Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 20 April 2014

How airport security made me strip off tights and pants

Over-zealous security: women can find searches intimidating

There are, I am told, two sure ways of moving through airport security without getting unduly hassled by the security personnel: one is to be pushed through in a wheelchair. The other is to wear a full-length burqua and insist, if a search is suggested, that any invasion of one's personal body space goes against religious rights.

Coming through the security barriers before boarding a flight to Kerry, I alerted the security personnel – as I always do at an airport – that I am the beneficiary of two hip prostheses and, therefore, the alarm always zings when I go through. The usual procedure, then, is to run the sensor over the body parts, which picks up the steel elements in the hip joints. And as the woman security officer was doing this, she said: "Just stand here, my darling."

"Please," I said, "don't call me 'darling'. Particularly since you call male passengers 'sir'." "All right, my darling," she repeated.

I said, once again, that I found these terms of endearment to be patronising to women: in America, if they say "Sir" to a male, they'll say "Ma'am" to a female. And with that, she signalled to a colleague – an exceptionally tall and rather intimidating young woman – and whisked me off for a strip search.

She ordered me to strip down to my underwear, to take down my tights and knickers, and show her the scars on my bottom and thighs where the hip operations had been performed. The flight was boarding and I was a bit concerned about time: otherwise, I would have asked to see the supervisor to verify that this was correct procedure. And to ask – did the security operative genuinely think I was telling a lie about the hip operations? Did she really believe that a 69-year-old grandmother travelling to Kerry might be a drug mule or an al Qaida terrorist?

Yes, those working in the security business have to do their job and ensure the safety of flying: but shouldn't they do so with intelligence and sensitivity to the fact that passengers – and probably women in particular – may experience this procedure as intrusive and even aggressive?

What stunned me, subsequently, was the reaction of the public, after I tweeted about the episode, and the media reported it. I received a blizzard of sympathetic tweets, texts and emails from people who completely identified with "your horrible ordeal". Many people kindly asked if I was traumatised, distressed or upset: friends suggested I should sue Luton Airport under the Human Rights protocols, and that I should ask the Irish Embassy in London to lodge an official complaint.

It is not a grave enough episode to carry it that far, and I'm robust enough not to be distressed – just cross and contemptuous. But it did illuminate how angry and upset many people are about the way that some airport security personnel carry out their business.

It seems that everyone has had a bad experience going through airport security and some people have been extremely distressed by the treatment received. Ninety nine per cent of passengers are not criminals, terrorists, or traffickers in vice, and should not be regarded as guilty until proved innocent.

Everyone who has contacted me has said I should get, at least, an apology from Luton Airport. Actually, I'm not bothered about apologies, and I know businesses are wary that an apology might involve some kind of legal liability, and the alarming prospect of compensation.

The wider point is that it's more important that airport authorities should, for their own sake, revise and review their policies with some regularity.

They should ask themselves – just as every business should ask itself – "are our customer relations the best they could be?"

The people who pay for airlines, airports, security and every other aspect of the commercial flying business are the customers, and good personnel training should emphasise that.

Some airports manage security a whole lot better than others. At Kerry's Farranfore – admittedly a small airport – they couldn't be more charming. I sometimes fly from London City Airport to Dublin and that is beautifully managed: the security personnel are a lot more civilised there – basically, I suspect, because they deal with a richer clientele of business folk.

Next time I'm at Luton Airport, however, I'll be tempted to have recourse to the wheelchair or the burqua.

'It seems that everyone has had a bad experience going through airport security and some people have been left extremely distressed'

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