Belfast Telegraph

Why I saw red at zero tolerance airport antics

By Frances Burscough

I'm just home from a short business trip to New York, the purpose of which shall be revealed in the Belfast Telegraph in the next couple of weeks and, believe me, it's worth waiting for and reading avidly. And that is all I'm going to tell you at the moment for fear of spoiling our scoop!

However, whilst travelling there and back via Dublin International and JFK airports, I became even more aware than usual of how ridiculous the current levels of airport security really are.

Right from the start of this trip, one thing that struck me immediately is the fact that there appears to be little or no standard protocol between airports. For example, in Belfast, Manchester, and Heathrow — all of which I've passed through in the last year — they are completely preoccupied to the point of obsession with hand luggage and what is and isn't permitted to go through the scanners. Creams, gels, pastes, liquids and so on must be displayed in a clear plastic bag of a specific design and size. Covering them in clingfilm, polythene bags without a seal or any other variation will not be accepted and all items contained therein must pass through in the regulation type of bag for a second time, no matter how long you may have queued or how much time it adds to your passage. Quantities, amounts, volumes, weights ... all are scrutinised to the nearest millilitre and will be confiscated without discussion if they, or even their packaging, is over the permitted size or volume.

The most ridiculous occasion of this type, though, happened travelling through Manchester when I was found with a 150ml jar of hand cream, which was almost empty, with only about 25ml of cream remaining.

“Sorry, Miss. That's too big,” I was told.

“But there's only a tiny bit left in the jar!” I pointed out.

“That's irrelevant,” she responded. “The jar says 150ml.”

It really reminded me of the Compu'er says No sketch in Little Britain. I was actually expecting her to say “It's more than my job's worth”, but instead she simply flung it into the bin without any further comment.

But whaddaya know? In Dublin International they didn't even glance at my meticulously displayed travel-sized toiletries. In fact, I accidentally carried a half-full bottle of Coke in my bag and sailed through without incident. I could hardly believe it when I emerged the other side of the barriers within a couple of minutes, without so much as a frisk.

But it was on the way home at JFK that I witnessed the worst ever example of incongruity and unjustifiable double standards. There, as we were lining up at the check-in desk, I noticed a little old man (aged at least in his late 80s) who, quite frankly, looked almost too old and infirm to be travelling alone. He was bent double, struggling with an ancient-looking battered brown leather suitcase — without wheels, of course — and had to sit down on a stool whilst the stewardess checked his passport. Thankfully, just as I was about to ask if he needed assistance, a member of staff appeared with a wheelchair and I breathed a sigh of relief that he was going to have a helping hand through the dreaded security checks.

A few minutes later as I was filling a tray with the contents of my hand luggage, according to the rules and regulations, I saw him again and my heart sank. There he was, bent almost double again, halfway through the scan barriers, which were bleeping away loudly. As the assistant with the wheelchair looked on dispassionately, the poor old fella was made to remove the braces that were holding up his trousers, because the metal clips were setting off the alarm.

Then as he limped back once again past the scanner, the trousers started to fall down, revealing his underwear, and no-one even tried to come to his aid or to ease his acute embarrassment in front of such a long line of passengers. Meanwhile, I watched helplessly, mortified and disgusted but too far away to do anything about it other than grimace on his behalf.

And the irony of all this? My friend George, the film director whom I was travelling with, had a bag crammed full of electronics, cameras, wires and battery packs and he — and his luggage — sailed through security without so much as a by-your-leave.

Of course, no-one dares question anything because of the zero-tolerance policy, where complaints or even jokes are seen as a security threat suggesting suspicion, anarchy or even terrorism.

I'm just glad I have this page to vent the commonly held opinion that it's all gone way too far. I certainly couldn't let the memory of that poor old fella with his pants around his ankles pass by without comment.

It'd be more than my job's worth.

Belfast Telegraph

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