Airport Security

Why is it that we have it engrained in our minds that if they tell us to come to a flight two hours ahead of time then that’s what we’re expected to do? I guess its part of our zealous revere for security measures that drives us into the ‘come early’ trap, which everyone else seems to avoid. We will always be there 2 hours and fifteen minutes ahead of time (just to be on the safe side) expecting everyone to do the same.

Well, hardly anyone does the same immediately nullifying one’s own need to show up early. Most people around here view security as a necessary evil to be complied with rather than a patriotic duty which one should support whole-heartedly and set an example for others to follow. Well, the only thing following me was my shadow. The rest of the population was somewhere else taking its own sweet time.

People learn fast when it comes to alleviating the pains of annoying restrictions imposed by an evil god the necessity to defend against other evil people. A few months ago the airports were packed with people whose flights where schedules as far as three days out. People were appearing on TV, sitting on sleeping bags, eating dog food (it never spoils) stating boldly that the ‘events’ would not limit their freedoms and they would continue to fly no matter what’ The surge of patriotic sacrifice didn’t last too long. Nowadays people know that you don’t really have to show up early. All that is required is to check oneself in to a flight. Once one is checked in it becomes the airline’s problem to wait for you, rather than you having to chase after the plane. To be on the safe side, check in a bag. The bag could be an old shoebox that won’t be missed at the end of the journey. Once the bag is there the individual controls the takeoff schedule. They’ll look for you for hours before they decide that you’re not showing up, because once they do that, they have to ‘de-plane’ your bag and that is a fairly daunting task. What all this means from a practical perspective is that nothing has changed in terms of the amount of time before the flight that people show up.

Knowing all this I still showed up early and here’s what evolved.

As part of making sure that I make the most of my early arrival I immediately turned down an offer for a sidewalk check in. ‘Thanks’ I commented to the enthusiastic baggage clerk who saw in me the first action item in god knows how many minutes. ‘If I have 2 hours and fifteen minutes I’m going to make use of them, not just rush my check in and feel like a fool’. ‘Don’t these people know that sidewalk check-ins are insecure? Boy, It’s good that I came early so I don’t have to rely on their services’.

Having used up the first 30 seconds of my 135 minutes to takeoff (Apollo Astronauts used to take 90 minutes to get ready’) I felt that I could afford to walk slowly to the ticketing counter that was more than 30 feet away. I was dismayed to see that of the four clerks that were there only three were busy. ‘This is not so good’, I said to myself. ‘I could be done with the check-in and on to security 30 minutes ahead of time’.

I had to slow down the check-in process. First thing to do slowing down the check-in process is to go to a fast food stand and wait in line for the duration of time that you need to burn. Normally there are lines suited for any delay in these places. If you need a 10 minutes delay you can go to the bookstore and look for gum. If you need a 20-minute delay you can try the Burger-King on the McDonalds places. If you need 45 minutes to an hour you can go to Starbucks. On this peaceful Sunday afternoon there we no lines anywhere!!! With no lines at all its difficult to build a delay of any kind.

I contemplated the probability of a ‘short-line’ delay forming but the prospects were not too good. Unlike real lines which by definition cause delays (it wouldn’t be called a line if it didn’t), A ‘short line’ is one which does not delay you for the duration that you need, and requires some active interference on one’s part in order to create more meaningful delays. There are multiple ways to work with the short-line problem. The naive approaches repeat getting to the front of the line without getting what you want. For example you can ask for a ‘broccoli smoothie’ at the McDonald’s stand or ask for ‘real coffee’ at Starbucks. Another tactic is to buy only part of what you need, pretend you forgot when its too late to add it to your order and go back to the end of the line to get the next item. The first approach makes you look really bad and might attract suspicion. Suspicion is the last thing you want to arouse these days. The second approach arouses less suspicion but could cost you more money since you are most likely avoiding the prospects of the ‘all-in-one’ options that these ‘line’ places have to offer. Spending money frivolously by getting the French fries separately from the burger is the second to last thing you want to do these days. The bottom line is to look for better ‘line forming’ methods.

