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Samizdata enraged rant of the day

When, in the past, I have posted information about my travels to this blog, people have occasionally commented that the travel sounds great, but that all the time spent in airports and on aircraft must be unpleasant. My response to this is that I go through a lot of airports, but that I do my best to get in and out of them as fast as possible, and I keep my mind on what a miracle air travel actually is and how extraordinarily cheap it is. (I can get up in London and have lunch in Italy, and the lunch can sometimes cost more than the journey).

However, once in a while one has a doosey of an experience, and I had one this morning. I was booked to fly from London Stansted Airport to Bologna in Italy. The flight was due to leave at 7.15am. I got up at an unpleasant 4.30am to leave for the airport. Transport to the airport was uneventful, and I arrived approximately an hour before my flight was due to leave. I was not checking luggage, and walking through the airpot and getting to the front of the security queue meant that I got to the X-Ray machine and metal detector at security by about 6.25am. I took my laptop out of my bag, and put it through the machine separately. The operator of the X-Ray machine apparently decided that there was something in my bag that required manual attention, as occasionally happens. It happens to me more than to most people, because I carry a fair amount of electronic equipment with me: fairly bulky photographic equipment, phones, chargers, a Kindle, accessories for the laptop and an assortment of chargers and adaptors to go with them. Yes, I am one of these people. No, this is not very unusual.

As I said, this happens from time to time. Normally a security person takes my bag off the conveyor belt, and either conducts a manual search of the bag, or tells me to take a particular item out of the bag, and the bag and that item go through the X-Ray machine separately. No big deal, and I am delayed five minutes or less.

However, this morning I discovered that security at Stansted Airport had installed a new system of conveyor belts, and the conveyor belt now forked coming out of the X-Ray machine. Problematic bags that required a manual search now ended up in a separate conveyor belt in a queue of their own. This meant that they did not need to be dealt with immediately to keep the main conveyor belt moving.

So, I waited for someone to deal with my bag. There were four other bags waiting in the queue ahead of mine. The security staff were dealing with various issues, and were being constantly distracted from job to job. They didn’t seem particularly interested in manual searches of bags. When they did start doing a manual bag search, they got distracted by other tasks in the middle of doing so, so that these searches took much longer than they should have. Amazingly, getting to my bag – the fifth in the queue- took more than half an hour. Although I had got to the head of the queue before 6.30am, it was after 7.00am before somebody even started the manual search of my bag. I explained at this point that I was likely to miss my flight, and I was told that

If you miss your flight, it will be your fault. You should have taken your liquids out of your bag as instructed

I had no liquids in my bag, and I explained this. I was then told that I must have left a laptop in my bag. I pointed to my laptop, which I was holding in my hands. I was told that I must have left something I was not supposed to in my bag, as bags were only retained for manual searches when people had ignored the instructions in some way. A further five minutes or more were then taken to inspect the contents of my bag and put my electronic devices through the X-Ray machine again. The person doing this was distracted by other tasks several more times, and the bag search was done slowly and inefficiently.

Thinking about it later, most of the other people in front of me whose bags were subject to manual searches did in fact have liquids in their bags that they had not taken out. This does appear to be the reason for most manual searches. This probably does annoy security staff as it creates extra work for them. This (combined with the “serves you right” response when I mentioned I might miss my flight) makes me suspect that the delays in doing these manual inspections may not be simple incompetence, but something a little more malevolent than that. Surly, resentful employees are going out of their way to inconvenience passengers who are perceived as making things hard for them. All I had done was have a bag with slightly unusual contents. Other people might have accidentally left a laptop in a bag. (I have done this at other airports, and the delay has been perhaps 60 seconds. Not at Stansted today, though). The idiocy of the liquid ban comes into this too. Pointless rules make for pointless jobs and resentful, surly employees. I am still not sure how much of this was incompetence and how much malevolence. A bit of both, I suppose.

As it happened, I did miss my flight. My short trip to Italy is cancelled. I am out of pocket the cost of my non-changeable, non-refundable flight, the cost of transport to the airport, and the cost of one night’s accommodation in Italy, the hotel at which I had a reservation having an “In the event of a same day cancellation, the cost of one night’s accommodation will be charged” policy. Annoying for me, but no fault of any of those businesses, of course. The rental car company (Europcar) with which I had a vehicle booked were nice enough to give me a full refund, however, so I will be doing business with them again. Plus I had got up at 4.30am and wasted a morning for no reason. And I am not sitting beside the Adriatic eating pasta and drinking chianti, which was where I had intended to be this evening, and in fact where I paid good money to be this evening.

