Airport security reaches new levels of absurdity

Here's what happens when you refuse to comply with TSA's "new rule." Blue-glove groping, anyone?

Topics: Air Travel, Ask the Pilot, Business,

Airport security reaches new levels of absurdityA security official demonstrates a full body scanner during a photocall at Departure Gate 2 at Hamburg Airport September 27, 2010. Germany started on Monday the voluntary use of two 'L-3 Provision ATD' body scanners for a test period over the next six months at the airport. REUTERS/Christian Charisius (GERMANY - Tags: TRANSPORT SCI TECH) (Credit: © Christian Charisius / Reuters)

Wait, wait, stop the presses. It gets worse.

Airport security, I mean.

Truly I had no intention of devoting yet another post to the sad, silly foibles of the Transportation Security Administration, but I’m risking heart attack or a nervous breakdown if I don’t get this latest one out of my system.

I was at the airport yesterday, on duty, headed through a TSA checkpoint in my full uniform and with all of my applicable credentials. I hoisted my bags onto the belt, deposited my MacBook in a plastic tray, and approached the metal detector.

“Sir,” said a guard.

And I knew. I just knew this was going to be something stupid.

“I need you to remove your belt.”

“Huh? My belt? Why?”

“All passengers need to remove their belts.”

“I’m not a passenger.”

“All pilots have to remove their belts.”

“We do? Why?”

“Sir, remove your belt.”

“Why?”

“Because that’s the rule.”

“What rule? I never have to remove my belt. The buckle is nonmetallic.”

“It’s the new rule. All belts have to come off.”

“What new rule? I don’t understand.”

“Sir, you need to take it off.”

“But … What if I don’t?”

“Then you’ll have to go through secondary screening and a full pat-down.”

And so I opted for the secondary screening. Not that a pat-down is reasonable, either, but I did not want to submit to something that I felt was excessive and ridiculous without a reason or explanation.

I was asked to stand in a cordoned-off area, where I waited for several minutes as guards stood around looking at me. Finally a supervisor came over, wearing disposable blue gloves, to administer my secondary screening.

“Sir,” he said, “um, you still need to remove your belt.”

“What do you mean? I chose this so I could leave the belt on.”

“No, either way the belt has to come off.”

“What? And if it doesn’t come off?”

“Then I cannot let you through.”

So, it would seem, secondary screening isn’t really “secondary” at all. Instead of simply taking off my belt, I get a full, blue-glove groping and I have to take off my belt. Either that or I’m not allowed to fly the plane.

“Really?” I asked.

“Really.”

And with that I started laughing.

Much to his credit, the supervisor also laughed. He smiled, nodded and proceeded to explain this “new rule.”

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Before getting to that explanation, I will note, for what it’s worth, that this particular supervisor, who asked that I not reveal his name or location, was perhaps the most decent and reasonable TSA employee I’ve ever interacted with. He was courteous and professional, not to mention sympathetic. He acknowledged that much of what flight crews are forced to endure does not make sense from a security standpoint. He does not enact policy; he enforces it. Further, he seemed fully aware of the ridiculousness of the new belts procedure.

Belts, it has been determined, can interfere with the images procured by the new full-body scanners being deployed at checkpoints around the country. And so, from now on, passengers need to remove them.

Now, although we can debate the body scanners from an effectiveness point of view, or from a privacy-rights point of view, separately, this at least makes sense.

Fair enough, except for one thing. As I looked around me, I noticed that there weren’t any body scanners anywhere at the checkpoint.

“But sir,” I said, motioning to the left and right, “there are no scanners here.”

“I know,” he replied. “I know. But to keep things consistent, across the board, everybody has to do it.”

“Really?”

“Really.”

He looked at me. He shrugged and sighed.

It’s not his fault, I know.

I took off my belt.

Somebody, somewhere, needs to shake us from this stupor of blind policy and blind obedience. I’m beginning to wonder if this isn’t some test — a test of just how stupid Americans are. If TSA said that from now on we had to hop on one foot while humming “God Bless America,” would we do that too?

That’d be ludicrous, certainly, but how much more ludicrous is it, really, than asking people to remove their belts for purposes of walking through a nonexistent body scanner?

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Do you have questions for Salon’s aviation expert? Contact Patrick Smith through his website and look for answers in a future column.

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