Monday, November 15, 2010

The Day The TSA Wouldn't Let Me Take Airline Silverware Past the Airline Security Gate

By Patrick Smith

I’ve just worked a flight coming from overseas. I’m wearing my full uniform, and have all of my gear with me. The plan is to run upstairs and leave my flight bag in the crew room before catching my commuter flight home. Unfortunately this means having to endure arrival screening, one of airport security’s most irritating protocols. After clearing customs, passengers and crew alike face the x-ray line and metal detector before they’re allowed back into the concourse. (This inconvenient rule is in place because of another inconvenient rule — the one that makes connecting passengers claim and re-check their luggage when arriving from places outside the United States — even though their bags have already been screened at the point of departure. The thinking is that people could unpack this or that dangerous item from a checked suitcase — a four-ounce bottle of shampoo say — then carry it on to the next flight.)

So, together with a throng of exhausted passengers I’m funneled into the grimy, dimly lit checkpoint. I hoist my crew bags onto the x-ray belt, then pass through the metal detector. Once on the other side, I’m waiting for my stuff to reappear when suddenly the belt comes to a stop. “Bag check!” shouts the guard behind the monitor.

The bag she’s talking about turns out to be my roll-aboard. A second guard, a mean-looking woman whose girth is exceeded only by the weight of the chip on her shoulder, comes over and yanks it from the machine.

“Is this yours?” she wants to know.

“Yes, it’s mine.”

“You got a knife in here?”

“A knife?”

“A knife,” she barks. Some silverware?”

Yes I do. I always do. Inside my roll-aboard I carry a spare set of airline-issue cutlery – a spoon, a fork, and a knife. Along with packets of noodles and other small snacks, this is part of my hotel survival kit, useful in the event of short layovers when food isn’t available. Borrowed from my collection of airline silverware (some of us really have such things), it’s the exact cutlery that accompanies your meal on a long-haul flight. The pieces are stainless steel, and about five inches long. The knife has a rounded end and a short row of teeth — I would call them serrations, but that’s too strong a word. For all intents and purposes, it’s a miniature butter knife.

“Yes,” I tell the guard. “There’s a metal knife in there – a butterknife.”

She opens the compartment and takes out a small vinyl case containing the three pieces. After removing the knife, she holds it upward between with two fingers and stares at me coldly. Her pose is like that of an angry schoolteacher about to berate a child for bringing some forbidden object to class.

“You ain’t takin’ this through,” she says. “No knifes. You can’t bring a knife through here.”

It takes a moment for me to realize that she’s serious. “I’m… but…. it’s…”

“Sorry.” She throws it into a bin and starts to walk away.

“Wait a minute,” I say. “That’s airline silverware.”

“Don’t matter what it is. You can’t bring knifes through here.”

“Ma’am, that’s an airline knife. It’s the knife they give you on the plane.”

“No knifes. Have a good afternoon, sir.”

“You can’t be serious,” I say.

With that she grabs the knife out of the bin and walks over to one of her colleagues, seated at the end of the checkpoint in a folding chair. I follow her over.

“This guy wants to bring this through.”

The man in the chair looks up lazily. “Is it serrated?”

She hands it to him. He looks at it quickly, then addresses me.

“No, this is no good. You can’t take this.”

“Why not?”

“It’s serrated.” He is talking about the little row of teeth along the edge. Truth be told, the knife in question, which I’ve had for years, is actually smaller and less sharp than the knives currently handed out by my airline to its first and business class customers. You’d be hard pressed to cut a slice of toast with it.

“Oh come on.”

“What do you call these?” He runs his finger along the miniscule serrations.

“Those… but… they… it…”

“No serrated knives. You can’t take this.”

“But sir, how can it not be allowed when it’s the same knife they give you on the plane!”

“Those are the rules.”

“That’s impossible. Can I please speak to a supervisor?”

“I am the supervisor.”

There are those moments in life when time stands still and the air around you seems to solidify. You stand there in an amber of absurdity, waiting for the crowd to burst out laughing and the “Candid Camera” guy to appear from around the corner.

Except the supervisor is dead serious.

Realizing that I’m not getting my knife back, I try for the consolation prize, which is getting the man to admit that, if nothing else, the rule makes no sense. “Come on,” I argue. “The purpose of confiscating knives is to keep people from bringing them onto planes, right? But the people planes are legally handed these knives with their meals. Plus, I’m the pilot! How can you… I mean… it’s just… At least admit to me that it’s a dumb rule. ”

“It’s not a dumb rule.”

“Yes it is.”

“No it isn’t.”

And so on, until he asks me to leave.

What happened to me was wrong on so many levels that it’s hard to keep them straight. Just for starters, do I really need to point out that an airline pilot at the controls of his plane would hardly need a butter knife is he desired to inflict damage?

Now a liquids story:

One day in 2006 my mother caused a small commotion at a checkpoint at Boston-Logan after screeners discovered a container of homemade tomato sauce in her bag. What with the preponderance of spaghetti grenades and lasagna bombs, we can all be proud of their vigilance; and, as a liquid, tomato sauce is in clear violation of the TSA’s carry-on statutes. But this time there was a wrinkle: the sauce was frozen.

The icy red block had the guards in a scramble. Liquid, solid, gel, what was it? A supervisor was called over to assess things. He spent several moments stroking his chin. Drawing from an exquisite knowledge of refrigeration, he observantly sized things up. “It’s not a liquid right now,” he noted. “But it will be soon.”

“I wonder if this isn’t a test,” murmured another guard.

“Please,” urged my mother. “Please don’t take away my dinner.”

Lo and behold, they did not. Whether out of confusion, sympathy, or embarrassment, she was allowed to pass with her murderous marinara.

This got me thinking. The proper course of action, need it be said, would be for TSA to overhaul its entire approach. For several reasons — not the least of which is the traveling public’s apparent eagerness to be subjugated, harassed, and humiliated — this is not going to happen, but is it too much to ask, in consolation, for the agency to exhibit a little common sense now and then, sanctioning some flexibility in its protocols? If we’re to believe that TSA screeners are highly trained professionals, as the agency maintains, can they not handle the responsibility of making an occasional judgment call, some on-the-spot decision-making?

“Our screeners are allowed to exercise leeway in some cases,” a TSA spokesperson told me. “They have the training, and the obligation, to exercise discretion.” Maybe, but the tomato sauce incident notwithstanding, I’m not seeing much leeway and discretion. I’m seeing blind adherence to nonsensical rules. I’m seeing a draconian obsession with the exactness of container volumes and the dimensions of harmless objects, up to and including whether or not a crewmember’s tiny knife has serrations on its blade, as if they alone could be the difference between unsafe and safe. Enforcement of this kind transcends mere tedium. Not only does it do nothing to improve safety, it is a national embarrassment.

The above appears in a much longer article Terminal Madness. Read the entire article here.


  1. Mr. Wenzel-

    Thank you so much for your continued vigilance in exposing such stories, exposing the insanity and inanity of airline security theater.

  2. I think I have discovered the model for the TSA. It's parenting.

    Their rules and procedures are entirely arbitrary and ad hoc. They set rules on the authority of "I say so". There is no appeal. You fail to follow the rules and you're subject to instant punishment. They're constantly worrying about the last thing that happened, while those truly bent on mischief are always many steps ahead of them. And when their methods fail, they defend themselves by saying they did the best they could, but their was no other possible way to do it (all while ignoring all other options suggested).