So who do I blame for this? The security employees themselves, certainly. Governments who impose stupid security rules, of course. BAA, the company that owns Stansted Airport, certainly. The botched privatisation process of London’s airports, that too. (BAA was a government department that was privatised with a monopoly over London’s airports. It still has the attitude to customer service that one expects from a tax department. Or perhaps the post office. Or the NHS. Or a railway ticket office in Smolensk in 1983. A heavily regulated private sector monopoly that behaves like a government department is not a dramatic improvement on a government department).

To some extent complaining about security procedures at airports is like complaining about the fact that water is wet. These things just are. However, I cannot help but think that an appropriate level of outrage is appropriate.

33 comments to Samizdata enraged rant of the day

  • Eddie Willers

    Monumental bummer!

    But, as usual, you hit the nail squarely on the head. Malevolence + incompetence + poorly planned, understaffed operation = delay.

  • Daveon


    ’nuff said.

    One of the things I miss about having a Gold/Silver card for all the major world airline systems was being able to jump security at pretty much every airport. Since then I’ve made it a habit to be in the security line with more than an hour before the flight leaves.

    I’ll also admit to being happy to pay to skip security where it’s available. The 3 quid I spent at Luton on route to Barcelona for MWC was well spent, saving me at least 40 minutes in a queue.

    I like the option to pay to avoid unpleasantness… it’s suitable capitalistic for me and is rather the point, IMO, of having money.

  • Check-in closes 45 minutes before departure for most flights at British airports. It should always therefore be possible to walk from the checkin desk to security, get through security and get to the gate between that moment when check-in closes and the moment when the gate closes. If you cannot do that, the airport has fucked up badly. Having a fast queue for extra payment as at Luton is fine, but if you arrive at the airport in time to check-in, you should then always be able to reach your plane in time regardless of that.

    I agree completely that Luton is a much more pleasant and better run airport than Stansted, and this has a lot to do with it being the only major London airport that is not and has never been owned by BAA. I only wish it had a direct rail link to London. The messing around with bus and then train ruins the good things a little.

  • Daveon

    Well, yes. What you should be able to do at airports and the reality have been pretty far apart for a while now. I fly internal US more than other places and vie taken to giving myself far more time than I would have a few years ago purely to deal with poorly run airports.

    Terminal 5 LHR with a BA status card is a dream. I wouldn’t want to do it without one.

  • I will note that the liquids ban is total junk and easy to evade as long as you have a small plastic bottle. I’ve now been through 3 airports with a small bottle of duty free gin in my carry on bag. Despite the bag being searched twice because of excessive electronics no one either found or mentioned the gin bottle. I also regularly (and knowingly) keep a small (50cc) bottle of contact lens fluid in my carry on bag and I never bother to separate it. No one ever notices it either.

    In fact I only discovered the gin myself when I dug down into the bottom of one particular section of the bag and found it. I assumed I’d left it on the plane previously having forgotten about this section of the bag.

  • I’d send a bill to BAA. They’ll knock it back for sure, but start a letter-writing war of attrition and you might get some of it back. Ask them questions like “How long should I allow for security to check my bag when it contains a charger and some cable” and don’t let up until you have a specific answer. If you are told you did not allow enough time, they are obliged to tell you how much time you should allow.

    I came across the forked conveyor belt for the first time in Paris Orly on Monday, and realised I’d mistakenly left a bottle of water in the bag. I understand this would piss off the security people, but it was a mistake I’ve never made and I apologised profusely. But if you didn’t have the water, they have no excuse.

    Anyway, what is this bollocks about scanning a laptop separately? This sounds like another procedure, like switching off iPods duing take-off, which has been dreamed up by some fuckwit based on nothing whatsoever. In some airports you don’t have to take it out.

  • I wonder if the “take laptop out of bag” stage is a means for the CCTV crew to “spot the sweaty terrorist”…

    It also seems that the security team need training to differentiate between “urgent” and “important”.

  • Michael Taylor

    Here is a suggestion. It is modelled on what happens at the immigration queue at Beijing airport (plenty of you will know about this). After you have queued up and had your passport stamped, you are invited to press one of four buttons, clearly designed to rate your satisfaction or dissatisfaction with the service you have received. Smiley face for ‘great’, scowling anger for ‘lousy’.

