Airport security exceptions and subjectivity: What a crock

Summary:This week, for the Computer History Museum's fellow awards, I made a quick trip to California that took me from Boston's Logan Airport to San Francisco International Airport and back again in under two days. For me, it was the first time I had liquids or gels in my bags since the TSA's new liquid/gel rule went into effect.

This week, for the Computer History Museum's fellow awards, I made a quick trip to California that took me from Boston's Logan Airport to San Francisco International Airport and back again in under two days. For me, it was the first time I had liquids or gels in my bags since the TSA's new liquid/gel rule went into effect. If you're not aware of the rule, it's pretty straight forward. Liquids and gels cannot be in containers any bigger than 3 ounces and all of your liquid/gel items must be in a single 1 quart zip-top bag (nice little regulation for the Glad Bag people). According to the TSA's Web site:

TSA and our partners conducted extensive explosives testing since August 10 and determined that these items, in limited quantities, are safe to bring aboard an aircraft. The one bag limit per traveler limits the total amount each traveler can bring.  Consolidating the bottles into one bag and X-raying separately enables security officers to examine the declared items. By reducing clutter in the carry-on bag, security officers can more easily find prohibited items within the bag.

Just to be clear, this means that if you fill a 1 quart bag with as many liquid or gel containers as possible, the TSA is 100 percent confident that the total volume of the contents of those containers would not be enough to cause a problem if it was some sort of explosive material. I'm by no means an expert on exploding liquids and how much of such a liquid is too much, but it seems to me as though a clever terrorist (or three or four) can find a way to get whatever volume of an exploding liquid they want onto an an airplane. Precedent suggests that the bad guys know how to put more than one of themselves onto the same jet. Not only is it an idiotic rule, it's not being universally enforced in the same way at all airports which is even more enraging to me as a business traveler. My personal account serves as an example.

On Tuesday morning, just before going through the security line at Boston's Logan Airport, I realized I had a big tube of toothpaste. There was a guy sitting at a desk just outside the security area who pre-inspects liquids and gels to make sure you're going to make it through security with whatever liquids/gels that you have on your person. I pulled out the big tube of toothpaste and he said he doubted whether they'd let me through but that, since it was my only item containing a gel or liquid, that I should attempt to pass it through the x-ray machine separately and maybe I'd get a stroke of luck. Minutes later, the x-ray people flagged the toothpaste and gave me the option of sending it to myself in the mail or tossing it (but strangely, not before asking me where I was traveling to as if that mattered). They tossed it. Into the garbage can that was right there by the x-ray machine (interesting place to throw something that they won't let onto an airplane for fear it might explode).

The new TSA rule was explained to me. Six hours later, I arrived in San Francisco and I wasn't going to have a whole lot of time to buy new toothpaste or even a zip top bag to bring it home with me for that matter. It occurred to me that there's no easy way for business travelers to purchase zip top bags one at a time anyway. Or, maybe they're hanging on an end-cap in the airport store for some ridiculous price. It seems to me that if the TSA is going to make a rule like this, it's also obligated to conveniently locate 1 quart zip-top bag dispensers in all airports. I'd pay 25 cents or maybe even $1 if it meant not having to throw out a collection of items that would cost $1 or more to replace (do the math, it works). But at either of those costs, bear in mind that the price range of a typical 125-bag box of 1 quart zip-top bags at the grocery store would be $26 to $125. 

<Short worthwhile digression with tech angle> On Tuesday night, after the Computer History Museum's 2006 Fellow Awards, I stayed at the Holiday Inn Express by San Francisco International. A good trick if you're a business traveler and you know you need sleep is to strategically pick a hotel near the airport so you can wake up as late as possible and still make your flight. I even turn my rental car in the night before and use the shuttle buses so that I don't have to worry about it in the morning.  I normally don't recommend places to stay or take the time out to comment on good customer service. But the woman at the desk provided me with better customer service than I've received at any hotel, ever (If any of you Holiday Inn execs are reading this, I think her name was Ellfie). She asked me if it was my first time staying with them and when I said yes, she handed me a huge bag of goodies that included two 1.75 oz tubes of toothpaste. Talk about serendipity striking! It also had tiny little single-serving containers of hand-creams, vitamins, and Advil. Wow. At a Holiday Inn? Oh, and wait, there's more (here's the technology angle).  The entire Holiday Inn is blanketed with free Wi-Fi. Within moments of getting to my room, the phone rang. It was Ellfie checking up on me to make sure everything was OK with my room. This has never happened to me before at any hotel (and I've stayed at the best of them) and it was happening at a Holiday Inn? I will be back. </Short worthwhile digression with tech angle>

If you read any of the digression, then you know that I picked up some free toothpaste and other liquid/gels during my hotel stay on Tuesday night. But not a free 1 quart zip top bag (hint to hotels). At approximately 7:40 AM (for any TSA personnel that want to review the security tapes), I went through airport security at SFO's Terminal 3 (heading for gate 88) and as I approached the x-ray area, I pulled out the two tiny tubes of toothpaste and two hermetically sealed  containers of hand creme and asked if it was OK to take them on the plane. I didn't have a 1 quart bag. The answer was no and I was again given the choice of stepping out of line to send them to myself via mail, or throwing them out. I asked "what if I just take one of the little tubes of toothpaste and throw out the rest?"  Still, the answer was no.

The woman behind me however did have a zip top bag for her gels and liquids: a 1 gallon one that was packed full with an entire bathroom cabinet's worth of gels and liquids (what on earth?, I thought... but that's another story). She apologized for having the wrong-sized bag and then asked the TSA agent if he could cut her some slack. It was passed through the x-ray machine and this is when the TSA agent on the other end of the conveyer belt picked up the bag  and held it up to the light, visually scanning its contents but never once opening the bag. She handed back to the happy passenger who proceeded to her gate. 

I shook my head in disbelief. What a crock.

Topics: Security

About

David Berlind was fomerly the executive editor of ZDNet. David holds a BBA in Computer Information Systems. Prior to becoming a tech journalist in 1991, David was an IT manager.

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