Ask the pilot

I can't carry liquids and gels on the plane, but what about mashed potatoes? Plus: Need a little humor to get you through your long holiday flight? Try SkyMaul.

Published November 22, 2006 12:09PM (EST)

It's Thanksgiving again. In terminals around the country, camera crews are getting in position. It's time for the media's annual barrage of crowded-airport stories. I feel bad for the reporter who draws the short straw for these pointless assignments. "Lorraine, sorry, but we're gonna need you live from LAX on Wednesday afternoon for a critical, 11-second segment to run between sports and the lottery numbers." We've grown accustomed to their stories -- quick little drive-by segments that seldom stray from the boilerplate: Remark on how many millions of Americans are expected to fly between Wednesday and Sunday; remind them to arrive at the airport as early as possible; get some shots of stranded travelers sleeping on the floor; interview a bedraggled passenger who, after standing in a security line for the past 190 minutes, is happy to chime in, "Well, at least we're safer." They might as well use the same clips every year.

My own pre-holiday columns have followed basically the same pattern: Remark on how many millions of Americans are crazy enough to fly between Wednesday and Sunday; remind them to arrive as early as possible; make fun of stranded travelers forced to eat Chick-fil-A sandwiches for Thanksgiving dinner; ridicule somebody else's story in which a bedraggled passenger, after standing in a security line for 190 minutes, was happy to chime in, "Well, at least we're safer."

New carry-on rules mean those security lines are going to be abominable this week, perhaps making for juicier than normal footage. I'll be watching from a safe distance, snickering at the television: "Really, how can a nation that doesn't allow cranberry sauce on a plane not be the safest nation on earth?"

There's a certain weirdness to the idea of food being a potential terrorist weapon, but since the TSA has insisted on bringing this absurdity to bear, here's a brainteaser: mashed potatoes. A few years ago we learned that holiday fruitcakes are prone to set off airport explosives detectors, but in light of the new liquids and gels prohibitions, what about mashed potatoes? Mashed potatoes are a hybrid threat: not quite solid, not quite liquid, and only semi-gel-like (unless they're overcooked). Am I allowed to bring a Tupperware container full of mashed onto my flight?

You think this is silly, and it is, but a week ago my mother caused a small commotion at a checkpoint at Boston-Logan after screeners discovered a large container of homemade tomato sauce in her bag. What with the preponderance of spaghetti grenades and lasagna bombs, we can all be proud of their vigilance. And, as a liquid, tomato sauce is in clear violation of the Transportation Security Administration's carry-on statutes. But this time, there was a wrinkle: The sauce was frozen.

No longer in its liquid state, the sauce had the guards in a scramble. According to my mother's account, a supervisor was called over to help assess the situation. He spent several moments stroking his chin. "He struck me as the type of person who spent most of his life traveling with the circus," says Mom, who never pulls a punch, "and was only vaguely familiar with the concept of refrigeration." Nonetheless, drawing from his experiences in grade-school chemistry and at the TSA academy, he sized things up. "It's not a liquid right now," he observantly noted. "But it will be soon."

"I wonder if this isn't a test," murmured another guard. The dreaded, mind-bending, what-if-it's-frozen test.

"Please," urged my mother. "Please don't take away my dinner."

Lo and behold, they did not. Whether out of confusion, sympathy or embarrassment, she was allowed to pass with her murderous marinara.

My father, meanwhile, was at the adjacent checkpoint, arguing with a screener over a can of shaving cream and a small collection of fishing lures.

All of this took several minutes. During that time, a hundred or so passengers languished behind my parents in a long line, impatiently waiting their turn for what ought to be a "Candid Camera" sketch, but instead is our version of national security.

Thanks in part to cheap airfares, the Thanksgiving weekend travel rush has set new domestic passenger records for each of the past few years. Will this year be different? Ticket prices remain low, but I suspect unprecedented numbers of Americans will be opting not to fly. If the pre-holiday madness I've witnessed and have had described to me over the past several weeks is any indication, terminals are going to be hellish.

Inanity of the rules aside, one way to get the lines moving faster is if passengers and their carry-ons are better prepared. Make sure your tubes and vials are of the correct volume (more on that in a minute) and properly packed in the officially sanctioned, quart-size, sealable and transparent plastic bag. The TSA has put together a traveling road show of sorts, staging media events at various airports. There's your security dollar hard at work: giving packing lessons to the public.