    Management gets not only to know how their public views their efforts, but also manages to track the response of the public to individual ‘team members’.

    It would do no harm for many public (or monopoly private) services to be obliged to fit these simple machines. In general, the results should be published regularly. And in general, part of the management’s ‘incentives’ should be linked to the performance achieved, with targets linked to a nice upward-rising trajectory in them.

    The public sector (and/or private monopolies) may have negligible financial accountability, but measuring public satisfaction by other means is simple and affordable. Your unhappiness at Stansted airport is mirrored a thousand times a day, no doubt, and the net unhappiness generated is an ‘externality’ which does have a cost – it is a charge on the social capital of the society. Wear down the social capital of a country, and watch it slide towards barbarism.

    So, that’s the practical solution. Ironic, I know, that it’s China that provided the solution.

  • Classical liberal

    A propos of what Tim Newman said above, does anyone know the supposed rationale for turning off iPods or similar during landing and take-off? I mean, I know it’s bollocks, but why do they bother?

  • Andrew Duffin

    Here’s my answer:


    Of course, you won’t get to Italy by lunchtime, but otoh the journey is a pleasure in itself.

    Bugger flying.

  • pete

    I think many people forget that air travel is a form of public transport, with all that usually entails in terms of convenience and enjoyability.

    It’s almost as if many air travellers have some tiny part of their brain which tells them, quite illogically, that air travel should be exciting and glamorous like it was 80 years ago.

    To enjoy air travel the answer is simple – buy a private plane.

  • “To enjoy air travel the answer is simple – buy a private plane.”

    {hah!} I can tell that you’re not a pilot. There’s an old saying around general aviation: “Time to spare? Go by air.” This is not a practical solution when one is on a hard schedule.

    Here’s the general problem: “air travel is a form of public transport”.

    Gee, I recall a time when airports and airlines were operated as if they were privately owned, and their owners ran them as they saw fit. It really worked.

  • Kim du Toit

    Michael, as a long-time flier myself, I have only a couple of comments.

    Telling these little gauleiters and unterscharfuhrers that you’re going to miss your flight just increses their feelings of power over you. NEVER admit that you have a deadline — they’re in the power business, not the customer service business. (It’s the same reason why owners of Bentleys, BMWs and Mercedes get more traffic tickets.)

    It’s a total PITA, but if you’re going to travel with all your gear, get to the airport THREE hours ahead of time. That way, they can play all the reindeer games they want with you, and you’ll still make your flight. I know, your time is valuable. But in this case, your shortage of time cost you a trip to Italy, whereas an extra hour upfront would have made the day only marginally more unpleasant.

    I know that you shouldn’t have to do this. But ever since this security Theatre of the Absurd has been introduced, I’ve made a point not to be held hostage by these fuckers — and it’s worked. For an extra hour’s incovenience, it’s worth it.

  • Michael Taylor

    Kim du Toit,
    You ain’t seen nothing about the ‘power game’ aspect of it all until you’ve been subjected to an ‘epd’ (‘enhanced pat down), as as I was at San Francisco airport last month. Once you’ve been through that, you’ll know for certain that the security Theatre of the Absurd does include the state’s demonstration that they have the right to squeeze your balls.

    Yeah, yeah, funny I know . . . . but I realized 15 minutes afterwards that I was still physically shaking. . .

  • Kim: In this instance, it didn’t really matter that I told her I was going to miss my flight, as by the time I had said it the flight was already missed. I am rather glad I did, because the malevolence of the “It’s all your fault” response I got made me realise that the delay was due to deliberate power games as much as incompetence. And it was good to know that.

    As for the “get there three hours ahead of time”, well I fly a lot and that means spending more than an extra two days waiting in airports over the course of a year. If I did that every time, I think I would travel less, and I don’t want to do that. It is a difficult tradeoff. Without doing this, I still don’t miss flights often (the last time was something like 80 flights ago, and that was due to a road accident ahead of me on the way to the airport, so nobody to blame there), and this is the first I have ever missed due to this kind of security malevolence. What this incident does make me want to do is avoid Stansted Airport, as the situation does vary a lot depending on the airport and the country.

    Michael: Ugh. Seriously, that kind of story genuinely makes me want to avoid the US.

