ATW Editor's Blog

Screening Madness

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Heard the one about the IATA Director General who was subjected to secondary screening because he had a small umbrella in his carry-on case?

No, really. Tony Tyler was told by the security officer at Amsterdam Schiphol Airport that his small, folding umbrella “could hide anything”.

But it gets better. The mischievous, hide-it-all umbrella was a gift. The official gift to all VIP delegates at the European Aviation Summit in Amsterdam that Tyler had just attended, along with EU transport ministers, members of the European Parliament, the European Commission and multiple airline and aviation company CEOs. If they are all “armed” with those mean umbrellas as they depart the summit, then Schiphol security is having a busy week.

Joking aside, the awful events in Paris and elsewhere of late means it does not surprise me that we may see more secondary screening at airports worldwide and even greater scrutiny of passenger bags, checked and carry-on. I understand and accept that.

Sadly, however, it also does not surprise me that we are seeing what I believe is some examples of plain ridiculous over-reaction at some airport screening checkpoints.

A couple of weeks ago, I went through TSA pre-Check at Washington Dulles (I have Global Entry, so provided personal data and attended an interview by TSA) and my small wheeled carry-on bag was pulled for inspection. I have no problem with that, but I also knew that there was nothing in the bag that contradicted the rules. Clothes, one pair of shoes, TSA-compliant toiletries, notebooks and pencils; the same items I carry in the same bag on all of my almost weekly work travel.

At first, the officer began the usual lifting of these articles and looking underneath. He couldn’t find anything. So then, he started throwing my clothes and personal items out of the case. And I mean throwing.  I firmly but politely asked him not to do this, said these were work clothes and that I was on a trip to make a presentation. But he was clearly frustrated that he could not find anything. With all the contents now spewed out and in an untidy pile, he said everything had to go back through the X-ray machine because he couldn’t find what he was looking for. He then threw the pile back into the case, which did not fit. He began to zip the case with my clothes spilling out, so would have torn them. This was when I told him to stop and a second officer came over. The first officer then did slow down, pushed the clothes inside the case, which was rescreened and nothing found. He then dumped the case in front of me, said nothing, and left me to repack everything in front of everyone.

I filed a complaint to TSA and in fairness to the agency, got a response within a few days that does include an apology. It reads:

First of all, let me apologize for any inconvenience you may have encountered.

Thank you for contacting TSA and advising us of the allegation of rude conduct from an Officer. TSA regrets any unprofessional treatment you may have experienced.   Please be advised that a passenger can always request to speak with a uniformed Lead Transportation Security Officer (LTSO), a uniformed Supervisory Transportation Security Officer (STSO), or a Transportation Security Manager (TSM) at the checkpoint to address any complaint.

So good for TSA for at least responding. And I will also say that this incident really stood out because it was so very untypical of what I encounter in my very regular TSA screening processes.

But it seems to me we are at risk of a reversal in some of the real progress that has been made in ensuring passenger dignity, common sense and professionalism are maintained through the airport screening process.

There’s smart screening – good for everyone; the airlines, the passengers, the security system. And then there’s not so smart and rude screening (my case). And then there’s just plain dumb screening. That prize, this week, goes to Schiphol.

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