What the inferior naive approaches have in common is the fact that at some point you get to the front of the line. The better approaches are those that avoid the front of the line altogether, while staying in the line never the less. The first way to do this is to offer the person behind you to take your place. This will work only if the person behind you is not trying to do the same thing as you are, which is to burn time in the line. The safer approach is simply to wave to an imaginary person somewhere in the direction of the end of the line, creating the impression that you have just spotted someone you know that is about to join the line and you would like to stand next to that person. To enforce the impression, make a few aggressive ‘let me come to you’ gestures with your hand (the forefinger pointing from you to them and back) and making forward motion with your head. Once you complete the ritual tell the person behind you that they can have your spot and move to the end of the line. When you get to the back of the line, stand with your back to the line because some of the people are sure to try and figure out who it is that you were communicating with. With your back to them it could be anyone in the terminal. Their natural behavior would be to expect someone to join you within a few seconds. However most people will not care to find out, they will only stand with their heads turned for so long, and you will be able to turn around and face the line within 10 to 15 seconds. This could be cut short if someone does join the line sooner. To everyone in the line that is the person you have been gesturing to, and as far as you are concerned it really does not matter. You could offer the new comer your place in the line in order to reinforce your position.

To make the best of these options one has to be aware of their strengths and weaknesses, some of which have already been mentioned. There a few more subtle points which are worth mentioning. The ‘short-line’ approaches, which attempt to avoid the front of the line, should not be used if there is only one person in front of you and no one behind you’ these are the cases where the naive approach is more suitable in spite of the limitations mentioned above. There is one more option, which is somewhat risky but can be quite effective if one is lucky. This is the ‘form-your-own-line-at-the-closed-with-no-sign-counter’ approach. The implementation of this strategy calls for standing in front of one of the counters that is not being serviced, and waiting for a line to form behind you. This has the benefit of guaranteeing lack of service so you can stand there as long as you need. Once you have enough people behind you, you can move to the back of your own line. If some of the people in the line leave it because they have exhausted their time wasting periods, the worst that can happen to you is that you’ll be first in your own un-serviced lined and can wait for the line to form again.

None of the above were applicable on this sleepy Sunday noon. There were no lines to be found or formed so I had to make my way to start my check-in. ‘If I walk slowly I’m sure to have some people get in front of me’, I calmed myself, Sure enough an energetic traveler with a backpack and a water bottle strapped to it beat me to the ticketing counter. I was expecting the usual ‘where are you traveling to today?’ protocol, but my energetic vagabond surprised us all with ‘Can you tell me where my gate is?’ he asked. ‘Down the hall’ was the answer ‘Next passenger please”. ‘Cant’ you at least let the man walk away first?’ ‘Next passenger’ repeated the attendant only to be followed by the one next to her which has just wrapped up her batch of passengers. I looked behind me, thinking of applying one of the ‘short-line’ approaches, but there was no one there. I was at the front of the line and was being serviced. The only generic option in a case like this would have been a ‘front-of-the-line-partial-check-in’ but I had no idea how I would go about such a thing.

Dismayed I came to terms with my situation and stepped to the counter. ‘I’m flying to Phoenix’ I said and laid the appropriate documents on the counter top. Never in my life was a ticket available so fast. My last hope was the mileage transfer process. With a triumphant stroke I pulled out the British Airways frequent flyer card and asked for the mileage to be credited to the ‘first number’ in the list. That was a mistake. My only means of delay would have been to simply lay the card in front of the lady and wait for her to give up on figuring out which of the names on the card (‘Yistah’, ‘Gallia’, ‘Yeela’, ‘Tal’, ‘Daniel’ and ‘Amitai’) match the name of the person she had just issues a boarding pass too. The ‘first number’ clue was just too much to overlook and the only delay I got was ‘to which name sir?’, ‘the first’ was my feeble reply. And then it was over. I looked at my watch; less than 5 minutes after being dropped off I was free to head to the glacial pace security check. At least I would have my delay there’ I thought to myself.

