Sunday, April 10, 2016

TSA Security Check

In March, Alaska Airlines began flying direct from Sonoma County Airport to John Wayne Airport in Orange County (OC), and last weekend we took advantage of the new service by flying on one of the first flights available. What a boon for us! Our son and his wife live in OC, and our daughter lives only an hour away in the L.A. area. Sonoma County Airport is not much bigger than my vegetable garden, and we flew on a prop plane about the size of my mailbox. The runway was practically a poppy field. The airport in OC is pretty small also. However, undaunted by their diminutive stature, both of these airports take airline security as seriously as they do at JFK International.

As a white old lady with no bling or flashy electronics, I am usually as boring as a crust of bread to the TSA. My husband, however, is another story. He is a black male for starters, which obviously should not make him automatically suspect, but the default setting for triggering TSA high alert mode is apparently “man of color.” Next, he wears two different subcutaneous devices to help him control his Type 1 diabetes:  an insulin pump and a blood-sugar-level monitor. Then, to top off the ensemble, he also carries the equivalent of a Black and Decker tool chest of crap in his pockets, half of which is made of metal. Moreover, he’s woefully disorganized, so he often forgets to take off his belt or remove his cell phone from his pocket, or some other detail that is the security-machine equivalent of triggering the space shuttle to start the sequence for re-entering the atmosphere with a flaming shield and no parachutes. He typically sends the security machine into paroxysms with beeping alarms and flashing lights. On a scale from oven timer (1) to TV section of Best Buy (10), my husband is Disneyland (104) at the airport security check.

Having grown accustomed to what I can expect at the TSA with my husband, I generally plan to arrive at the airport four hours early to give an extra hour for my husband to get through security and an extra three hours for him to kvetch about it while putting his shoes back on and reloading his pockets with all that crap he carries around.

On our trip to SoCal last weekend, they cheerfully waved me through the security check at the Sonoma Airport without a hitch. Then my husband stepped into the machine wearing his belt, which caused it to shriek “ah-woo-gah” as frantically as a tugboat trapped in a herd of stampeding icebergs. While half a dozen trays of his crap rolled down the conveyer belt and came to a stop next to where I stood, a TSA worker asked him to step aside to the higher-level security area so they could pat him down. I leaned over the railing that delineated the higher-level security area to tell him I would wait for him at the end of the ramp. Immediately, several distraught young TSA workers with perky ponytails descended upon me and barred my access to my husband. They were so young that I wondered if their parents knew they were at the airport. (I mean, weren’t they supposed to be in school on a weekday morning?) One of them told me that I could not have any contact with my husband because I was cleared and he was not. “No conjugal visits?” I asked in mock surprise. The adolescent TSA ponytail girls eyed me with consternation. They looked like cheerleaders parading in police uniforms. It did not appear that any of them understood what the word “conjugal” meant, which is odd, since the whole purpose of adolescence is to have sex. I thought it was a good joke and it was wasted on them.

As I waited for the TSA kids to decide whether or not my husband’s belt was a bomb, they confiscated our lunch and ran a detection device over every inch of our salads to determine if they contained explosive material. While olive oil does tend to increase my husband’s explosive tendencies, it poses no life-threatening danger to air travelers. Also, we carry juice boxes with us because they are helpful if my husband has a low blood sugar episode. We have learned that if we declare them as a medical necessity, then the TSA will allow us to keep them. But they must run the detection device over them to determine that they are not explosive. While a TSA cheerleader lovingly stroked our juice boxes with her wand, an agent patted down my husband and declared him approved for travel.

He put his shoes back on and joined me at the conveyer belt, where a TSA cheerleader promptly asked him to remove his shoes again. I can’t remember why (maybe just to see if he would have a stroke). I guess he had been cleared for travel but his shoes had not yet been cleared, and so he was not allowed to have contact with them until they had been patted down. It took him forty-five minutes to reassemble his crap, repack his backpack, refill his pockets, put his belt on, get back into his shoes, do his morning stretching routine, read the newspaper, and iron his jacket. Then he discovered he had misplaced his cell phone. So he took everything out again, put it all back in, and then noticed he had left the cell phone in the high-level security area where they had patted him down. He had to apply for a top secret clearance from the CIA to return to the security area to reclaim his phone. Then, once he got it back, he had to check his email. By then they were boarding the plane for our return flight from OC and we hadn’t even gone there yet.

Once, about twelve years ago, we flew from Oakland to Philadelphia. This was not long after a flight was hijacked by terrorists wielding box cutters. Security was tight. They picked apart our bags and discovered that my husband had, of all things, a box cutter in the side pocket of his carry-on. He normally took that bag to work with him on a daily basis and when cleaning it out for the trip he forgot to remove the box cutter. They confiscated it, of course. Fortunately, they did not mistake him for a terrorist and insist on a strip search, which would have certainly sent him over the edge (and would have caused us to miss our flight since he can rarely get dressed in under an hour). That evening, as he was unpacking his bag at my brother’s house in Pennsylvania, he discovered another box cutter in his bag that they had overlooked. Makes you wonder, huh? I mean, not about the competence of the TSA, but about this:  Who forgets one box cutter in their carry-on, let alone two?

You see what I am up against when I travel with him. Next time we go somewhere via air, I’m booking a separate flight for myself. I could leave two days after him and arrive before he does. On our way back from OC, I was randomly handed a courtesy TSA Pre-Check tag that allowed me to bypass the security check completely. Meanwhile, my husband, of course, was treated to the full pat-down, had to remove his belt and shoes (twice), gave blood, passed a treadmill test, and was required to take the citizenship written exam before they cleared him for flight. He has had it. He’s applying for the permanent TSA Pre-Check status. To achieve this, he has to mail all his belts and shoes to the FBI, allow them to wiretap our blender, submit a 10,000-word autobiography, and provide them with the password to his Facebook account. Ask me if I feel safe yet.

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