The trouble with truffles, and other airport security tales

Readers recount their favorite stories of pre-flight security

In our recent stories on how, and how not, to take a laptop PC through airport security, we asked readers to recount their favorite tales of checkpoint complications. And they responded with gusto.

The comments included debates over the effectiveness of the Transportation Security Administration’s random searches and apparent fears of being accused of profiling, to whether government-issued IDs ought to be good enough for TSA. There was also plenty of advice on how to get through security efficiently. But there were also some offbeat and funny stories of their personal experiences. We recount some of the best of them here.


Related stories:

How to zip your laptop through TSA security

Laptops and TSA inspections: Everybody’s got a story

A tech-laden traveler encounters TSA – frequently


BELGIAN TRUFFLES ARE THE BOMB

From Peter:

Not quite a laptop story, but along the same vein; on a business trip thru Europe I retrieved a continuous feed system for inkjet printers to be evaluated by my company (it included about a mile of coiled tubes). Since I also stopped in Belgium, I had to bring home a kilo of truffles (the best in the world). And if you've ever bought some of those delicacies, you know they come wrapped with aluminum foil and packed into a brick-shaped box. I put those in my checked bag to avoid temptation. I should also mention back then I always traveled with an alarm clock and electric razor. When I packed my bag, I never considered how the ensemble would look to an x-ray machine (clock, large battery, lots of coils, and an apparent brick of plastique). In retrospect, I shouldn't have been surprised when I was led into a secure room by armed personnel and ordered to open/unpack my bag. The moral of the story? Shipping items is often more convenient and less costly than a missed flight!

STAY GROUNDED DURING INSPECTION

From Robert, in Maryland:

My favorite experience was a few years ago, before you had to take your shoes off. I got selected for extra screening at the gate. The wand beeped by my feet. Off with the shoes. The wand beeped. Rolled up my pants leg. Wand still beeped. Asked if I had pins in my ankle? Nope. Still beeped. Finally a supervisor came over. Had me move to a platform. Finally no problem. He told the new inspector, "You're picking up the rebar in the concrete floor." We all had a good laugh and I assured the new guy I wasn't offended and went on my way. You just have to have a sense of humor about this.

YES, IT COULD BE WORSE

From Randy:

To put things in perspective, it might be interesting to describe security and screening when you check in for a flight departing Tel Aviv. I have had: 1) one laptop was dropped by the inspector and the display shattered. 2) Another time I had a laptop with a bad hard drive. Since the computer would not boot up, they kept the laptop and shipped it to my destination on a different flight. 3) One time, they took the laptop to a back room and came back 10 minutes later and asked me to log onto the computer. They took the computer to the back room again and after another 10 minutes, gave me my laptop and let me go. I can only guess they copied the hard drive. In comparison, TSA security is relatively painless.

CAPTAIN’S COURTESY

From David Penney, Scott AFB, Ill.:

My favorite Airport Security story occurred in the late 1980s in Saudi Arabia. I was returning from a visit to a long-range remote radar construction site in the company of a USAF major. The major had his portable computer with him which he had used to make notes on the construction progress. At the airport, the Airport Security Police refused to let him take his computer in the cabin area and insisted that he bring it aboard as checked baggage. The major was reluctant to entrust his delicate computer to care of the Saudi Arabian Airlines (Saudia) baggage handlers and a heated discussion ensued. The captain of our Saudia flight intervened and offered to keep the computer in his custody for the duration of the flight, thus ending the debate and allowing the Airport Security Police officer to save face. On the walk across the tarmac to the airplane, when we were out of site of the terminal, the captain quietly returned the computer to the major.

WEIGHTY WORDS

From Chris:

My funniest experience was in late 2001 when they were weighing laptops in Germany and comparing against a book of known laptop weights. Mine came in heavy... but when I told them it was probably because the hard drive was full they nodded knowingly and let me through!

Of course, it’s not all fun and games. People with medical conditions offered a couple examples.

MUST BE IN THE WATER

From mnm:

On a recent flight I carried my iPad but had my big laptop in checked luggage. Because of a medical condition, I may have to take pills at any moment. Water may not always be convenient, so I carry a bottle of water with me. Most TSA agents accept my explanation and allow me to keep my water. On my most recent trip I was told that I could carry (opaque) orange juice, but not water. The agent insisted on taking my water and told me to buy (overpriced) water on the other side of the checkpoint. I asked if I could dump out the water and carry the empty bottle through the checkpoint, and then fill it from a water fountain. She said that there could still be some dangerous explosive residue in the bottle after pouring out the water. She would not explain how she could insure the innocence of an orange-colored fluid. I sure feel much safer now.

PERMANENT PAT-DOWN

TSA has many ridiculous processes and yet refuses to update them. In my case, I have traveled extensively in the U.S. and to Europe with one, sometimes two laptops. Never had an issue UNTIL I underwent a total knee replacement. Even with a card from the surgical practice, I am subjected to the "touchy -feely" TSA extra attention every time I fly. My concern is the agents attention to my belongings, in several tubs, while I am undergoing the wand check, the pat down, and have to turn my back on my property sometimes. The trusted traveler program needs to be invoked to a common standard that can allow law-abiding citizens to travel without the issues we face today.

On the debate over identification cards, one writer summed up the opinion of several others about government ID.

WHY NOT TRUST GOVERNMENT IDS?

