Airport Security Soliloquy

I had the misfortune of traveling to England recently and had such an appalling experience that I just had to share it with you all. The entire experience left me with a bad taste in the mouth.

We were to leave to England on August 12th to London and stay there for a couple of days and go to Crete, Greece from there. It was supposed to be our honeymoon and we were pretty enthused about the trip. Then the security threat in UK occurred and that changed things for us. I was pretty apprehensive regarding the security measures and so I called up the airport to find out if we had to check in earlier. I was told that due to the new security measures, a lot of delays were induced and therefore I had to check in atleast five hours before the flight. Five hours! We therefore went to the airport at 1PM for our 5:50pm flight to London Gatwick. When we arrived at the airport, there was hardly a line at the security check. We finished checking in our baggage by 1:30PM and since there was nothing else to do, we went through security check. The security check involved us removing our shoes, belts, wallets, watches and almost anything that could be removed and which wouldn’t constitute as indecent exposure. Our bags were checked by the security personnel and I was told that I couldn’t carry pens or pencils as they were potential threats. So, I ended up losing two of my pens and a mechanical pencil. I also was carrying a USB jumpdrive and was asked why I was carrying it. I told them that surely a jumpdrive was not a threat and they scowled but allowed me to take it. My wife had recently arrived in the States and this was her first security check in the US. She was appalled by the fact that we people have gotten so used to removing our footwear and sending it through the X-ray scanner. She grudgingly complied and we treaded barefoot to collect our carryons. She was in a bad mood since I had told her that she had to pack all her cosmetics in the checked in baggage, and yes including the lipstick and chapsticks. I still do not understand why chapsticks are not allowed. Its not like someone is going to hold a chapstick against a stewardess’s lips and threaten to take control of the plane, else he/she would smear the used/infected chapstick on the stewardess’s lips.

Anyways, we finished security check by 2PM and now had more than 3 hours to kill in the lounge. A lot of people were doing the same and we all were thoroughly inconvenienced by all this. What better way to kill time than to check the restaurants and the shops in the airport and windowshop at the duty free stores. Mind you, we were told not to buy any dutyfree goods as they wouldn’t allow them on the flight. Three cups of coffee and two packs of large fries later, we were called to board the plane. As we were entering the aerobridge, our carryons were once again subjected to scrutiny by the TSA people. They found a mouthfreshener in my bag – the kind which you squirt into your mouth. They said that it had a liquid and so couldn’t take it aboard. I told them that I could spray it in my mouth for them to confirm that is was a mouthfreshener, but they wouldn’t agree and so I lost my mouthspray. This was getting a little too ridiculous but then, what can you do? If yous ay something, you can get bumped off the plane and that was the last thing I wanted to happen. So we silently walked to the plane. I will not go into the horrible service on the flight as it is not related to security. Lets suffice to say that Air Elbonia (from the Dilbert cartoons) would have offered better service for the money paid. We touched down in London just 30 minutes late. Funnily, it took us more than 35 minutes to come to the gate and to disembark the plane. We then went and collected our baggage and tried to block all this and enjoy our trip.

