Airport security exceptions and subjectivity: What a crock

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.

TOPICS: Security

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.

Topic: Security

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  • Some airports give baggies out

    I recently flew out of Seattle and Oakland and not only did that pre-screening guy check your baggie, he had baggies to give you if you didn't have one.

    Regarding Holiday Inns, you've stumbled upon something there. I remember staying in Holiday Inns on roadtrips with my parents and they have really reinvented themselves recently.
    • It's mostly for show

      If you know your chemistry, you'll realize that most of these rules are for show. Once you start letting people take in quart-size bags with multiple small containers, it won't take much for terrorists to figure out how to add! You could easily take a good size EMPTY container in your carry-on. Just a few trips to the airplane lavatory from several bad guys could fill that empty container.

      And are we checking inside people's artifical limbs at all? There's a pretty big volume there....
    • They're stopping because of cost

      I said to the TSA guy that they should give baggies out and he said they used to but they dropped the program because of cost.

    • Re: Some airports give baggies out

      Just came back from Puerto Vallarta to Vancouver BC (non-stop). At the PV security, they had a huge box of baggies ready so you could put all your items in it (including watches, change, belts, sunglasses etc). I did find it odd that they allowed the woman ahead of me to put her 500ml (8oz) bottle of water through the X-Ray machine.
  • Saving face

    These measures are a way for the TSA to back out of their ridiculous war on liquids without looking like total idiots. The ban on liquids was unwarranted--the threat that caused it was physically impossible.
    Even if several terrorists smuggled liquid explosives on board, it is "practically speaking, impossible" to make a bomb on an airplane because of the equipment and expertise required, Kapin said.
    But the Hollywood myth of binary liquid explosives now moves governments and drives public policy. We have reacted to a movie plot. Liquids are now banned in aircraft cabins (while crystalline white powders would be banned instead, if anyone in charge were serious about security).
    tic swayback
  • Holiday Inn

    I've stayed in Holiday Inns all over the midwest and did not find the service you described at all unusual. It's rare nowadays to find one that doesn't have Wi-Fi everywhere, and, while amenities vary, most will provide toothpaste, handcream, etc, at no charge on request. When I travel, I always look for Holiday Inn first to see if there is one near my destination.

    Of course, I also agree that the security restrictions are "a crock."
    • Yeah, but have you ...

      ever received a call from the person who checked you in to make sure you're ok. There's a bit of important connectivity there that makes the customer feel good. For the duration of your stay, that person who checks you in becomes the hotel chain to you. They are your interface. If I received the call from someone somewhere else, it wouldn't be the same. You feel like they remembered you and they care. Call me a sap, but that's building relationships and relationships are the foundations of most business arrangements.

      • Re:Yeah, but have you

        In the last 19 years I have traveled 8 to 12 nights a month and this is not uncommon at the establishments that want to spend a little time to forge an unforgettable relasionship.

        15 seconds of the desk helps' time and you are impressed. Sometimes it takes so little to make an impression.
  • Dave the whole "new homeland security" tirade

    is bogus bs. Every single bit of it... and check this out... [url=]An elephant, 6 piece[/url] mariache band walked across the Mexican / American border... 13 October 2006, 5 years AFTER the twin towers!! Homeland security is not about keeping us safe from the bad men, but keeping us cowed by our government and corporations. ]:)
    Linux User 147560
    • How much of a threat did the elephants pose?

      Sorry, not a good example. I don't want the DHS wasting time going after politicians doing publicity stunts. I want them doing real work to go after those who really prove a threat. And, no, that doesn't mean closing our borders, it only means closing them to those who are out to do harm.

      Instead, the DHS practices bogus security theater, much like your politician's publicity stunt. We get empty gestures which inconvenience us all, yet serve no useful purpose, other than letting the ignorant feel somehow safer because some action is being taken, no matter how meaningless it is. For example, the No-Fly list, exposed for what it really is by CBS News:
      tic swayback
      • The point is, if a man

        can ride and elephant with 6 piece mariachi band across our southern border, what illegal and "dangerous" stuff is making it across as well?

        I live in California, I see everyday just how ineffective border security STILL is 5 years later. Ask the people in Texas too. Bottom line, publicity stunt or not, the fact remains that homeland security is not about securing the nation from outside threats... ]:)
        Linux User 147560
        • The logic doesn't follow

          ---can ride and elephant with 6 piece mariachi band across our southern border, what illegal and "dangerous" stuff is making it across as well?---

          Perhaps the DHS is so busy stopping the dangerous stuff that they don't have time to waste on politicians trying to make names for themselves who pose no threat at all?

          ---Ask the people in Texas too. Bottom line, publicity stunt or not, the fact remains that homeland security is not about securing the nation from outside threats..---

          Again you confuse two issues. Homeland security is not, and should not be, about sealing our borders. That's a part of it, at least keeping dangerous individuals intent on doing harm from crossing our borders. But it's only a small part. How many of the 9/11 hijackers snuck into the country? Weren't they all here legally?
          tic swayback
          • Okay I will try to be a bit more clear...

            When I was in the Navy, I participated in LEO.

            I received a lot of my training from [url=]SEAL's[/url] and Coast Guard.

            While performing these duties for 2+ years, I saw a large amount of contraband from drugs, sex slaves to weapons. What we pulled off the market was only 1% of what was getting through. 1%. And that was by sea!

            By land, the DEA, Border Patrol, FBI, DHS and whomever else in the alphabet soup, is involved, only stops 15-20% of border crossings and intrusions of illegal weapons and drugs as well as the trafficing of human cargo.