As I was making my way at a reasonable snail pace that still keeps you from appearing like you need a wheel chair to speed you up I came along a bathroom. I really didn’t need to go to the bathroom and that’s probably why the bathroom showed up in the first place. These places are always ten minutes in the wrong direction when you are in a hurry and really have to go. But a delay is a delay even if it’s a small one. Obviously there was no line there, so I wasted a few seconds by trying to pick the nicest urinal. This was quite an opportunity lost. Picking a urinal in a men’s restroom is not a matter to be taken lightly. Women don’t really know that men have urinal preferences, but we do. In fact most men will use the same urinal pecking order. The overall logic is quite complex, but things get way simpler when there is no-one else in the men’s room. Men will tend to piss at least one urinal over from the next man standing pissing there. The reason is that they seek some illusion of privacy, and there is a universal understanding that what you have in your hands cannot be seen from the next urinal over unless the person there is completely hell-bent on learning whether or not you have been brought into the ‘Brith-of-Abraham’. Things get a little more complicated when there is no vacant ‘next urinal over’, and even more so when the arrival rate of people into the rest room is higher than the average time it takes a person to relieve himself. These situation require some non-trivial probability and queuing theory calculations in order to figure out minimal ‘genital-in-hand’ time next to a guy you don’t want to share the experience with.

There was no point standing there and dreaming about the good old days in the restrooms of Shoreline Park during an intermission in a ‘Spice Girls’ concert, when even the women were making it into the men’s stalls. Now those were what one can call delays’ But I had to face reality, there was no-one there and it didn’t look like it was going to fill up anytime soon. At least I could pick the best urinal (these are the ones at the end of a line, in the corner of the room, because they have only one side which is next to another urinal). I did my best, found out that I should drink more water, and left.

50 yards and two minutes later I reached the security check. Obviously there was no one in front of me, but I was coming to terms with the fact that this will not be as slow as it needs to be. The first security obstacle is an attendant who can read. This educated individual is charged with the delicate task of matching the name on ones boarding card with the name on a recognized form of identity that the same person should carry when trying to fly. Being in the down mood that I was, with everything coming my way, it did not occur to me to try presenting the boarding card along with one of the new business cards I had. Without thinking I showed my driver’s license and the first security check was behind me as soon as the professor finished reading. For a moment it seemed that he was matching the license number with the flight number, but I really didn’t care to ask.

Security did it’s best to delay me. I was really grateful to see them trying so hard, and I did my best to meet all their demands, at least on their second attempt. First thing to do these days is to separate the laptop computers from the carrying cases before putting them through the X-ray machine. The reason for this measure is beyond my understanding, but it does cause some delay so its welcome. Initially I had failed to do so and my bag with the computers immediately bounced. As the bouncing took place my sandal buckles triggered the magnetic gate alarm. Now I was the cause of a major attempt of a security breach. ‘No way this can go quickly” ‘Sir, please give me your shoes’ came the first command. ‘Please take you computer out of the bag and go through the X-Ray again’ was the next command. I gave the guy my sandals to do as he pleased with them, and walked barefoot back through the magnetic gate with the computer carrying case and the two laptops inside.

So far so good. Time was being wasted. The only mistake I had made was to send my wallet, watch and keys ahead of me in my first attempt through security. Since it was doomed to fail thanks to the lethal sandal buckles, I might as well have kept my valuables with me until the second attempt to make it through the security gauntlet. At that point I should have let the computers through but kept my valuables so that I would have been sent through for a third time’

