Family adventures in air travel
Tuesday, August 22, 2017
Returning from a Disney World trip, my small group of family and friends lumbered toward the security checkpoint at Orlando International Airport.
Exhausted, I shuffled forward like zombie, halfway concerned that someone would notice the 2-foot sword I had wrapped in dirty clothes and stashed inside my carry-on — a bag that, at that moment, was slowly snaking its way along the X-ray belt.
The fact that this was probably a bad idea didn't hit me until the alarms went off. But it did highlight a big challenge for airport travelers these days: keeping up with the ever-changing rules of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).
Yes, a sword
It was quite the madcap adventure for my Maryland family to finally (after years of planning) traverse the country to visit our very own Wally World.
The first three days of our five-day trip were besieged by torrential rains and lightning storms, Animal Kingdom tried to steal my wife's hat (it was her favorite hat), and my 9-year-old son — who does not even like to ride elevators with glass walls — accidentally got on a roller coaster.
Fortunately for us, the rains subsided, hat was found, and my son had an extra pair of underwear.
One of the first rides we attacked as a family was the Pirates of the Caribbean. At the end, my not-yet-traumatized son asked to buy a plastic, replica pirate sword. Sure, my wife and I said — what could be the harm in that?
"So how are you going to get the sword through TSA?" a friend asked nonchalantly, while we were all packing to leave. And it was only then that I began to really consider the situation.
What if TSA thinks the sword is real? Should I be worried?
Should I bring it up? What if they freak out? What if I say nothing, they find it, and that makes them freak out?
Plastic items that could be viewed as weapons shouldn't be easily dismissed as threats. This is especially trued after credit card knives — wallet-sized, plastic, sharp-edged tools — began popping up at airports.
"The knives turn up in standard X-rays of travelers' personal items and carry-on bags," said TSA spokeswoman Sari Koshetz in an interview with the Tampa Bay Times.
I was in no mood to discover whether my 2-foot-long pretend sword would pique the interest of overzealous security agents. I simply wanted to go home with as little fuss as possible.
It's no secret that our nation's current TSA obstacle course can be both emotionally and physically taxing for passengers. It can also be confusing as the scrutiny of search sometimes seems to vary from one airport to another.
According to the TSA website, being consistently inconsistent helps throw the potential saboteurs and terrorists off their game: "TSA adjusts processes and procedures to meet the evolving threat and to achieve the highest levels of transportation security. Because of this, you may notice changes in our procedures from time to time."
As of 2016, there are 5,136 public airports in the United States, and only 172 of them (3.3 percent) have X-ray full-body scanners. Not only that, but sometimes you have to take your shoes off; sometimes you don't. Sometimes laptops are checked; other times they aren't.
Due to funding and differing airport sizes, security measures may vary even further, throwing unfortunate travelers into a tizzy when naively trying to maintain any type of consistency from airport to airport.
"You have to take your shoes off," a short-haired woman behind me offered. She was obviously an airport veteran, and she was prepared.
I did as she suggested and nervously watched my bag ride the conveyor belt and disappear into the darkness.
"Well, this is it," I thought. "There's no way a large, sketchy-looking man with a duffel bag, trying to sneak a sword onto a plane gets to walk free."
I was done. I have points on my driver's license. My middle name is Askia. It was strip-search city for me.
There are avenues to take if you're caught by TSA with a prohibited item in your possession. The only option that would have worked was to hope they allowed me to mail the sword home.
The only other option would have been to turn the sword over to the security screening checkpoint. The agency then would throw the toy away undoubtedly, along with my son's last positive memories of — what I'm sure at least he considered — a fright-inducing trip.
"They're really serious here in Orlando," the short haired lady behind me said, echoing the thoughts from my inner self. We were both right. The air seemed tenser in Florida, when compared to the smooth security process we faced when leaving Baltimore some five days earlier.
TSA agents on the other side of a body scanner beckoned me forward. I took a deep breath, walked in and assumed the position. I walked out fully prepared for the hammer to be brought down. Instead, they simply nodded me forward.
"Thank God," I thought, secretly happy that all of this fretting had been much ado about nothing.
Until I looked back and saw, in one of the security lines, my wife being swarmed by agents. They were beehive-frenzied, removing her belt and patting her down with all the invasive ferocity I had assumed was heading my way.
Apparently, the metal studs in her belt made the system go haywire. Of course, it was the same belt she had worn through Baltimore's TSA security check with no problems.
We boarded the plane and I tucked my duffel bag in the overhead compartment, happy to have escaped the worst of things.
In the end, that's all most travelers can hope for. It can be difficult to argue that air travel hasn't changed. Still, with the many concessions we — as a traveling country — have made, at least we can rest assured that this new age of technology and heightened security policy has led to a safer experience.
Well, if it wasn't for the nagging and incessant realization in the back of my mind that I had, for all intents and purposes, sneaked a sword on a plane.
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