Airport Security Stories

Traveling for a while has given me the opportunity to accumulate a couple entertaining stories about my encounters with airport security when fumbling my way through the metal detector exercise.

1.  Pre-Trip Happy Umbrella Turned Sad

This first story takes place a couple years back.  I am at the Boston airport and the security line is empty.  At least it is empty of other passengers, and that brings the guard to passenger ratio up very high when I step up.  I’ve never seen a group of guards look so excited about an airline passenger.  I start the whole routine of taking off my shoes, taking out the liquids, removing my computer from its bag, emptying my pockets, and so on.  I walk through the metal detector with no problem as is to be expected considering my pants are falling down from no belt and all of my other possessions are currently being passed through the separate scanner.  My shoes come through first and a guard approaches them and asks to take a particle sample off the top.  My tennis shoes may have seemed more threatening than I had realized.  Then, my bag appears out of the scanner and it just sits there waiting for me as I am tying my shoe laces.  However, before I can finish with my shoes, someone asks if they can do a “random” check on my bag.  I say sure, and while going through the bag, he finds my bright yellow umbrella.  There are few things like a bright yellow umbrella with a handle that has a suspended smiley face to improve a rainy day.  He finds this innocuous yellow ball with a painted smile and two dots for eyes floating in the handle of my umbrella and he explains that I am not allowed to take this with me.  I am quick to respond that it is less than 3 oz, so there shouldn’t be a problem.  He then goes on to explain that this situation falls under the Snow Globe Category and because I am unable to access the inner space of the handle, it must be confiscated.  Frustrated that security is taking longer than if there had been a descent line of passengers, I show him that he can remove the handle without taking the entire umbrella.  He returns the umbrella, and I ask him if he finds it strange that he has just returned the more dangerous part of my umbrella.  There is a solid awkward silence before he apologizes for taking my handle, does not return it regardless, and we part ways.

2.  18ml too much of Sunscreen

During one of my many stops in the Bangkok International Airport, which looks more like a luxury shopping mall than an airport in some sections, I forget to put my 118ml tube of sunscreen in my check baggage.  It is good sunscreen and I try to reason with the guard that I probably cannot even remove 100ml of sunscreen out of this tube if I wanted to.  (100ml is the liquid limit for the rest of the world who deals in metric.)  I then convince her to let me run around the airport and try to find a container small enough so that I can transfer the sunscreen and carry it on.  After much debate, I am given 13 minutes to see what I can find.  I run around the airport and I return to the security checkpoint with my 100ml tube and ask to see my sunscreen.  I start the transfer and I quickly realize that the sunscreen gets caught in the neck of my new bottle and I have to frequently pound the bottle on the table to force the sunscreen to settle to the bottom.  The security guard is watching me closely and thinks that the bottleneck (pun intended) is that the sunscreen does not want to come out fast enough.  She asks if she can do the transfer, and I don’t feel like I have many options so I let her try.  She forces the sunscreen to the open end of the tube, she places this end of the tube inside the bottle and starts squeezing with significant force.  I take a step back.  Soon after, sunscreen literally explodes all over the bottle, the table, and her hands.  I gasp.  I figure if they are going to give me a hard time for 18 extra milliliters, I am allowed the “involuntary” reaction of gasping.  The gasp causes those nearby to look, which of course is the point, and the security guard starts to hand the sunscreen and the bottle back to me.  I look at the mess and sensibly ask if she has any napkins or paper towels.  Eventually, I do end up filling my 100ml bottle up at least three-quarters, and I am on my merry way.

3.  Scissors

To set the scene, we are leaving Paris, I have a red beret on, and as has become the rule for my passage through airport security, something gets a double check.  In this case, my backpack needs to be examined.  I put my beret back on now that they trust there is no metal in my felt red hat, and the security guard starts to dig in my bag.  Again, he finds sunscreen, which I say he can take.  However, he also finds scissors in a first aid kit I have been carrying around.  I explain that I am impressed with this find and that I have passed these scissors undetected through many an airport security.  He removes the scissors from the kit, does something with his key chain, and then returns the scissors back to their original pouch.  Amazed, I need to stop him and ask why I get to keep them.  He is confused as to why I am asking, and he initially pretends not to notice.  I ask again, and he explains that scissors are allowed to be of a certain length (I believe 6cm) on an airplane.  He then goes to throw away the sunscreen, and I again stop him and say that it’s pretty good sunscreen, and if he can, he should take it home.  He laughs, throws away the sunscreen, and we split never to see each other again.

