(Originally posted on 13 February 2011 at my old Jack of Kent site here.)
(11 April 2012 – the post below has now been featured on the great Bruce Schneier security blog, and I can confirm that notwithstanding the 1 April 2012 date, it was first posted over a year before as a faithful account of what happened to me when I flew from Heathrow to a middle eastern country early last year. The security officer in question and his manager were employed by the airline, not the airport.)
Late one recent Saturday evening, I am standing at a departure gate at Heathrow Airport. It is the furthest gate from the main terminal, and I am flying on the last plane out.
By now, it is just the passengers and the airline’s own staff. The passengers are having the final passport and boarding pass check before getting onboard: a formality after a great deal of security and bag searching.
Everyone is a little tired; the rest of the airport looks dark and closed down for the night.
“Excuse me, sir. We would like to do a search?”
“We would like you to give us your handbag and step this way.”
“OK. It is a manbag, or hand luggage. But not really a handbag.”
“Yes, sir. This way.”
My hand luggage is taken off to be searched again. I am now the last passenger at the gate. The flight is due to leave in about ten minutes.
“Sir, could you go behind the screen.”
There is a screen in the corner of a kiosk, in the opposite corner to where my bag is now being searched and unpacked. The young security official from the airline follows me.
“Sir, can you take your jacket off.”
“OK.” I take off my jacket.
“And your shoes.”
I take off my shoes.
My shoes are looked at very carefully. I think of the shoe bomber, who also lived near Bromley. I begin to wonder if they are profiling people from urban north Kent.
“Sir, your trousers.”
“Sir, please take your trousers off.”
The security official clearly was not expecting that response.
He begins to look like he doesn’t know what to do, bless him.
“You have no power to require me to do that. You also haven’t also given any good reason. I am sure any genuine security concerns you have can be addressed in other ways. You do not need to invade my privacy in this manner.”
“I think you probably need to get your manager, don’t you?”.
I am trying to be helpful.
He nods, hesitantly, and goes to get his manager, a middle-aged chap in a brown baggy suit.
“Hello.” I smile.
“You won’t take your trousers off?”
“No. It will be embarrassing and humiliating. You can’t require me to do so, and you have no good reason to ask.”
I smile again and nod encouragingly.
“Oh,” he says.
“Sir, there is actually no need for you to take your trousers off.”
“Thank you. I thought not.”
I put on my jacket and shoes.
“But sir, there is a problem with your handbag.”
This is the Edith Evans moment I have waited for all my life.
“Yes sir. It will have to travel separately.”
“We have concerns.”
I think of those who have teased me about my manbag, but I guess their doubts about me are not the same concerns as this security manager.
“You think my manbag could be dangerous?”
“It will need to go separately.”
He gives me a plastic bag with what had been the contents of my manbag.
“In the hold?”
“No, too late. It will have to travel business class.”
“My manbag is going business class?”
“Yes, sir. You can be reunited at the destination.”
Later I think I should have offered to swap, but I was too stunned to be so opportunistic.
“This way for the plane.”
I walk with the manager, me with my new carrier bag, him with my empty mangbag. We go down the slope to the aircraft.
“I bet this makes you feel safer?” he says.
“Actually, it doesn’t. Either security required me to take my trousers off, or it does not. Either my bag is too unsafe to travel, or it is not. I think this just shows bad decision-making. Bad decision-making by security does not make me feel safe.”
A pause. I am hoping he is thinking about my sensible, heart-felt words.
We get to the aircraft. The chief steward takes my manbag for its trip by business class. I go into economy class: I am stared at as the one who may have delayed the plane.
I find my seat. The chap next to me asks what happened.
“Oh, just security stuff.”
“No worries. It makes you feel safer, doesn’t it.”
I have deliberately not named the airline.
No purely anonymous comments will be published; always use a name for ease of reference by other commenters.