Laptops and TSA inspections: Everybody's got a story

Readers recount their own tales of dealing with airport security

Trudy Walsh’s article on the travails of getting a laptop PC through airport security – and how using a butterfly-style laptop case could help – struck a nerve with some of our readers. Actually, it struck several nerves, some dealing with laptops and cases and some dealing with the Transportation Security Administration’s inspections themselves.

A couple of readers noted that their agencies require them to hand-carry their laptops when traveling, so Walsh’s personal solution of checking her 10-pound laptop with her baggage wouldn’t work for them.

“Most government agencies’ Rules of Behavior specify that you do not place your laptop in check baggage,” commented one reader. “You’re responsible for it.”

Frank C also cited concerns over baggage handling. “I've traveled both domestically and internationally and will not pack my laptop in checked luggage simply based upon the fact that it may not be in your luggage when you pick it up at your destination,” he wrote. “I had employees and peers relate incidents where they choose not to check a laptop and it simply disappeared. Maybe it was the make and model but most travelers tend not to sanitize their laptops when traveling. I would rather bear the inconvenience and know that my laptop is safe.”

So maybe having an old, 10-pound laptop is a defense against theft while traveling – extra weight equals better portability!

Federal employees have another complicating factor. “You think you have it bad. Try multiplying your problem times two,” wrote Tony. “Since fed employees are not allowed to utilize government equipment for personal use, I take my own laptop with me when I travel. Yes, I almost always get additional screening. I learn to arrive at the airport an hour before my flight.”

Walsh recounted how colleague Will Winton switched from a traditional briefcase —whose top half blocked TSA’s X-ray machines – to an X-ray friendly Solo CheckFast laptop bag from eBags.com, which can be placed butterfly style on the TSA conveyor belt.

“I recently switched from a briefcase to a backpack with a laptop pocket inside,” wrote Tony in Albany, N.Y. “Much better. I can leave the top of the backpack open when approaching the security checkpoint, nothing falls out. A quick reach inside gets the laptop out for screening and the backpack holds everything else. Coming out the other side, the backpack slings over one shoulder leaving hands free for shoes, etc.”

“From my experience (and some background in physics), the main problem with X-rays, [which] really triggers extra scrutiny, is the battery itself,” wrote CS guy in Chicago. “The lithium is generally a questionable element. Cadmium does not help also. If you have an extra battery for your laptop, DO NOT forget to take it out and put it with the laptop. Leaving it in your handbag or carry-on (or checked in luggage even) is an invitation for more security checks. It is not the laptop. And for profiling: have your iPhone in your ears, and Vogue or Newsweek in your hand and you are good to go... profiling is just silly, it is subjective.”

The right case helps, but apparently not always. “I have a bag that is supposed to be able to go right through security ‘butterfly style’,” wrote another reader. “It works at the major airports, but at Manchester, N.H., I had to take it out of the bag as usual, so this does not work at ALL airports.”

And then there is the inspection experience itself.

“I travel about 65 working days a year. Each trip’s pleasure includes a fun-filled trip through the TSA accommodations,” wrote Karl Norco of California. “I consider this my value-added part of the experience. Other than finding, and confiscating less than three ounces of toothpaste in a family size container, my experience with the TSA has been useless. That is unless you consider the bag they ruined when I forgot to take my laptop from my carry-on bag one trip. Now that experience was unique. With all the travel I do, I don’t really feel any safer with the TSA doing what it does. After watching what they do with my shoes, on the belt or in a container, I believe they’d be hard pressed to stop any misguided person from passing all sorts of things through their checkpoints.”

Others raised the question of who is searched. “I think the real issue is the ‘random’ searches they pull, where someone wins the lottery and gets pulled aside for extra checks before getting onto the airplane,” wrote Sarah. “It's stupid and does no good whatsoever. They are so afraid of profiling that I've seen them let six tough-looking Arab guys go though and then grab an 88+ year old white grandmother who could not even really hear them, and had no idea what was going on, to search. People in line got so angry, calling the TSA guys names and telling them to lay off, that they eventually just relented and let her go. What did that help? I'm sorry, but sometimes profiling works. Who is more likely to be a terrorist in that situation? If you play the numbers enough, odds are you will get a hit sometime, but not if you play them stupidly.”

Derek in Colorado, while noting that he’d never had a problem with his laptop – “It's the spare batteries, data cables, charger, etc. that seem to call out attention” – echoed the concern about profiling. “I agree with Sarah,” he wrote, “politically correct sensitivity to ‘profiling’ is stupid and counterproductive.”

And finally, there are always the people who manage to avoid trouble. “I've never had a problem with my laptop at airport security,” wrote Allen George. “I simply take it out of its travel bag and set it onto its own tray, then run that through the scanner ahead of the bag itself. Nothing bad has ever happened. I think that is what you are supposed to do, anyway.”

“I'm with Allen,” wrote Alan Arlington. “I remove the laptop from my laptop bag and set it in its own tray, perhaps with my BlackBerry beside it. The only issue I've had (since 9/11) was when an inspector noticed the laptop I was carrying had the PCMCIA doors removed, and was disturbed at the gaping cavity. Further inspection – partially – allayed his concerns.”

About the Author

Kevin McCaney is a former editor of Defense Systems and GCN.

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