When traveling through airports I typically get from the curb through security in less than 30 minutes. That includes the time it takes TSA officials to screen my prosthesis. But occasionally, things go horribly wrong. Last Wednesday was one of those times.
I arrived at JFK at the ungodly hour of 5:30 AM for an 8:00 AM international flight. I had taken care of all my planning and packing in advance: I had an assigned seat; I had packed the previous afternoon; I had my electronic boarding passes on my phone. Best of all, I was traveling light.
My journey to London consisted of a Wednesday AM flight to Heathrow, a cab to the hotel, a presentation at that hotel on Thursday morning, and a train back to Heathrow to catch a Thursday evening flight back to NY. So the packing process proved quick and easy. In went the dark grey business suit I wear twice a year, a dress shirt, a tie, underwear, socks, dress shoes, the battery charger for my prosthesis and my Dopp kit. My roll-on bag barely half-full, I threw everything onto the x-ray machine’s conveyor belt, informed the TSA officials that I had my shoes on because I wear a prosthesis, and went through the full body scan.
“Just need to check your shoes,” said the TSA agent on the other side. Then things got funky.
This particular pair of sneakers, which I hadn’t worn in over a month, set off the Explosives Trace Detector machine. “Can you take your shoes off?” the agent asked me. “Sure,” I replied, pulling them off while they proceeded to swab my hands. The hand swab went into the ETD machine and came back negative for explosives.
The agent now proceeded with the full-body pat-down, swabbing his latex gloves when finished. He inserted the sample into the ETD machine. Positive.
The guy screening me now called in his female supervisor to explain the situation to her. She, in turn, called in her supervisor, a brightly-smiling woman who walked over to me and said, “We’re so sorry for the inconvenience. We’ll try to get you moving as quickly as possible. Have you taken any new medications today or done anything out of the ordinary?” “No,” I answered, “and would it be possible to recalibrate the machine before doing anything else?”
This question violates one of my principal rules in all TSA dealings: don’t suggest that you know their job better than they do. However, my case had already been kicked up two levels beyond the screening agents, and this woman seemed in lovely spirits, so I gave it a shot. She continued to grin at me, cocked her head sideways, and said, “Oh, so you’ve been through this a few times before, haven’t you?”
I tried, unsuccessfully, to smile just as broadly back at her, but as agents continued to scurry around me, it dawned on me that no one was recalibrating the ETD machine. The machine and I had both spoken, and the machine had won.
The serious first-level TSA supervisor pressed a button and the ETD machine started spitting out lengthy receipts that, I guessed, established that my suitcase and clothes were laced with TNT and plastic explosives.
They swabbed my computer. Negative. They swabbed the interior of my rolling bag. Positive. Agents broke out their walkie-talkies, calling in reinforcements. The smiling leader came back to me and told me that they needed higher-ranking people to get involved in my case. I thanked her with a grimace and sat in a plastic chair, watching as the agents started to destroy my careful packing job, piece by piece.
They x-rayed my dress shoes – the same ones I had taken through airports 10 times in the last 5 months – and found nothing suspicious. But when they swabbed them? Positive. I threw up my hands and looked at one of the agents. “I’m telling you, it’s the machine,” I said. “It has to be the machine. I travel two, sometimes three times a month. This has never happened before.”
The search-and-destroy-Dave’s-luggage mission continued while we awaited The Powers That Be to descend from wherever in Terminal 7 they currently were. Out came all my business cards. Out came the chargers and power adaptors. Out came my reading glasses, my pens, and my headphones.
Frustrated, I tried to keep my cool, arms crossed against my chest, imagining the interrogation I’d have to withstand. Memories of the movie Rendition briefly flitted through my head.
And then a young male TSA agent came over and swabbed the sneakers I had put back on my feet again. And he took them to the second ETD machine in the security area.
He delivered the result to the mid-level supervisor in a quiet voice. “I’m telling you, it’s the machine,” I said under my breath, to no one in particular.
And then the reinforcements arrived. Three older, large men wearing polo shirts with the words “Explosives Agent” on the breast. They walked right up to me, smiled genuinely, and asked me how I was doing. “Fine, thanks,” I said, making sure to smile. Each of these guys topped 6 feet, and they wore their khaki cargo pants with various black metal accoutrements attached to the multiple loops and pockets like a second skin. I had the distinct impression from their bearing that previous military experience had formed a significant part of their respective pasts.
After determining from our quick conversation that I apparently did not pose an imminent threat to national security, the lead Explosives Agent pulled his small flashlight out, turned it on, bent over and peered into the ETD machine’s swab receptor for approximately 3 seconds. He stood up to his full height and turned to the mid-level TSA agent.
“It’s missing the [indistinguishable] ring. You can’t use this machine without the [indistinguishable] ring. Without it, the inside of the machine is contaminated and compromised. It’ll give you false positives. You need to stop using this machine. Now.”
He turned to me. “Terribly sorry, sir, for the inconvenience. We’re going to get you moving immediately. We just need to give you a private pat down and we’ll have you on your way.”
I thanked him and the conversation turned to what I did for a living, which led to a friendly discussion about the wonders of modern prosthetics. Two male TSA agents pulled me into a private room and conducted a full pat-down while I stared upon the wreckage that was my formerly-organized packing job.
They swabbed their gloves and put the sample in the Explosives Agent-approved ETD machine. Negative.
“Thank you sir, have a nice day.”
One hour after entering security, I sighed, and started repacking my luggage.