  • llamas

    Leaving aside the obvious, which others have already covered – here’s what I took away from this:

    ‘Thinking about it later, most of the other people in front of me whose bags were subject to manual searches did in fact have liquids in their bags that they had not taken out. This does appear to be the reason for most manual searches.’

    So from this, and from the stupid, formulaic, bovine response of the security muppet, we see that deviations have become 100% normalized. The muppet assumed that he/she already knew the reason that your bag was segregated, and applied what has obviously become a standardized process to deal with it. Also, obviously, the staff have fully-formed their ‘us vs them’ mentality, thus ensuring that they are too busy playing power games with their helpless victims to concentrate on their actual goal.

    This is not a good model for catching terrorists. If I was looking to get something bad on an airplane by this route (a stupid thing to do, there are 100 easier ways, but let’s just suppose) I would deliberately leave liquids in my bag to attract attention to it, to get it into the secondary screening line. I want my bag to be searched by someone who has already prejudged the reason for searching it, and who is busy directing their affect at me for being a ‘bad’ passenger, instead of concentrating on my bag.

    Mind you, given the success rate for finding (bad things) by airport ‘security’ screeners, this might be overthinking it anyway. Better to just slip the pistol into my carryon and take my chances in the main stream of carry-ons – which are considerably-better than evens anyway.

    These clowns have never caught a terrorist, and this sort of proof that they have already descended into a formulaic groove shows that they never will.



  • Matt

    I flew out of MSP in February to go to Cancun, and went through the new scanner machine. At the end I was told I had to be frisked, so I nodded and moved to the footprints to wait my turn. I nodded again when i was asked where my bag was (it wasn’t checked-so was she alerting me it might be stolen in the baggage line-really?). The frisker did a rather sloppy frisk of my right side, finding some cough drops in my back jeans pocket. He told me to take out whatever was in there and set it in the bowl. I did so, still not trusting myself to speak to the little Himmler. I was then abashed to not go through security with anything in my pockets ever again, and he didn’t even bother to finish the frisk!

    So, jackhole, I’ve gone through security dozens of times, with definitely non metallic cough drops or candy in my pockets. I wasn’t told I’d be going through the new naked scanner until I’d already put my bag on the TV for short attention span theater. I wanted to say I’ll start obeying security when it starts to make sense, but I fear that will be never again.

    I can’t count the times I’ve been through with water, lighters, Swiss army knives and other verboten contraband in my bag that was completely missed. I guess I’m not surprised, given that after I got back I read someone had gotten a Glock 27 in their carryon bag onto a flight, completely missed by the crack sicherheitsdienst.

    St Paul

  • llamas

    As I feel sure I have recounted here before, I once went through security with several live rounds of ammunition in my laptop case, which doubled as a briefcase. They never found them, but they confiscated a sample of BeCu EMI shielding fingers that I was carrying – apparently I could have used this


    to commandeer the a/c. I didn’t find the ammunition myself till I got to my destination.

    There’s a certain airport I know where you can walk into the baggage claim area off the street – no security checks at all – and walk into the office area where you go to track down lost bags, and in-transit baggage, clearly tagged as to final destination, is lined up in rows. I wouldn’t have room in my pocket for a bomb, on account of the CCW that’s already in there, but it would be the work of a moment, when the clerk’s back is turned, to slip a package into a bag tagged on to another destination.

    Same airport, you can walk into the arrivals area carrying a violin case and find yourself looking at the passangers from not one arrival, but 20 arrivals.

    It’s a joke. It’s a stone joke. Whatever you do, don’t Google for the results of tests of airport security.



  • mikee

    I had a battery operated electric razor in my carry on once. The inspector started feeling around inside my bag without looking, and somehow turned the razor on. She leapt back as if a snake had bitten her.

    As I had no idea what had so startled her, I was rather confused when she asked me, yes me, to reach into the bag and remove whatever was “moving around.” After asking her is she was sure she wanted me to do that, I gingerly lifted the top and realized what was going on.

    My amusement was well hidden, and her relief that it wasn’t a rattlesnake or a bomb or a sex toy was apparent.

  • John B

    Wow! I would have been enraged and let someone know.
    However. Yes. From my experience, and what I read and hear about, it seems to me that airport security has more to do with normalising intrusive and subjugating measures, rather than security.
    It is more about getting us used to, and to accepting, the boot in the face than anything else.
    And we do need to understand that if we are ever to resist it.

