I took a quick work trip to Meridian, MS on an adorable CRJ-200. I was loving the tiny airport, personal service, single-serve everything. But when I met TSA on the departure, that all changed.
Itty-Bitty But Wonderful
There are so few airports like this left in the world. Most have died away with much of the community resigned to drive an hour and a half, pay less and fly out of Jackson, MS. It’s nice to fly from home and this airport fits that description (though not my home).
A single terminal splits a viewing/receiving area with a secured area through TSA security. There is no PinkBerry, no Sbarro, not even a local restaurant. Meridian, however, does offer free pots of coffee and… slushies to visitors and passengers. Everything that is wonderful in the world has to be found in an airport that offers free slushies.
Enterprise is the only rental agency at the airport and there was a line when I landed but that’s ok, the customer service was great. Where’s my rental car? It’s right up front, sir. Literally in the passenger drop off lane 20 feet from the counter. Anywhere else in the world, that car would have been removed by SWAT.
Only American Airlines flies to Meridian, an EAS city. American flies from both Chicago and Dallas. They add tag flights on to two more EAS cities with some passengers disembarking en route to destinations onward or filling the plane prior to a return to the hubs.
Side Note: It would be a shame if these flights went away. Meridian has put a lot of money into their new facility. Sometimes I forget just how many employees it takes to run an airport. If Meridian were to lose service, a couple of dozen people would lose their jobs. That’s not to say a financial liability should be carried without a market to support it, but rather, that a decision made in the halls of a Dallas headquarters would devastate the community who have demonstrated a lot of pride in their airport and that alone would be a disappointment.
My flight from Chicago continued on to Hattiesburg. My departure to Dallas was already half loaded. Good news for Meridian, my Dallas flight was 100% full – I am doing my best not to imagine what an oversell situation looks like on a two-flight, 50 passenger airport.
The Most Rigorous Security I Have Ever Seen. Anywhere. Ever.
While there are just two daily flights on 50-seat CRJ-200s, the TSA employs at least six staff. The morning of my departure could not have had more than 25 passengers departing Meridian joining the rest of the passengers already onboard from Laurel, MS.
I finished a water in the unsecured waiting room before entering the secured area because, why not? For those interested, Mississippi native and hero, John Grisham, is beloved and his books are available for reading in the waiting area. It’s a nice touch, though my cynical self is asking, “Who starts a 400-page legal thriller they won’t take with them while they wait for their flight?”
My TSA experience started with a very diligent inspection of my ID and boarding pass. After an intense 30 seconds of staring, checking, re-checking, holding the ID up to my face, then back under the scanner – I was permitted to proceed. My boarding pass was free of the dreaded “SSSS”, my license is about 90 days old so there aren’t any deficiencies in the hologram nor picture.
I was given an orange We don’t have TSA PreCheck but we know this exists card and took out my laptop, emptied my pockets and thought about what was in my backpack. I remembered a backup cellphone I carry and removed it, proceeding to the metal detector. It went off because, of course, it did. I removed my belt, jacket, and per their instructions, my boots (none of which set off sensors elsewhere). I put those items in a tray. I was immediately rebuked and told they all needed to be in separate trays – though if I had first put them in a tray, to begin with, it would have been fine.
My aluminum Rimowa Topas made it through without incident, but my backpack – a cornucopia of cords, and random electronic accompaniments – not so much.
“Is this bag yours, sir?”
Really? There are six TSA Agents, just one on the scanning screen, I was the only one to walk through the area within five minutes, with no one behind me. I look around a little, reign in my sarcasm before it overtakes me entirely, and say yes. A Kindle is withdrawn and the bag is put back through. Fair enough TSA, I forgot that thing was in there though it’s barely larger than some cell phones.
But then the bag comes out again and the agent starts rifling through it, his back to me concealing his search. He files through my items and puts them in separate trays. I am damned sure that’s a violation of TSA policy and my rights. He spent 4-5 minutes taking nearly everything out of my bag and putting them in separate bins.
In one tray the following items were removed for scanning. Oddly, based on TSA guidelines they should have been able to remain in the bag:
- Camera charger
- Very small external battery
- Portable power strip
Then the second tray came through and I lost most of my remaining cool. As the trays behind mine (there was finally a second passenger behind me) started to stack up, I finished dressing and putting the approved items back in my bag. The vigilant TSA employee decided that my paper goods could be a threat and needed to be scanned.
I want to be clear on the above statement. A few 20-page notebooks, a novel (The Punch Escrow, it’s great, I highly recommend it) and printed papers needed to be scanned on their own. Before you suggest that he simply cleared them out because he empties the rest of the backpack, I can assure you he did not. There were a handful of other chargers and a larger external battery that was never removed.
Why The Fifth Degree?
Maybe it’s because they take the safety of the traveling public really seriously, for which we have aligned interests. In the areas in which they were following protocol (like my Kindle) – I will never be mad at someone for doing their job correctly.
But the invented rules? Come on. I fly a lot. Not quite Ryan Bingham level yet, but suffice it to say that I am particularly familiar with the process. I have a real issue with employees in the travel industry using security as a crutch to dismiss any possibility that the employee could be wrong and is somehow above reproach. Whether it’s a false security concern over Matthew taking picture of an IFE screen, or my TSA experience in Meridian, it’s not ok to use security as a crutch or a reason to be above reproach.
I could understand feeling my notebooks, maybe even flipping through to make sure that something that showed up on the scan was not hidden inside them. Fine. But scanning them in a separate tray? There are minimum levels of intelligence that should apply in these situations and there is no explanation for scanning papers. There was also no intelligence behind the size of some devices that were removed for scanning, while others were left in the bag. I suspect it’s a case of lack of experience and employees trying to justify their pay.
What do you think? Are TSA employees disproportionally diligent at smaller outposts? What has your experience been in smaller markets?