Anyway, I was back in the gathering security line, barefoot with a tray with two computers in it. The fact that I looked like an idiot didn’t bother me a whole lot, as one can expect to see some weird things in these places these days. I could have been dressed in a suite and barefoot’ The only thing that bothered me a bit was the fact that my valuables were at the other side of the X-ray belt waiting for me or for anyone else who might decide to pick them up. ‘Not much you can do about it’ I thought and hastened to get back through the magnetic detector gate. This time I passed, picked up my belongings, put on my radiated sandals. As I was doing so I recalled the days when they used to frisk my ankles and wondered why that ritual was no longer followed. As I proceeded to pick up the computers that had by now been methodically screened exactly like before, one of the security guards turned to me once again; ‘May I have your shoes, sir’ came the polite yet firm demand. I turned and looked over the X-ray machine, one of the two people standing there repeated the request. ‘You just X-rayed them now’ I responded informatively, expecting somehow to correct the mistake. ‘May I have your shoes, sir’ was the reply. ‘The guy is only five feet tall, so he couldn’t possibly want may sandals for himself’, I thought. I knew better than to argue with these guys. While I didn’t understand what made the sandals so interesting, any lack of cooperation could have caused a delay beyond the one I was trying to create. I quickly slipped out of the sandals and handed them over to the man. ‘May I have your computer, sir” I was getting worried. ‘What if the guy thinks that he can only do one pair of footwear and one computer at a time?’. If I was stuck with and idiot who somehow thought that two sandals and two laptops cannot clear security as a batch belonging to one passenger I’d be in an endless loop, going through the X-ray with one, getting my sandals back, going back for the second, stepping through the magnetic gate with the sandals, triggering the gate again, giving back the sandals, taking the two computers through X-ray once more, only to end up barefoot, with two laptops and my sandals which is where the loop begins! Somehow all this did not seem to flow logically, but then logic was not the point here, it was security.

I was relieved to see that he had taken my possessions farther down the security line. ‘Oh, so there’s one more test I need to pass’ I asked? ‘Explosives’ was the answer. ‘You’ve just seen me drop my sandals twice, step on them and nothing happened, but I guess you do not take any chances”. The first thing Kerberose did was pick up a small piece of unidentified cloth and wiped the sandals. He then put the cloth in a device that probably identified the sandals and sandals’ With his mind at ease the man proceeded to wipe the laptops with the same cloth. The fact that the laptops checked out to be laptops concluded the security checks. However I was perplexed by the order in which Kerberose had applied the cloth. ‘Wouldn’t you do the laptops first and then the shoes? I mean what else did you wipe with that thing before applying it to my laptops?’. I could only dwell on the issues without showing any emotion. After all I didn’t want to be perceived as acting suspicious. Besides, what’s the big deal? The worst that could happen is that it would smell like I typed on the keyboards with my toes’

I got to the gate, sat down next to a place where I could connect the laptop’s power supply to the wall and began to type this letter earnestly. After two hours and five pages boarding started and Tweety passed in front of me. At least it smelled like it was Tweety. The lady next to me gave me a look, I looked back with the most sincere ‘please-believe-me-that-it-wasn’t-me’ look that I could muster and she said ‘do you smell it?’. ‘Well if she was talking to me about it chances are that she doesn’t suspect me’ I thought relieved. Then I remembered Safta Mini god-rest-her-soul and I knew that I shouldn’t take my assumptions for granted. I had to break into a conversation so that she was assured that it was not I who was breaking the wind with the smell of shit. ‘How could I not smell it?’ I responded. ‘It’s that man who just passed us’ she said, indicating towards an ass the size of two watermelons, with feet coming out of the bottom side, and the torso of a fat man coming out of the top side.. ‘I hope he feels better on the plane’ I responded. ‘I hope I’m not seated next to him’ she said. ‘Judging by the fact that he is boarding ahead of us puts him at the end of the plane, so worst case he’s seated behind you’ I responded. ‘Yeah, but the air-conditioning will spread the smell”. She was starting to seem a little over concerned about what was no more than a big fat guy farting in our faces hoping to remain anonymous.

The way I looked at it, it was all part of the things that you do around lines of people. Just like you don’t do the ‘shot line’ moves with two people in the line, you do not fart and stay close to the fumes if you are the last person in the line moving towards the plane past the people still seated waiting for their boarding calls. I would have farted in an undeterred manner as he did. The only thing he should have done differently was to make sure that there was someone walking behind me when I farted in the faces of the people I was passing.

The good news from all of this is that I did make some good use of all the time I had failed to waste. I started telling this story and managed to get this letter to a point of critical mass so that I could muster the energies to finish it during the flight in and the flight back.