On Friday I spoke with Anne Davis, a TSA public affairs manager. "We encourage passengers to use common sense," she says. "When in doubt about a specific item, they should err on the conservative side and pack it inside their checked luggage. People should also review the guidelines on the TSA Web site."

I asked Davis if that same common sense applies to the agency's screeners.

"Absolutely. Our workers are highly trained, and we encourage them to exercise discretion when it comes to screening certain materials."

Personally, in my travels during the past few months, I've witnessed anything but discretion. What I've seen is a draconian obsession with the exactness of container sizes and their contents, including overzealous guards actually yelling at hapless passengers. Did some of that discretion finally came into play with Mom's tomato sauce?

"Probably," thought Davis.

Well, good for that. And as for mashed potatoes? TSA spokespeople aren't known for their senses of humor, but I was able to get a laugh.

"Well, I can't be sure," she said. "I suppose, as a rule of thumb, if you can spread it or smear it, you should probably stow it inside a checked bag."

This talk of spreading and smearing risked vectoring the conversation in a terrible direction, but I had one more question. Beginning Nov. 6, the European Union began enforcing its own liquids-in-a-baggie policy for carry-ons. The precise specs would appear to present a problem for European passengers connecting to U.S. domestic flights: the E.U.'s per-container standard is 100 milliliters; the American standard has been 90 milliliters, or 3 ounces. Technically, what's legal in Frankfurt, Paris or Rome would be contraband in New York, Chicago or Atlanta. Correct?

"No," informed Davis. "Airport security will not disallow items over any negligible difference. TSA and E.U. officials worked together in standardizing their procedures to avoid confusion. The Europeans chose the 100-milliliter standard because it best dovetails with ours."

Well, to be picky, 90 milliliters best dovetails with ours, but there's that discretion again -- and a salute to TSA for not confiscating personal care products over a teaspoon-size discrepancy. No sooner did I hang up the phone when I learned that the agency's policies have been officially altered. The 3-ounce, 90 ml limit we've gotten so used to is now a 3.4-ounce, 100 ml limit. Just who is dovetailing with whom?

And all of this is for what reasons, again? Because last summer, a stumblebum group of would-be British attackers, in possession of neither airline tickets nor passports, were maybe, possibly, hoping to brew liquid explosives, using methods that many experts contend would be extremely difficult or impossible to produce a bomb with.

Heaven help us. If you're venturing into this craziness anytime soon, you'll definitely need something funny to take along to keep you from going berserk at the X-ray machine or renouncing your citizenship and moving to Norway. Nothing would be better than a copy of SkyMaul, the in-flight shopping parody magazine created by award-winning, San Francisco-based comedy troupe Kasper Hauser. (Something about the word "troupe" conjures up visions of mimes, but K-H themselves use it in their promo material, so I'm going with it.)

SkyMaul is the perfect sendup to a concept -- in-flight catalog shopping -- that has been screaming to be sent up for a long, long time. The real SkyMall, which assumes that every American has an insatiable hunger for necktie organizers, remote-control pool toys and mail-order steak, is always just half a step away from self-caricature. The K-H gang of Rob Baedeker, Dan Klein and James and John Reichmuth give it that nudge into full hilarity. With 120 pages of fodder, it's hard to pick a favorite. I'm partial to the bee thermometer -- "There is only one way to know the true temperature of your bees" -- the Cry for Help Object, the Brooms of the World Collectors Set, and the Three Veterinarians of Nazareth figurines set: "In ancient times, these beast-healers gamboled about the countryside, laying hands upon sick flocks. Here we see Japeth and Magog looking on as Tomargah nurses a lamb back to consciousness with his own man-breast." It's the descriptions rather than the "products" themselves that make for the loudest guffaws.

"Our main goal was laughs," says Baedeker. "And there are many targets of satire: We went after the right and the left, the religious and fantasy zealots, consumer and business culture, and the language of advertising. SkyMaul's genesis was a series of boring plane trips. When we traveled to shows together, we would write fake captions over the photos in SkyMall, and pass the magazine back and forth across the aisle to try and crack each other up."

Haven't we all done that? I once made a birthday card entirely from SkyMall cutouts.

I can't think of anything more suitable to take along during a flight. Well, except of course for my own book. I hope Kasper Hauser has better luck with airport placement than I did with "Ask the Pilot," which was never widely available there. If over Thanksgiving you see piles of SkyMaul at Borders and Hudson Booksellers, by all means grab yourself a copy. Just don't tell me about it.

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Do you have questions for Salon's aviation expert? Send them to AskThePilot and look for answers in a future column.

By Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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