4.  “You need to drink that or throw it away”

A plastic disposable water bottle is by definition disposable if one forgets to drink its contents before venturing through security.  However, a metal, green, sustainable, refillable water bottle is not as trash-ready.  I am in the Frankfurt Airport, and I get stopped after going through the metal detector because there is water in my bottle.  Germany, a country that strongly believes in rules, is not the place to mess with security.  That said, in a very friendly way, I take a solid couple gulps of water and then pause for a break.  I probably ask the guard a filler question at this point since he is watching me drink my water and it seems a bit awkward.  I repeat the gulp, pause, question routine about 3 or 4 times, after which the guard says that it’s fine and I can continue.  This is particularly good news because I will be sitting in a window seat on the next flight making the bathroom much farther away.

My First Traveling Companions

The Passport Ice-breaker Game:

Fast forward about 10 hours and I’m sitting on the plane with 3 hours left of this marathon flight to Beijing from LAX. I’ve been able to sleep a descent amount partly because I was so sleep deprived that I was passed out before the plane even left the gate. With lighter eyelids, I now receive the immigration form from the flight attendant. I think she could tell that I wasn’t from China. I’m not sure what the biggest give-away was, but my appearance and my language barrier are both high on the list.

Now that I was relatively rested and feeling more sociable, I thought it was a good time to meet my non-English speaking row mates, and what better ice breaker than comparing passports and visas. I receive the yellow immigration form and pull out my passport, and immediately, I notice how interested the couple sitting next to me was. The wife spoke a small bit of English, which was helpful while we tried to make friends. It was also helpful when I was filling out my immigration form. When I was trying to find a couple details that I was supposed to transfer from the visa in my passport to the immigration form, a few of them were only written in Chinese. I wasn’t sure I had it in me to start busting out some Chinese characters, but luckily, my new friend was able to translate it into English and I was spared the embarrassment of what my Chinese characters would’ve looked like.

As the couple sitting next to me stares more and more intently at my passport, I hand it to them with a gesture that says, “go on, take a closer look”. I would’ve said it too, but most verbal cues were lost in our conversation. The first thing they do is settle a disagreement they had when they immediately looked at the year I was born. They show twenty-five by holding up their fingers, first 2 and then 5. I tried to ask them how old they thought I was, but that conversation path ended up being rather unsuccessful, so I moved back to passport examination. At this point, they take out their passports and we compare some of the differences. The most obvious difference was that they had Chinese passports with US visas, and I had a US passport with a Chinese visa. Another very noticeable difference was the amount of artwork that is placed throughout the US Passport. I recently renewed my passport, so I am not sure if the artwork was there to this extent before, but when comparing it to the plain pages of the Chinese Passport, the graphics and images became quite noticeable. All in all, the pictures received praise from my neighbors, and then they proceeded to show me that there were hidden images that you can see when holding up a page to the light. This hidden-image feature was also present on their passports, which showed a graphic of the Great Wall.

Now that the ice was broken, we championed the small talk that is available to people who have trouble understanding each other. I find out they went to New York and LA, they learn that I am going to Beijing and Shanghai, and they give me a recommendation of where to stay and what to eat while in Beijing.

Finding the Hostel:

In one word, the Beijing Airport is impressive!  They remodeled the airport for the 2008 Beijing Olympics and that was very obvious.  High ceilings, elaborate displays, clean and shiny, and streamlined.  Going through customs was quick and easy, the bags were already coming out when we got to baggage claim, and I was done within about 30 minutes of landing, and that includes having to take a tram from the terminal I landed in to the baggage claim.

After going through baggage claim, I bumped into Eric from Cleveland who looked similarly lost.  He was in Beijing on business, but also didn’t know a lick of Chinese and was trying to figure out how to get into the heart of the city.  Since I had an address from my hostel and knew that I was heading in a similar direction, I asked if he’d be willing to share a cab.  The first buses into the city wouldn’t be leaving for at least another hour or two.  Eric said yes and we shared a cab to his hotel, which was about 2/3 of the way to my hostel, and then I continued on.  Overall, I’m where I wanted to get to, I’m here in one piece, and I’m starting to think about how I want to start the day since it is not even 8am yet.

Although I might not get to all of them, some spots I’d love to see while here include the Forbidden City, Tianenmen Square, the Great Wall, and the Temple of Heaven to name a few.  I’ll wait for some others in the hostel to stir and then I’ll see if I can meet some buddies to adventure with for the day.