggressively back and forth in front of us, but appeared to do little else. Eventually, one of the officers came up to the Albanian couple and started barking some questions. “Do you have family here? Do you have a son or a daughter?” They clearly didn’t understand and the officer did the classic of shouting the questions louder, as if that translated it into Albanian.
They seemed like a nice, well-to-do couple and I felt for them.

Eventually my name was called. “Walker!”  The officer was brusque. The conversation was this:

Officer: “Where did you come from?”

Me: “Dublin”

Officer – looks puzzled – “What do you mean?”

Me: “I flew from Dublin, in Ireland.”

Officer: “I meant which flight were you on?”

Me: “Ah! British Airways” (This was printed on the Global Entry receipt I had handed over)

Officer: “What were you doing?”

Me: “Work, I’ve been covering events in Europe”

Officer: “What do you do?”

Me: “I’m a journalist.”

Officer: “Who do you work for?”

Me: “Air Transport World magazine; we cover the business of airlines.”

Officer: “So you’re a pilot?”

Me: “No, I told you, I’m a journalist.”

There was silence. He kept looking at the screen for a bit, then gave me my documents and told me to go. I requested a complaints form, which he went and got. As I steered round the corner, another officer barked, “documents!” And I had to show my passport again and the Global Entry slip.

Now, I happily provided a lot of information to US Homeland Security to get Global Entry approval. I believe that background checks are done as part of the approval process. I have no criminal record whatsoever and am in the TSA's "trusted traveler" program. This is their system and I have obeyed all the rules. I know there was nothing whatsoever that they were looking at on their screens with all their fake seriousness that even remotely made me look like a potential threat. This was a sham and I think because they knew that I knew that, they worked even harder at their aggressive stance.

So if that is any indication of the cluelessness with which the US security and intelligence agencies are operating, be very scared.

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