On August 15th, we were to fly from London Gatwick to Heraklion, Crete. We anticipated loads of delays and long lines and so reached the airport at 6AM for our 10AM flight. We entered Gatwick to see total pandemonium there. There were lines as far as the eye can see. If someone has not gone to Gatwick, well there is a North Terminal and a South Terminal. The checkins are allocated in Zones. All very systematic. This is where is gets warped. The zones are not allocated sequentially and Zone A is opposite to Zone X. Now with flights being delayed in every zone and lines forming everywhere, it starts becoming really difficult to find the correct line and to navigate with a couple of suitcases through the lines. Tempers were high everywhere and you could hear a bunch of babies crying in every corner. Also, another thing which I found funny is that Gatwick airport is not airconditioned. Or maybe the airconditioning had given up, owing to the magnitude of people in the airport. When we reached our agent to checkin the bags, she asked us if we were aware of the fact that due to the threats and the situation, our flight had been delayed and would take off at 2:30PM instead of 10PM. Damn, what could we do? We decided that we would stay at the airport and then go through security at something like 1PM. To pass the time, we decided to go to the North Terminal (our flight was in the South Terminal). The scene there was even worse. Even with many self-check kiosks and a large number of agents to help you check in, the lines were ridiculous. It was worse for someone traveling British Airways. I took almost 5 minutes to walk from the start of the line to end for just one flight. Poor souls had to wait in the queue for hours. To cheer my wife up, I proposed that we have breakfast. We went to a restaurant and spent some time there. The security measure at that time was that we were allowed on carryon item as long as it was a bag or a vanity purse. We were not to have any food or drink on us or in our carryons. We were to have nothing at all in our pockets. Also, we were told to keep our boarding passes inside the carryons and submit them for X-ray Scanning. We sat in a lounge near the departing gates trying to while away our time. The lines were huge and were building up faster than they were moving. It reminded me of my Queuing Theory class that I had taken. The arrival rate was Poisson but the service rate was deterministic. Surely, the system would break down soon. Anyhoo, there were airport security personnel at the entry to these lines and they were asking people not to carry any food or drink into the security area. They were equipped with a number of plastic bags at the entry point and were collecting the prohibited items and throwing them into different bags. I was wondering how they were segregating the items and so went to take a closer look. When I approached the bags, I heard one of the personnel tell a man that no food was allowed. He was telling that he just bought it in the airport and had the bill to prove it. Now, as far as I know, the security measures are made known to everyone, INCLUDING the merchants in the airport. They incidentally didn’t say a word to people who were buying stuff. This poor man had to throw his sandwich that he had just bought. The personnel apologized but told him that he could buy another sandwich after clearing security. Similarly, a couple who had bought purchased of chocolate (Godiva and Ghirardelli) had to throw them away. Now, I observed an interesting detail. The important prohibited items (chocolates, unopened food packets) or the goodies were being collected in one bag and the other stuff like halfeaten sandwiches or meals, or bars of chocolate were being thrown in another bag. Everyone seems to be taking advantage of the situation – the shopkeepers, the security personnel, the restaurants. Humans seem to have this knack of exploiting other’s adversity. There was this incident where a small kid and his mother were entering the line and were told that the bar of chocolate that the boy was eating was not allowed and was asked to throw it. The boy refused to. The security personnel insisted on the boy throwing the bar of chocolate immediately, and the mother, maybe intimidated, snatched the chocolate bar from the kid and threw it into the plastic bag, making the child cry. This was pretty heartrending. There are two things to notice here: One, the security personnel could have allowed the child to eat the whole bar. Surely, by the time he would approach the X-ray scanner, it would be totally consumed. Its not like it would be potentially dangerous if the kid is eating it already! Two, the mother could have waited for a couple of minutes for the child to finish the bar and then could have entered the line. But since neither of these scenarios occurred, it ended in a scene where the boy was bawling in the line, and others were giving the parent dirty looks, maybe mentally commenting on the upbringing of the child without knowing the whole story.

The security check was a repeat of what we went through in the US and there was nothing very different – slow, irritating. and really not very effective. I later found out that 17 planes had been delayed that day in Gatwick due to this chaos. Anyways, we finally boarded the plane to Heraklion at 3:15PM and were in the air at 4PM. We reached Heraklion at 10PM and that was another day lost in our trip. On our flight back from Gatwick to the US, the security measures were relaxed a little bit. In other words, we were allowed to take chocolates on the flight. After the usual delays due to security checks and other unknown reasons, we were really eager to pass through customs and go home. But alas! It was not to be so easily over. We were made to wait at the entrance of Immigration and Customs till everyone on the plane had joined the line. Incidentally, the Immigration people thought that making people wait in a long line and processing people in planeloads would be efficient. How different is this from the processing of boxcars of jews into a concentration camp? Or herding of cattle? And it gets worse. There was no separate line for US citizens. Everyone was to go through one single line and no preferential treatment was given. Hurrah for equality! I knew a couple of people had connecting flights and due to all this, I am sure that they were delayed. More delay was induced at the baggage claim area. I think the bags were being subject to a second X-ray scanning since we had to wait for more than half an hour for the bags to arrive. We grabbed our bags and went home.

Thus ended the saga. Really, the terrorists have won. People are petrified, are treated like cattle, are exploited and have no rights. This is really not a human way of life. We pay thousands of dollars to fly and then comply to walk barefoot and almost strip down to our skin, and then cram ourselves in uncomfortable seats, eat stale food and buy ridiculously high priced beverages (coffee was charged at 1.5 pounds for 75 ml). I have no words to say what kind of a situation we are in. I wrote this so that people would know how horrible things are and hope that we can do something about it. Ah, one can always hope!

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