About Air Travel

Today, my girlfriend and I returned from a two-day trip to Kansas City, to attend a friend’s wedding and celebrate New Year there. We decided not to check bags, because we were only going for two days and did not need a lot. I usually try to do that, if possible: I’ve never lost my bag, but airlines have on several occasions.

I had heard about the new restrictions about carrying liquids. Continental Airlines sent me an email stating (emphasis mine):

Bring your bag onboard and save time. Trial size liquids, gels and aerosol items (3.4 oz./100ml or less) that fit in one, quart-size (1 liter), clear plastic zip-top bag are allowed beyond security.

The TSA website goes even further and says (again, emphasis mine):

All liquids, gels and aerosols must be in three-ounce or smaller containers. Larger containers that are half-full or toothpaste tubes rolled up are not allowed. Each container must be three ounces or smaller.

All liquids, gels and aerosols must be placed in a single, quart-size, zip-top, clear plastic bag. Gallon size bags or bags that are not zip-top such as fold-over sandwich bags are not allowed. Each traveler can use only one, quart-size, zip-top, clear plastic bag.

I already decided not to bring a bottle of water, like I normally do. This was a big sacrifice already; I easily get dehydrated on planes. But of course, I had to bring a few liquid or aerosol products: Toothpaste, shampoo, contact lens cleaner, deodorant. So I went to CVS the morning before we left and tried to buy the smallest items I could find. I pretty much failed: The smallest amounts of toothpaste and contact lens cleaner I could find were 4 oz. I managed to find a 1 oz. deodorant spray, and I had small sample bottles of shampoo from previous hotel stays. I put everything in a quart-sized clear zip-lock bag, as instructed. To be safe, I took a deodorant stick with me, just in case they don’t want to have aerosol sprays on the plane.

Departing from IAH in Houston, we had no problem at all. I took the zip-lock bag out of my duffel bag, it got inspected, but I was let through and had the pleasure of dressing myself and reassembling my belongings: Belt back on, shoes back on. Wallet back in pocket, travel wallet for tickets and passport back around neck. Notebook back in notebook case, notebook case back into backpack, zip-lock bag of liquids back into duffel bag. I don’t enjoy this procedure, and it was more intense than ever before, but I didn’t complain. This is just air travel as we know it these days.

On the way back, however, leaving Kansas City, we experienced a completely new level of personal service: We did exactly the same as in Houston before, had exactly the same stuff, plus one sealed 5 oz. bottle of a Kansas City brand of barbecue sauce. First we were told that we should have put our liquids in quart-sized bags; so the security personnel removed our little bottles from our quart-sized bags and put them in sandwich-size zip-lock bags. I find the Imperial unit system with quarts and ounces confusing too, but if you’re checking for quart-sized bags, shouldn’t you know how large they actually are?

Then the TSA employees took all items out of our bags and looked at them one at a time. I know they have a right to do that, but when the friendly man began to examine and smell my camera, I began to think that they were overdoing it just a little bit.

We were then forced to abandon some of the items larger than 3 oz. — the 4 oz. tube of toothpaste I had bought just two days ago, and the 5 oz. bottle of barbecue sauce, still sealed-for-our-protection, we had received as a gift from the newlyweds. For some reason I was allowed to keep the 4 oz. of contact lens cleaner, perhaps because it was clear liquid. The expert told me “it’s all about binary explosives these days…”

I was then reprimanded for not putting the deodorant stick into the bag of liquids. I asked why, because I thought the rule was only for liquids and the deodorant stick was a solid, and I was told the TSA screeners “can’t always tell exactly” what different things are on the X-ray machines.

I’m sure studying the screens of the scanners and determining the contents of the bags is difficult. The TSA set up concrete rules, rules that are incredibly strict, so strict that I wasn’t able to buy items that fit them. I think it’s silly that I had to abandon my 4 oz. of toothpaste, but if the regulations require that, I accept it. But a liquid is a liquid and a solid is a solid, and the rules didn’t say anything about having to put solids into clear zip-lock bags. I sympathize with the TSA employees for having to figure out what is soap and what is a bomb, but where will this end?

In 1996, when I arrived in Springfield, Missouri, as a high school exchange student, my host father complained about the security measures that were in place at that time. He said: “They treat all people as if they were criminals.” I replied they were only trying to make it safer for all of us, and we should be eager to help them; abandoning some personal rights and limiting our privacy was in our very own interest. Now I can see my host father’s point. We are all being treated as if we were criminals, and I would not be surprised if soon we have to carry all our belongings in plastic bags, and while we’re in airports, we may only wear transparent garments.

I think the TSA personnel at the Kansas City airport just had too much time on their hands. They were bored, and inspecting every item in our bags, exactly following the regulations and sometimes even going beyond their requirements made the dullness easier to bear. But if this is actually the quality of check the TSA intends to force upon travelers, then I believe they are going too far.

I still think most of the controls are reasonable. I’m cooperative, I’m friendly; I do my best to help the screeners do their jobs. But I have realized that giving up freedom will not make us safe, and I have serious doubts about their efficacy. And be honest: Have the controls at the airports really made you feel safer, or have they perhaps done the opposite, made you more anxious, instilled fear?


About Mathias

Software development engineer. Principal developer of DrJava. Recent Ph.D. graduate from the Department of Computer Science at Rice University.
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