I recently made a short trip to the USA, including a visit to some dear friends in Washington, DC. I like taking the 10pm United service out of Dulles because it allows for a full day and relaxed dinner before the short overnight flight to Frankfurt, which arrives at midday – not too early, but not too late. Flying out of Dulles for more than a decade, I tend to cut if close before flights – a pattern which has led to close calls on several occasions. But nothing like this trip.
I arrived at 9:05p due to unforeseen road closures in Fairfax County. Technically, I was already too late, as I had missed the 60-minute check-in cutoff for international travel and I had a bag to check. Thankfully, the 1K line was empty and the gent manning the desk talked his supervisor into allowing the bag through, but told me to hurry, as the plane would begin boarding in five minutes.
Problem: TSA PreCheck was closed. With a raft of late-night international departures from IAD, the security screening area was a zoo, with lines snaking back and forth for hundreds of yards. Even the premium line was long.
What was I going to do? I hate it when people cut through lines. The lame “I have a flight to catch” excuse is eye-roll-inducing since everyone has a flight to catch.
So I waited in line like everyone else, even though it was now 9:15p.
And waited. And waited.
The Saudia flight to Riyadh was going out and there was large group of Saudi woman in front of me, masked from head to toe in burkas.
The husband (I assume, or perhaps brother) of these woman herded them through the line but everything stopped as the TSA clerk was unable to confirm their identities just by their eyes. A team of women were called in and the women were escorted to a private area for screening.
It was now 9:25p and the line began to move again. Finally, my ID was checked and I was good to go…to the next line, even longer than the last.
Sometimes, you have to do what you have to do. I keep a United Airlines lanyard in my bag that was giving to me at the SFO tour a few years back just for situations like this (and for the record, this has been my first time in at least two years I have had to pull this stunt). I put on the United lanyard and proceeded to the very front of the security checkpoint, as if I knew exactly what I was doing. I passed up more than 60 people in the process. Note United lanyards are available for puchase on united.com and I was not impersonating any airline employee, just wearing my lanyard,
That’s it? If only.
Every time I go through TSA screening, the tendinitis in my right shoulder seems to flare up, so I advised the TSO that I could not walk through the full body scanner. No problem – that just means you go through the metal detector and your hands are swabbed for explosives.
The test came back positive – explosives were detected on my hand.
“Follow me please” was the command from the TSA supervisor.
It was now 9:30p.
I was escorted to a section of the security-screening checkpoint where that was closed and told to wait.
I waited five minutes before demanding (courteously) that someone come over, as my flight departed in 25 minutes from the far end of the C Concourse.
“We’ll be right with you sir.”
A screener came over and began to empty out everything from both of my carry-ons. Every zipper was opened, every electronic device was turned on, and every paper was looked over. And that’s where it got even more interesting.
I keep my laptop in a black leather case that has two other compartments. As the TSO opened the side compartment of the bag, out fluttered three boarding passes, all with SSSS on them.
SSSS stands for Secondary Security Screening Selection…given either randomly to passengers or assigned based on their ticket (such as odd one-way routings). In June I flew from the LA to Germany via Honolulu, Tokyo, and Chicago (that’s a long story) and the routing triggered a SSSS on my HNL-NRT-ORD-FRA boarding passes, which I still had in my bag.
The TSO became concerned and immediately summoned two colleagues. A spot conference was convened on what to do about this. Thankfully, a sane-headed supervisor stated that the SSSS was from a different trip – there was no SSSS this time. Duh.
The baggage check continued and as the TSO opened my main carry-on bag, he found a copy of the Qur’an sitting on top of my clothes. You should have seen the look on his face.
I know that Islamic text should not be cause for concern, but let’s face it – prejudices sometimes link all of Islam to radical groups like ISIS. I’m not Moslem, but I did pick up a free copy of the Qur’an that missionaries were handing out on the streets of Frankfurt a few days before, just because I’ve never read it and thought it would be an appropriate addition to my library.
The supervisor led me to a curtained-off screening room and gave me the usual disclaimer “back of the palms”, “till I meet resistance” etc…it was a very invasive screening, but I’ve had worse in Switzerland.
It was now 9:45p, but we were not quite done. The supervisor asked to borrow my boarding pass so he could record that the screening was performed and I also had to repack my bag.
The United flight was scheduled to close at 9:50p, and it was 9:50p before I made a sprint down to the train to Terminal C. One had just pulled out…
A few minutes later, the next one arrived and I made my way to Terminal C, where I had to dash all the way down to C4, which is a long stretch from the station to the terminal and from the terminal entrance to C4. I ran, huffing and puffing with my bags, and made it at 10:03p, fearing I had missed my flight.
The flight had not departed yet and the door was still open. Even better, my seat had not been given up! There was a problem, apparently, with a group of German students traveling and the gate agent was trying to sort out their tickets. I was thankful.
As I slid into my seat onboard the plane, I smiled knowing I would see my wife in nine hours…before wiping the sweat off my brow.