Any FedGov/DOD/Contractor with an HPSD-12 compliant ID (CAC or the civilian equivalents) has ALREADY HAD an extensive background check, and in the case of DOD, probably has a higher security clearance than the TSA staffer doing the screening. In a logical world, they should be waved through. At a minimum, doing 'supplemental screening' on them adds NOTHING to the level of security. When this was pointed out to TSA, they said they could not trust background checks run by other agencies. Recognizing HPSD-12 ID's as valid for “Trusted Traveler” would speed things up a lot at airports with lots of federal fliers. TSA Just Doesn't Get It.

Quite a few readers offered advice on getting through security smoothly, mostly recommending a common-sense approach of planning ahead, as this reader does.

ALWAYS BE PREPARED

During my last job, I routinely traveled with anywhere from three to six laptops. I pulled each one out and put each into its own tub. All the cables, spare batteries and such were in zip up bags and thus were put into their own tub. The appropriate preparation meant I never got stopped by TSA, Canadian/US customs or anyone else.

And others get by without a laptop at all.

THUMB DRIVE, HE SAID

From chuckmeister of Waikiki:

I have used over the past seven years what today is referred to as a Netbook. That is until I found this ingenious method of reducing ones entire computer to a simple teeny tiny less than 1 ounce jump drive. 128GB are out and can be had on the web under $100 but even a 64GB or 32GB will also work. You create your entire HD onto the jump drive and then wear it around your neck. Kingmax can be left in the ocean or North Pole or Nevada dessert without any problems. It goes through ALL TSA equipment, even the Pentagon still without declaring it and around my neck. THEN when I get to where ever I am going I plug this chewing gum drive into the nearest USB and my DeskTop appears just like back home or the office. Mahalo & Blue Skies

Finally, several readers sought to remind people of why the checkpoints are there in the first place.

DOING A JOB

From Cliff:

The cost of being safe in an airline or in any other means of passenger travel is worth the inconvenience. I don’t like having to take my laptop out of the bag to send it through the screeners but it is done for an obvious reason that I am more than willing to bear and cooperate to the fullest. Complaining can only cause delay and further frustration. The best thing to do is to let the TSA personnel to what they are suppose to do so any one person can move on and get to where he/she is going. Let TSA focus on the bad guys, whoever they may be.

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Reader comments

Mon, Apr 15, 2013

I was going through security when it started bleeping and they searched my entire body (including my pockets which have been properly empty since I purchased the jumper) after 20 minuets we discover it was the metal hook on my bra.

Thu, May 20, 2010 BJ VA

My favorite laptop story: An older well-tanned guy with a beard and constant smile, I am frequently blessed with additional screening. Traveling one-day early to Florida for a series of meetings, I checked my bag and carried my laptop. Wearing a Hawaiian shirt, expedition shorts, belt, boat shoes, and (remembering mom's advice) my best underwear, I was bounced from airport to airport along the east coast as the airline did its best to get me around thunderstorms to my destination. At what turned out to be my last connection, the airline was holding a plane and rushing me to the gate where a security screener was stationed at a folding table. I made eye contact, probably a mistake, and could tell by his look that I was going to be searched. Sure enough he asked me to open my case and boot the laptop. Then he asked me to remove my belt. I did, and my shorts promptly fell around my ankles. A look of embarrassment appeared on the faces of the screener and airline attendant. Says the screener: “You didn't have to do that.” Through my laughter, I replied: “Yes, I did. When you asked me to remove my belt, it was inevitable.” Returning shorts and belt to their proper place, I was rushed aboard. Always listen to, and put into practice, Mom's advice!

Wed, May 19, 2010

I recall waiting in line at the New Orleans Airport to get my boarding pass back in March 2010 on my returning flight to DC. The large TSA machine was right next to the line and where TSA was x-raying and opening luggage sfor inspection. I was wondering what several of the other passengers were all looking at and realize they were watching two TSA employees. One was opening a locked luggage with a big screwdriver and pliers. After 15-20 minutes of destroying the luggage locking mechanism and essentially destroying a perfectly good luggage, she casually just wrapped duct taped it back, around and around with duct tape. Off course the duct tape had the TSA inscriptions on it. My question is, was it so hard to when that person had dropped off the luggage to be X-rayed to have a sign and also to tell the passenger to please have it unlocked or it will be forced opened and your luggage would be damaged in the process? Now the other TSA employee was opening up a gift wrapped shirt box, of another passengers luggage. Now how is it that their super expensive large x-ray sort of machine could not see that that it was only a shirt in the shirt box that was wrapped? Also to top it off as insult to injury, she then proceed to open and read the gift card in its envelope. Now tell me, what can you hide in a gift card or after you have destroyed the gift wrapped shirt box, what makes you think there is something in the gift card that was not bulging and what makes you read the card? I couldn't believe what I was seeing. Shame on TSA for such poor conduct and training of its employees and lack of common courtesy in the execution of security measures of our Nation. This is a perfect example where little minds given power of authority over others have abused it in its treatment of others.

Tue, May 18, 2010

No system is 100% perfect, but relying on CAC for any significant percentage of travelers would be a net gain over what they have now. CAC would not and should not keep luggage and body from being screened, just eliminate the pointless triple-checking and questioning. Hey, we are used to the security perimeters at the office and on-base. All I am advocating is treating CAC-holders like they do LEOs, who also get lightly screened, but not hassled.

Tue, May 18, 2010 Patman

In reference to the CAC card part of the story. Remember that the Major who shot and killed fellow Army soldiers at Ft. Hood had a CAC card.

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