Mike the Mad Biologist

The TSA Liquids and Gels Farce

By way of Jay Ackroyd, we come across this article about the whole “liquids and gels” silliness. If you fly regularly, it’s nothing you don’t normally experience:

My carry-on goes through the scanner and comes out the other side. One of the guards squints at his monitor, then shoots me a hostile look. What’s this, no plastic baggie? He pulls my luggage aside, opens it, and asks me to repack my liquids and gels “the right way.”

I do as he wants. When I’m finished, I hand him the baggie so he can run the items through again.

To my surprise, he won’t take them. “No,” he says. “Just put them in your suitcase and go.”

But …

“Just put them in your suitcase and go.”

I look at him for a minute. Apparently my having to repack them was a punishment exercise? All right, fine. Lesson learned, I unzip the approved, one-quart zip-top bag, and begin to dump the containers back into my toiletries kit.

“No!” interjects the guard. “Leave them in the plastic!”

“Huh?”

“You have to leave them in the plastic bag!”

“But I’m already through the checkpoint. You already screened them.”

He shrugs. “They need to stay in the bag.”

“No they don’t.”

“Yes they do.”

“Why?”

“They need to stay in the bag. You should know better.”

He was not giving in. And so I tucked away the baggie full of liquids and walked off, puzzled and annoyed.

The purpose of having your containers sequestered is to make it easier for the screeners to inspect them. What you do with them before or after the X-ray machine is nobody’s business. The guard had the right to have me repack them, but only for the purposes of putting them through the scanner — which he didn’t do. There is no requirement to have your items in a baggie anywhere other than at the inspection point — not in the terminal, not on the plane, not in your bathroom and not in your car. Even if such a rule had a useful purpose, all a person would need to do is duck away, open up his luggage, and rearrange the liquids and gels any way he sees fit.

Which is exactly what I did. I took 15 steps, unzipped my suitcase and emptied the containers into my toiletries bag the way they were originally.

I would just add that after mentioning to a colleague that I had flown to DC recently, he told me that he and his girlfriend had done so too. Not only did she accidentally have a can of liquid in her bag that went through unstopped, it was a spray can of mace.

An aside: I always put my liquids in bags long before the TSA even existed (hipster!), but that’s so they wouldn’t accidentally spill onto my other stuff–the three ounce size is really stupid.
I feel safer, don’t you?

Comments

  1. #1 Mokele
    April 29, 2011

    During some recent fieldwork, a collaborator of mine found a scalpel handle and 4 fresh blades in his carry-on. A bit of backtracking led to the realization that he’d flown across the country 4 times with them, and never once been stopped.

    On the other hand, I will never forget the look on the TSA screener’s face when I put through a bag containing a 2 foot long gator skull.

  2. #2 EugeneK
    April 29, 2011

    Here is my anecdote. The spring break we flew from Toronto to Jamaica. Security checks in Toronto were something out of the 90s: no taking off shoes, liquids stayed in the bags, no OCD-level passport checks. The craziest part of all this — majority of flight was over the US.

  3. #3 NoAstronomer
    April 29, 2011

    A few years ago, going through security at Tampa, didn’t take my laptop out of it’s case because there were no signs telling me to.

    I guess that is probably my fault. I naively assumed that because when I came through the same checkpoint a month prior there were signs that in the absence of signs laptop removal was no longer required. So I allowed it to go through the scanner still in the bag.

    Wrong.

    My assigned TSA representative glares at me,

    “Is this your laptop.”
    “Err, yes.”
    “Why didn’t you take it out of the bag?!”
    “There’s no …”
    “You should have known! Now we have to test it!”

    Testing it apparently involved subjecting it to a 10-minute battery of swabs and some sort of chemical analysis.

    Having become quite attached to my balls I didn’t ask why they couldn’t just take it out of the bag (which they had done anyway) and run it through the scanner.

    Mike.

  4. #4 NoAstronomer
    April 29, 2011

    PS In Heathrow terminal 3 there are signs at the security checkpoint telling people to leave their shoes on unless asked.

    Everyone takes their shoes off anyway.

  5. #5 Drivebyposter
    April 29, 2011

    At BWI in 2004 they searched a book I was carrying. It was a Poe anthology. It is about 1000 pages. They searched each page individually.
    They also scrutinized the little silky bookmark thing that hangs out of the top.

  6. #6 don Roberto
    April 29, 2011

    We had brought a cucumber along as a snack on the plane. The screener started to chew my wife out for not putting her liquids in the little ziplock. When she protested that she hadn’t packed any liquids, he opened the bag, rummaged around, and produced the cucumber, to much mirth. Apparently, they are so saturated with water that they show up as liquids on the scanners.

  7. #7 CC
    April 29, 2011

    On a flight a few years ago I was wearing a full-zip fleece and my wife was wearing a 1/4-zip fleece. I was required to remove my jacket where my wife was allowed to keep hers on. Same weight. Same color. Same number of pockets. Different length zipper.

    Shortly after the Chicago shoe-bomber incident, I was also required to remove my shoes for scanning. I happened to be wearing flip-flops…

    I feel safer.

  8. #8 Lee
    April 29, 2011

    meanwhile, a guy I know was on a hunting trip in Colorado last fall and in deer camp, took his handgun and put it into the inside pocket of his day pack, with a full box of ammunition in the pocket next to it.

    Came time to go home, he decided to use his day pack as his carry on, forgetting that his handgun was in it (and yes, he’ll be the first to tell you he would have deserved whatever legal shit happened to him for his astounding stupidity).

    He realized his error when he got home and started unpacking and his handgun wasn’t in the checked gun case. He blanched, remembered, and retrieved the handgun and ammo from his day pack – which had been his carry-on for his flight from Denver to New York – JFK.

    I feel much safer.

  9. #9 Cullen
    April 30, 2011

    The TSA is security theatre, nothing more. It’s the illusion of feeling safer for the ignorant and the enabling the politicians to claim they’re ‘fighting the war on terror’ as well as making some people a lot richer (like Michael Chertoff, who now works for the company selling porno scanners) but actually accomplishing absolutely nothing.

    The real threat (a mass-casualty terrorist incident, stopping transport to, from, and in the US for economic impact) is still there. All the TSA has done is moved the target from a hard(er) to a soft target; from air-side (e.g. semi-secure) to ground-side (e.g. unsecured). How many casualties would result from driving a truck bomb into the airport arrivals lounge of a major metro airport at say 5pm? How much good would the TSA do in stopping this?

  10. #10 Mia
    May 2, 2011

    @8: I wonder how much money could be saved (and perhaps spent on *real* security measures) by not going through all these ridiculous motions. What say we suggest it to the Congressional Cutmongers? (Somehow I don’t think they would want to touch this one.)

    On a totally irrelevant note, I think you meant “i.e.,” not “e.g.”
    e.g. = exempli gratia (for example – literally, “for the sake/purpose of [an] example”)
    i.e. = id est (“that is”)
    (If only such simple explanations would suffice to get us through airport security….)