Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Airport Security Theater...Of the Absurd

I have spent the last couple of months hopping from airport to airport in the US and Asia. The only thing I can conclude is that airport security would be laughably preposterous if it wasn’t supposed to be so important. Here’s some reviews:
  • Japan (Narita and Haneda/Tokyo and Matsuyama). Rating: excellent. As far as airports go, Japanese airports have to be the best I have seen. They are clean and orderly just like many things in Japan, and well thought out in regards to security. The main part of the airport is where you check in, get your tickets, and check your bags. This is also where all of the restaurants and gift shops are so you can enjoy a meal or a business meeting at the airport with no problem. When it is time to catch your plane, you go through the security checkpoint (which like the check in areas had minimal lines), are quickly screened, then it’s off to immigration (again there are minimal lines) and then down to your gate. Once you pass the security screenings there are no restaurants or gift shops and you feel like you are in a secure area. Aside from a short lecture from the security screener (she pointed out that in Japan one needs to put their toiletries in a Ziploc bag…as she picked up a Ziploc bag and put my toiletries in it) each of my experiences in Japanese airports was quick and painless, efficient and effective.
  • US (too numerous to mention). Rating: meh. I usually do all I can to avoid lines at US airports including checking in online, printing my boarding passes ahead of time, and only bringing carry-on luggage so the first line I encounter is the security screening line. These can be short and quick but are more often than not long and not so quick. Of course after you pass the screening, you can go into any number of shops and restaurants and pick up a weapon of some sort and bring it onto the plane with you. That’s a comforting thought. I don’t have to go on about TSA agents as you can Google or YouTube various versions of TSA idiocy for days. I do need to point out, however, that during one recent trip the TSA agent pulled out a bottle of cologne from my bag, looked at it, noted that there was less than a half ounce left, then put it in my bag and sent me on my way. On the return trip another TSA agent picked up the same bottle of cologne and said “I can’t let this pass because it say’s six ounces on it and you can only have a total of three ounces.” I politely pointed out that he could clearly see that there was less than a half ounce in the bottom of the bottle and I hadn’t had time to transfer it to a smaller container. His response was “well we have to go by what is written on the bottle and the bottle says six ounces.” Duh. I was late for my plane and didn’t feel like arguing the point but maybe there should be a math test or something for TSA agents. People who don’t have any sort of common sense annoy me.
  • South Korean (Incheon/Seoul). Rating: stupid. When you get off your plane in Seoul you then need to go through a security screening of yourself and your bag before you go to the immigration line, even if you are just going to your connecting flight and not actually going into the main part of the airport. I wanted to point out that since we hadn’t actually left a secure area, the need for a rescreening was questionable but I didn’t. So my bag is screened and the screener says “we see something on the screen, can you find it for us” as she pushes my bag at me. I looked at her like she had lost her mind but resisted the urge to point out that once security has my bag in their custody they really shouldn’t give it back to me to rummage through looking for a) something that they can’t even describe which could then b) give me the option of palming a dangerous item while pulling out a random undangerous item and giving it to them to make them content. I ended up pulling out some metal trinket, they looked at it, stuck it back in my bag, and handed my bag back to me without sending it through the x ray system again. Gah.
  • Philippines (domestic and international/Manila and Davao). Rating: dismal, horrendous, horrible. Hmmm…where to start… The airports are dirty and unorganized and there are lines everywhere but much like the country, that is to be expected. Don’t get me wrong, I like the Philippines well enough and travel there often but I think they would be much better off to get rid of security all together because it is simply ineffective. Then there is the “airport tax” which ranges from about $5 to $20 to even leave the airport and get on a plane which amounts to legalized extortion but then again…it’s the Philippines. So when you enter the airport they screen your bags. You then drag them to check in and wait in an amazingly long line (while I usually travel with a carry on only, this time I was hauling stuff back and forth between the states and PI so I had to check bags both coming and going) before getting in another line to pay the airport tax. After this you and your carry on bags are screened again. You can then stop at shops or restaurants while waiting for your flight (and if you choose, pick up a nice weapon like a knife from the restaurant to carry aboard with you). Before you board your plane your bags are given another glance by security which amounts to just looking at you and your bag I guess to determine if you look dangerous. Finally, they apparently want to load some planes faster so gate agents tell half the passengers to walk down the stairs to the tarmac so as to load the back seats in the plane via the stairs to the tail section door.  Unloading the plane works much the same way so the result is that you have a hundred plus civilians wandering around the tarmac. Ayayay.  The surprising part was that when I arrived home, I was searching through my checked bags to find the four-inch buck knife I had taken with me. I couldn’t find it anywhere and figured it had been jacked somewhere along the way (also not uncommon in the Philippines) and was disappointed but didn’t worry about it. A couple of days later I dumped out my carry on bag and there was my knife. The bag had been screened three times and the knife still, unknowingly, got on the plane with me. Wonderful. I feel ever so secure in my travels.
My overall impression of airport security…well, you can check out this video by George Carlin which pretty much sums up my feelings. There could be some sort of global standard for this sort of thing (and inspections to make sure the standard is being followed; no airport had a shoe standard as some made you take off your shoes and others didn’t), they could stop trying to reinvent the wheel and use an airport security method that has been proven (like this one), or they could say ‘hell with security’ and let any traveler who wants to arm themself (which would dispatch with the terrorist problem rather quickly).


  1. You been spending a couple of months freeloading from your friends.

    Get a job.

    Get a home.

  2. Not sure what this has to do with airport security but anyway... We have technically been homeless for ten months, not two. The experiment was set for one year so we have a couple more months to go. We always offer to pay for our lodging but no one has ever accepted payment from us (although we do provide quite a bit of skilled help to the people we stay with). Two months of "freeloading" as you call it in Southeast Asia couldn't be further from the truth (I think we single handedly raised the GNP-of both the countries and the families we stayed with--in the areas we stayed in). With a sufficient income coming in each month, a job is not necessary. I am in the process of buying another house, but as we have found throughout this experiment, a home isn't actually necessary and can actually be a hinderance during economic times such as these.