  • JK

    Yes, airport security is always unpleasant. A few days ago going through security I put my finger on one small aspect. I found myself automatically saying ‘thank you’ as I was given the all clear, as we all do dozens of times a day to smooth social interactions.

    Of course, they have more reason to be thanking me. And they don’t. The other employees – the airline stewards who have to check every boarding pass and direct every passenger to their seat – all say thank you. Even the customs and passport control usually have a friendly word.

    Security, in their silence, were ruder than anyone I can remember interacting with in the last few weeks. Politeness would cost nothing. The small lack of ‘thank you’ speaks volumes.

  • Mikee:

    Your comment makes me want to put a sex toy in my carry-on bag the next time I take a flight. 😉

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    Check-in Asian style at AirAsia terminal at KL. Sure the “No Liquids” sign was there, but most travellers were toting drink bottles, opened and unopened, food items… and nobody in authority said a word. Subliminal message: “Just because the West has gone “apeshit” paranoid, we don’t have to go along, just go through the motions.”
    You have to pay for everything on an AirAsia flight, so pull out the carton of milk and muesli, processed cheese and biscuits, ham sandwich. After Islam you’d kill for a bacon sandwich and a G&T, right? Can get a tad squalid on a long haul.
    Flight to Haneda (Yokohama) was about 70% occupied. Straw in the wind as AA is the cheapest deal in town.
    And my local supermarket had more staff than punters. It’s not about living forever Sunshine, it’s about living with yourself.

  • Kim du Toit

    “You ain’t seen nothing about the ‘power game’ aspect of it all until you’ve been subjected to an ‘epd’ (‘enhanced pat down)…”

    I have the T-shirt already printed.

    Why, Kim,” you may ask, “what does the T-shirt say?




    If I’m going to miss my flight, I’m going to do it in style. Fuck ’em.

  • Kim du Toit

    Michael (Jennings, that is), I appreciate the extra time you’d spend in airports, and the absolute fucking waste of time that getting there early entails.


    This isn’t 1960 anymore, and the days of getting to the airport ten minutes before your flight’s departure and actually strolling onto the plane? They’re gone.

    Yeah, it’s inefficient — as a one-time $175/hour consultant, believe me I know the value of my time as well as anyone — but I’d rather make my flight and go to where I was planning, than miss my flight because of a (now-lost) principle based on an old way of doing things.

    I have to fill in a fucking government form when I buy a handgun, too (something else which didn’t exist in 1960), and I fucking hate it. But I’m not going to forego buying a new gun because of the new, oh-so wonderful government procedure which is supposed to protect me but which doesn’t (sound familiar?).

    Ditto travel. I don’t want to give those assholes any more power over me than they already have, because I want to indulge in one of my greatest pleasures and won’t be stopped from doing that by some beady-eyed obergefreiter who wants to rub my 56-year-old genitalia.

    Hence the T-shirt (see above).

  • Telling these little gauleiters and unterscharfuhrers that you’re going to miss your flight just increses their feelings of power over you. NEVER admit that you have a deadline — they’re in the power business, not the customer service business.

    That’s true. Whenever I was shaken down by the Russian traffic police, I always pulled a book out and settled in for the long haul, letting them know that I had all the time in the world. They usually didn’t and wanted to get on with collecting bribes, so let me go.

  • The other employees – the airline stewards who have to check every boarding pass and direct every passenger to their seat – all say thank you.

    A vital service if ever there was one. You go onto a single-aisled plane through the foremost door, and they tell you to turn right. No shit. Unless I’m the pilot, where else would I go?

  • Laird

    Kim, I suspect that if you do wear that T-shirt you will miss your flight.

    And if so, I hope they have wireless internet in your jail, so you can let us all know how that “not standing on principle” thing worked out for you.

  • Sunfish

    I see another installment in Dave Chapelle’s brilliant series, “When Keeping It Real Goes Wrong.”

    I’d pay real money to see TSA arrest anyone, as airport screeners have all of the arrest powers of a grade-school hall monitor. They also seem to dislike when passengers shout “HALL PASS! Show me your hall pass!”

  • Still, Kim’s t-shirt gives me a previously unfamiliar feeling of penis envy.

  • Smited. Well, at least this time it’s understandable.

  • Laird

    Glad to see your comment finally popped in, Alisa. 🙂

  • Indeed, a cause for jubilation – if it weren’t for a certain officer popping in front of me:-)