Monday 25 October 2004

American airport security.

There's been much talk of the increased security measures at US airports since 9/11, especially of the increased officiousness, small-mindedness, pettiness, and stupidity of American baggage screeners and the rules that they have to follow. Now I've been though it three times, I can join in.

I went through O'Hare, Hartsfield-Jackson, and JFK. There seemed to be one or two of the annoying, uninterested, unhelpful staff that everyone's been complaining about, but, for the most part, they were quite friendly and cheerful, especially in Atlanta. I had to take my laptop out of its bag, which is a bit of a pain, but that's not just an American thing: I've had to do that in Europe, too. It seems that it's only the British who have perfected the new seeing-a-laptop-through-its-bag technology. I didn't experience any of the exasperation many travellers have reported at the way security dutifully pick out every sixth person in the line, even when this means searching little old ladies while ignoring angry-looking young Arabic men, because all three of the security checks I went through searched everyone — which, as far as I'm concerned, is fair enough. We weren't sure, but it looked like the group of which I was a part were singled out for special attention because we were from Northern Ireland. Again, this is fair enough, though I have a handy tip for American security staff: the Northern Irish people who are involved in international terrorism tend to use Irish passports, not British ones. Oh, and they usually carry invitations to the Whitehouse with them. (The New York cab driver who drove us from JFK asked us where we were from. "Northern Ireland." We awaited the usual Oirsh blarney-and-shamrock oh-isn't-Dublin-lovely-begorrah comments, but instead got "I gave that Gerry Adams a lift once." Hmm.)

Anyway, everyone getting on every one of my flights had to be thoroughly swiped by metal detectors until no beeping occurred. The detectors were quite sensitive but a bit erratic: they picked up at least one woman's bra strap, but ignored the buttons on my jeans. Anyone whose shoes beeped, and plenty of people whose didn't, had to take them off. Most people were manually frisked. It was all very thorough, but also very time-consuming.

And that was what struck me the most about the whole thing: not rudeness or stupidity, but how long it took. The staff at O'Hare were taking upwards of three minutes per passenger, which is unbelievable, and bloody awful when you've got, say, eight people ahead of you in the queue. They didn't look slow; they appeared to be hurrying through the work as quickly as they could; yet, for some reason, they took bloody ages.

I should make it clear here what I'm comparing them to. I flew between Glasgow and Belfast and between London and Belfast back in the early Nineties, before the cease-fire. In those days, every single passenger getting on a plane in or out of Northern Ireland was frisked by an armed police officer. They were very thorough. They were at least three times faster than the Americans are. I wonder why. Is it just a matter of practice?

All of this has to be considered an improvement over pre-9/11 American airport security, though. I never travelled through it myself, but recently made a discovery that tells me all I need to know about it. I remember hearing at the time that the hijackers had used box-cutters to overpower the crew, and, not being American, vaguely wondering what a box-cutter was. Everyone was saying how it had simply never occurred to airline security that a box-cutter could be considered a dangerous weapon, so they weren't actually prohibited on board planes: if they searched you and found your box-cutter, they wouldn't confiscate it; they'd let you take it on board. Accordingly, I concluded that a box-cutter must be some tiny, seemingly inoffensive tool for, er, cutting boxes. Then I discovered a few weeks ago that "box-cutter" is American English for "Stanley knife". American airline "security" staff considered that a Stanley knife could not be used to harm anyone. There is simply no other conclusion to be drawn than that they were grade-A fuckwits.

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