Many of us prefer a bit of order in our lives; some insist on a lot of order. Let’s just say that I have a strong preference for the familiar, I prefer consistency in recurring situations. You don’t get that kind of comfort from the TSA security checks at American airports, nor at major airports around the world.
I went through the security check at LAX two years ago on my way back to my home in Asia. From the time that I got onto the checkpoint line, to the time that I walked out the other side, it took one hour and forty-five minutes. The time spent shuffling forward through the maze seemed like forever. As we approached the checkpoints themselves, we could hear the impatient TSA agents barking orders at travelers. It was very stressful, redeemed only by the near certainty that we would be allowed to go on our way without being injured or detained in the process.
Arriving at the checkpoint, we became the ones being barked at. Shoes off! In the trays! Computers out of the cases! In a separate tray! Belts and watches in the tray! Jackets off! And then through the body-scanner.
“What’s that in your back-right pocket!” Oh, taking out a handkerchief, sorry about that. (The agent examines the handkerchief and hands it back to me with a sneer. Luckily it was clean. Carrying them is an old habit from Catholic school, where we were required to carry one. I never use them to blow my nose; I carry them for use as emergency bandages, or as a face mask in case of a tear gas attack.)
Last month I went through the process again. I made sure to get to the airport ridiculously early, in fact I was surprised that they allowed me to check in at the airline counter and check my bag so long before the flight. I figured that they were allowing the extra time for the TSA check. I went up to the same location that the checkpoint was in two years ago, and I wondered where all of the people were. I was directed to the end of a line by an agent who seemed almost relaxed. There was no vast crowd, and no long serpentine line. The entire process took fifteen minutes!
Shoes on, belts on, watches on, laptop in the bag. Out of a sense of cooperation I took the change out of my pocket and put it into the tray with my attaché case. There were no body scanners in sight, just the old-fashioned metal detector, which did not register my belt and watch. The whole experience was surreal.
Many of my fellow travelers and I were a big giddy from the experience. A few even mentioned the change to a nearby agent. Now came our greatest shock: the agent smiled, and she even gave a short laugh! “Oh, don’t get used to it,” she said, “these procedures are temporary.”
I was sitting, waiting at my gate, four hours before we were scheduled to board the plane.
Not only on that day, but also in general, the tremendous variety of the procedures at airport checkpoints around the United States, and around the world, is somewhat disconcerting. The procedures are different in every airport; they vary considerably from country to country; they are often different on any two separate days at the same airport. Most countries give you a thorough going over before you can board a plane to leave, but there are countries, such as Singapore, which give you a more thorough check upon arrival (lest you be one of those miscreants who wishes to pollute their beautiful city-state with chewing gum). Are some places safer than others? The whole thing is confusing.
I know that it is bad form to complain about the good fortune of getting through an airport TSA checkpoint so quickly and easily. Please accept my apology. I’m sure that they’ll make up for it next time.