I’ve been through security countless times at countless places, and I pride myself on wasting the least amount of time. This requires that I be fully cooperative. I am also a private pilot, and so I can affect a pretty good “yes, sir, yes, ma’am” style of snappy camaraderie. When airport security is tightened, and everyone is being asked, “May I look into this bag, please?” I reply happily, “You bet, sir! Let me open it for you!”
On a recent Friday, I picked up my prepaid, overnight round-trip tickets 20 minutes before departure, without any check-in luggage. The ticketing agent told me that my carry-ons would be searched, and that I needed to obtain a signature from security on an attached label in order to board. I said, “Yes ma’am, no problem.” I thought, “Security must be really tight today.”
With no lines at security, I got through in record time. My bags got X-rayed, and my level of whatever those portals you walk through measure was determined to be under the threshold. I must be the person with the lowest metal content in the history of air travel. I do not even carry small change. (I am practical.) So I asked the security people, “What about the signature?” A supervisor appeared, quickly signed while avoiding my naively friendly gaze, and handed me to Junior, who then proceeded–methodically, if not neatly–to unpack everything I was carrying, and to toss my clothes, toiletries, etc., into a dirty bin nearby.
Then it hit me. It was not that security was especially tight: It was only me they wanted. And that “May I?” polite foreplay had gone out the window. The label my friendly hometown airline had affixed to my bags had unexpectedly made me a marked man, someone selected for some unknown special treatment. The routine was broken; the power had shifted; the violation had begun. I suddenly felt as if in the grip of a giant vise, a terrible feeling I had last experienced as a teen-ager before fleeing Communist Hungary.
When I recount this story to friends, this is where they start to smile, as if a diagnosis of my condition had suddenly become apparent. After all, if someone with post-traumatic stress disorder jumped 2 feet in the air every time a door slammed shut, good friends would be more concerned about the person’s condition, not the door. In a like manner, my friends may suspect I am suffering from some Hungarian Refugee Syndrome, which makes me overly sensitive to perfectly reasonable intrusions by the state.
I try to explain: The communism I had fled was hardly traumatic or violent. One aspect of the horrible vise was the constant minor humiliations I had to suffer, such as interaction with the block warden, the party overlord of a block of houses, who had to give his assent to all matters tiny or grand, including travel. On this Friday in the United States, I was being singled out for an unusual and humiliating search. My personal goal was to fly to Los Angeles for a meeting that was important to me. If I had refused the search–cried “NO!” as it were–I assume they would have let me go home, but I would have been forbidden to board the plane and would have missed my meeting. So I did what I had done 30 years ago: I chose to be humiliated just so I could reach my goal.
I’ve just had my FAA physical for my pilot’s license. It is a thorough search for diseases and disabilities. I knew what it would entail, why they do it, and that everybody is treated the same way. I had no problem with that.
The airport-security search took about six minutes. Junior kept up an awkward canned patter, assuring me that I would be a safer person for this and that he understood my anger. I mumbled a lie about how I was not angry with him personally. First I attempted to hang onto my dignity by being passive. However, as time stretched out, I found myself cooperating to get it over with.
I collected my clothes from the bin, my tie from the floor. I was free to go to L.A.
T he next day, I found the Note in the return-ticket envelope. Of course, it had been there from the beginning, slipped in by the ticket agent. But who reads those inserts next to the “Limitations on Baggage Liability”? The salient paragraphs from the Note:
Why was I chosen?
Passengers are selected both randomly and through an objective systematic approach based on direction from the FAA.
How can I avoid this in the future?
Please understand that Federal Regulations prohibit FAA personnel, XXXX Airlines, and all other air carriers from sharing specific information regarding this program with the public.
Who could be against an “objective systematic approach” (except for the inventor of the automatic buzzword generator that gives us terms like “synchronized synergistic systems”)? What does “based on” mean? Is the airline just following orders, or is it adding its own fantasies? And as to what one can do to avoid this treatment in the future (good question!), the pamphlet is clear: nothing.
The following Wednesday, I had to fly to L.A. again, this time with an associate. I decided against carry-ons. I still felt like a total paranoiac when I repacked the contents of my soft carry-on bag into a hard-case bag to check in, and when I asked my associate to do the same. But I was determined not to be humiliated again. And of course, we flew Another Airline. At curbside check-in the agent noticed my one-way ticket. Uh-oh. “We’ll have to check it inside.” Surprise!
“Both of you guys have been tagged by the computer.”
“What does this mean? Why?” I asked innocently.
“It is a random selection by the computer,” came the reply.
“I do not believe it is random,” I opined with conviction.
“Sir, I assure you it is completely random,” said the agent quite sincerely, adding for reassurance, “Why, half an hour ago [the computer] tagged a guy who could barely walk.”
“But what does it mean to be tagged?” we asked again.
“You have to identify your carry-ons!” the agent ordered.
“We have none,” we said triumphantly.
“In that case you do not have a problem.”
My associate was impressed by my prescience, and we both felt free and in control as we walked off with our hands in our pockets, carrying only a few dollars, the boarding card, and a driver’s license. We had a great day. I felt much better: I was not completely paranoid. I fit the profile. But a profile of what? I could not even begin to imagine.
My associate was returning before me. Early next morning there was a phone message from him. “I am calling you from the gate. I’ve been tagged again and this time, they wanted to search my check-in luggage. I was livid and made a big scene. They relented and bypassed the computer.” I am a shaggy-looking guy with a foreign accent. My associate is an Air Force Reservist who has the bearing of “Iceman” in Top Gun. What profile does he fit?
I returned to my hometown later, using another form of transportation.