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by Dick Wilson

Don’t Carry Knife! Tops My Revised Checklist for Flying
Bill Burton’s description of his misadventures in airport security lines (Bay Weekly, Vol. XII, No. 18: April 26) strikes a familiar note as I recall a frightening experience of my own.

In the summer of 2002 (nine months after 9/11), wife Ellie and I were departing on a month-long trip to Indonesia.

All airline travel these days is stressful, but we are SCUBA divers and carry dive gear, which adds to the stress because the gear brings us to the attention of the folks who staff airport security. To make travel a little bit easier and to make sure we don’t forget anything, we use a long checklist that contains all the things we must carry: passports, each item of dive gear, prescriptions, clothes and photo equipment.

We had been careful to follow the checklist, checking off each item as we packed it, and we were confident that nothing was left behind.

Now, here we are at the airport, standing in the security line, anticipating the fine breakfast the airline will no doubt serve after takeoff. We wait for the people in front of us to get their stuff out of the way.

Our appearances should give no one pause: We are late middle-age, and our craggy faces bear all the wrinkles and crinkles that age sooner or later stamps upon everyone. We should not be blips on anyone’s radar. Besides, we wear the mask of bemused frustration affected by all serious travelers. In other words, we think we look cool. Looking cool doesn’t seem to help much, but that’s part of the game of life. Everybody tries to look cool.

But one gets nervous, because one knows from experience that one does not always think of everything beforehand. Praying that we haven’t forgotten something, I try to reconstruct the checklist from memory.

Time to Be Surprised
As I hoist my carry-on bag onto the scanner belt, my brain suddenly goes into a kind of slow-motion phase, replaying all the preparation, the packing, all the rigmarole, everything leading up to this moment, and I picture the checklist. My mind’s-eye lens focuses on the dive regulator nestled in my carry-on. I see the regulator with its four hoses all curled about each other, nestled innocently (we’ll talk about that in a minute) among the socks and underwear.

Like most divers, we carry regulators in our carry-on luggage because regulators are delicate equipment. The carry-on bags, with regulators inside, will be in our possession at all times, thus ensuring that the valuable dive gear inside won’t be ruined by baggage handlers, who are rumored to be ungentle (go ahead, scoff) in the way they handle bags.

As the bag disappears into the machine, my mental image shifts to the stuff attached to the regulator: stuff like dive computer, pressure gauge, compass and something else — my dive knife, which is in its sheath, which is built into the back of my gauge console. My knife is in my carry-on bag! How is this possible? But there it is, and I wish I had never heard of diving or traveling; I wish I were back home in Bay Country.

Now for the disclaimer: A dive knife is not a priority item on my long checklist; it is (or was, before this trip) just another minor article to be checked off, like sun-tan lotion. My old-style knife fits, as I said, in its sheath, which puts the knife out of the way.

But “out of the way” in these trying times is not a consideration for carry-on luggage. “Out of the way” cuts you no slack with security persons.

I recall how, on previous trips, I always remembered to take the knife out of its sheath and pack it separately in the check-in luggage. But not this time. My vaunted checklist even has a note (now overlooked, obviously) to pack the knife in a check-in suitcase.

Now the conveyor belt carries my bag into the black hole where the x-ray does its work, and I know what the screeners are going to see: They are going to see my knife, and seeing my knife will make their day.

Sure enough, the belt stops, and the screener calls for backup. Right. It is my bag that has attracted attention. Everything stops, including my expectation for a nice trip. My heart rate increases to large numbers. Several security officers are now staring at the x-ray screen and at me.

My mental x-ray goes into shutdown. I know why the scanner belt has stopped, but I don’t want to let on that I know. But I do know. I also know that everyone in this terminal is staring at me, etching my face into their memories so they can tell their kids they saw the guy at the airport who was in the newspaper.

Although I have a lot of experience at airports, I am not experienced in smuggling things through scanners, so I try to maintain an air of puzzlement or maybe mild irritation (never mind cool). I want to make sure I don’t look like a real smuggler, although I’m not sure what a real smuggler looks like. What I really want is to not look like an idiot, but things are way, way beyond that by now.

“What do you have in this bag?”

“SCUBA equipment.”

“Is that a knife in there?”

Now is the time to be surprised. I remember reading somewhere that all mammals raise their eyebrows when surprised. I stretch the skin on my brow upward. I think my eyes bulge.

“Oh … yeah, I forgot about it.”

My paranoia soars to new heights. While I’m struggling to come up with what I think is a correct facial expression, I am also conscious of body language. I attempt a casual slouch. I don’t think I am handling this very well. I pray to God to please let me off the hook just this once.

Now the screeners take the search to a new level: I am asked to remove everything from my pockets. The security guy passes a hand-scanner over me, front and back, and I am patted down. No objections from me, no sir. The offending bag is opened, and another officer joins in to explore the contents. They navigate their way through the socks, underwear, shaving kit and other sundries. The searcher asks me to find the knife. I show him the sheath. He retrieves the knife, holds it up at eye level where everyone else can also see it and examines it closely.

The searcher states that I will not be able to carry the knife aboard the aircraft, and that’s fine with me. He gives me the option of surrendering the knife or taking it back to the ticket counter to stow in my checked baggage. I quickly decide to give up the knife, because I don’t want to further delay our progress. Mentally, I say adios to a perfectly good $30 dive knife. I whisper a cheery good-bye to the security staff, and we are allowed to proceed to the gate.

Happy am I. Happy, I tell you. The air of freedom smells sweet, indeed.

Then the security guy comes running after us to give me my wallet, which I had left on the counter after emptying my pockets.

I make a mental note to add several items to my checklist:
  1. Don’t carry knife!
  2. Don’t carry knife!
  3. Don’t carry knife!
  4. Don’t leave wallet at security station!

All of this happened before we were one hour into our 28-hour trip. The remainder of the journey wasn’t nearly as exciting as this.

Passing Muster Nine-Eleven
Those words sit, like a bad genie, on every American’s shoulders. Nine-Eleven has profoundly changed the lives of every American, but those of us who travel may have, perhaps, more exposure to the nation’s heightened awareness than those who stay at home.

While most of us are reassured by stringent security precautions, we must all reassess our travel habits and take care to comply with all security requirements. Here are some precautions that will help avoid embarrassment in airport security lines:

Take care to avoid carrying what the government terms “dual-use” items, such as scissors, nail files or any other object that could be used as a weapon. This is where many otherwise innocent travelers are caught up in security checks.

Take the security process seriously; remember that you can be charged with a criminal offense. Do not argue with the security staff. They are doing a difficult job. In the encounter described here, I found the officials to be courteous and professional.

If you have questions about any item, check with the airline beforehand.

Never try to pass through a security screening area without permission. If you need to assist an unaccompanied child, elderly person or person with special needs through a checkpoint, you must first get authorization from a security officer or the airline agent in charge of the gate.

For more information, check the government’s website at http://ntl.bts.gov/faq/avtsa.html

© COPYRIGHT 2004 by New Bay Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.
Last updated May 5, 2004 @ 11:30am.