            The point is our border security is inadequate to handle what is coming through. Florida still has issues with people coming into the country illegally via boats. The Coast Guard and Navy cannot stop them all. In the Pacific theater, hundreds of tons of drugs and weapons for gangs throughout the nation still get through.

            The highjackers didn't sneak into the country. Many were here on valid visas and trained by our own people!

            I am more concerned about the drugs and gangs entering this nation than I am about some radical nut job group half way around the world. Everyday I see just how ineffective our policies and border patrol is.

            There should not be a homeland security in the first place. We already have in place a very well designed and underfunded system. We have local, state police. National Guard (imagine that! Use the National Guard as they were intended!), the Coast Guard. We have all the spooks we need. And there is absolutly no need to spy on US citizens.

            In place is the NSA, CIA, FBI, NTSB, FEMA, DEA to name a few. What they need is a single method of sharing data across agencies. Better technology and training on how to use it. Better intel gathering and disemination as well.

            The powers that the (un)patriot-act gives the government exceed what is really needed to realistically protect this nation. If people are so concerned about keeping bad people out, then why is there still a massive influx of narcotics, weapons and gang members from our southern borders?

            Could we stop it? Yes. Why don't we? Someone somewhere in power is making some big money off of it. ]:)
            Linux User 147560
          • Fair points

            I think your points are fair and reasonable, what confused me is that they are somewhat off the subject--the article is about airport security, allegedly protections against terrorism. While border security is important too, it is pretty much a separate issue. Having tighter border controls will not have any effect on terrorism.

            ---There should not be a homeland security in the first place.---

            This is a really key point. What we seem to have done is take a bunch of smaller agencies capable of working fairly well, and turned them into a huge bureacracy slowed down by its own weight, incapable of accomplishing anything other than meaningless show pieces.
            tic swayback
  • Airport security-An Oxymoron!

    I do not understand why you are surprised by any thing that TSA does- Nothing is uniformly enforced across the US even, the global policies are yet again random. Did you wonder why we have to take out our laptops in the USA and not in Europe? Like most of the post 9/11 institutions our government is spending billions doing very little logical-I guess feel good to the voters must be more important than securing our citizens.
  • Government Fraud

    The entire Department of Homeland Security is a fraud perpetrated upon the American people.

    All the precautions put in screening passengers (by TSA), have done absolutely nothing to reduce our threats to security, and have done far too much to harrass innocent customers. What's amazing is that there hasn't been MORE people driven postal (that we know of) by all of this.

    What DHS has done is create another boondoggle for the government to hire illiterate and incompetent boobs and put them in positions of authority, and spend vast amounts of our hard earned money.

    LinusUser is right. Our borders are a sieve. Always have been, and always will be. How the heck do you think the Kennedy's family got their seed money? The only thing all this security has done is make the already law abiding march in lock step (or is that goose step?)
  • Lack of Planning on Your Part

    You are correct-What a Crock! You put yourself on the stupid report list. That usually happens when someone doesn't bother to check requirements and then blames the system. It is even worse that you used your position to complain. Grow up and stop whining! Security is not and cannot be tailored to the fact you didn't bother to learn what was required. Does your Mom still dress you??
    • Great job...

      ...of missing the point. And way to go flaming an individual over something trivial when the real problem is sheeple like you who are not only willing to submit to bandaid security measures that don't make us even the slightest bit more secure, but line up happily to do showering your disdain on what I'm sure <i>must</i> be a baby-eating satan-worshiping liberal stepping out of line to gripe about the Dubyah.
  • working as intended

    It's about paranoia, not security. None of this stuff is really about making travelers or the country more secure. Nobody's seriously trying to stop the real threats. The next Timothy McVeigh or Richard "bomb shoes" Reid will walk right on a plane with a laptop with C4 where the battery goes or his shoes laced up with detonator cord. Or drive his dirty bomb into Manhattan in a garbage truck.

    The extra scanning and searching at the airport is for *dramatic effect*. The administration wants to remind people all the time that we are "at war" so we will consent to sending our money and our children to die overseas. They want to get us used to not having any privacy. They want to re-legalize racial profiling. Most of all they want us to focus on "terrorism" so we'll overlook the real threats to our national and personal security.

    And so far it has been working really well. Ask ten of your neighbors. What's more dangerous to our future, sending all our manufacturing to China or "terrorism?" Huge federal deficits or "terrorism?" Importing over half the oil we burn or "terrorism?" While you're at it, pick ten people at random and ask them if they've read _1984_ or know what the Reischtag Fire was. Scary.
  • The Homeland Doesn't Need to be Secure

    I'm somewhat certain that we've been experiencing an uneventful terrorist experience for years here because the terrorists have deemed the US a relative non-threat to their objectives, whatever they are. Look at our country. Do they really need to blow up planes to cripple us? When the airport security scrutinizes your travel aftershave needs or takes away your new bottle of fragrance, you might want to try stepping back and just take a look at the big picture. The particular opposition the terrorists have given to US international activities have reduced our government's effectiveness in handling things to a pathetic joke, and exposed our government as a large, incompetent fraud. If they've left us alone for however long, but have been seriously busy in Britain, it's probably because there's less of a need to attack a bunch of crippled fools than there is to attack a more formidable international presence. The US has mostly destroyed itself, regardless of terrorists, so if the terrorists' job has already been done for them, why would they bother continuing plots to blow stuff up? They've got the government wasting tax dollars to employ government security employee idiots at airports to cause problems for legitimate travelers. It really didn't take much, once you think about it.