As part of our family trip to Laralee’s reunion in Utah, we decided I’d fly back home while she and the kids stayed around a few extra days and then drove up to Idaho to visit her mom and family. That meant I would have a chance to run the gauntlet at the airport, testing whether I could still fly without showing photo ID. According to the TSA’s New Policies Designed to Keep Us Safe, you can no longer go through security– even with “enhanced security screening”– by refusing to show your ID. Apparently “I forgot it” remains an acceptable excuse, so I figured I’d give it a go.
I showed up about an hour before my flight with just a backpack and headed for the Frontier ticket counter, where I told the woman I didn’t have ID. “Nothing at all?” she asked, apparently amazed. But when I was steadfast, she printed a boarding pass with the legendary “SSSS” code on it. I walked to the security area and plodded along as the line made its way through the checkpoint. When I arrived at the checkpoint I gave a friendy “Good morning” to the TSA agent and handed him my boarding pass. He, too, was incredulous that I didn’t have ID, so he directed me over to a nearby holding area.
So far this wasn’t a big deal; it was pretty much the way it’s been for the last few years. But now the adventure began. I was asked to fill out a TSA form with my full name and mailing address. I shrugged and did so, curious where this was going to lead me. There was another passenger there filling out the same form, and a couple of TSA people (including a supervisor). The supervisor picked up a cell phone and called someone, reading off this other guy’s name and address.
There was a pause, she re-read the name and address, asked him to confirm that was really where he lived, confirmed with the guy on the other end of the call, and waited. After a few more minutes of all of us standing around, she asked him if that was really his home address (it was somewhere in Santa Fe). He insisted it was. Then she started asking all kinds of other questions:
“How long have you lived there?” (He said it had been a few years.)
“Where did you live before that?” (Pecos, Mexico.)
“Who did you live with in Mexico?” (His mother.)
“What’s your mother’s name?” (Esperanza or something.)
“Do you have any brothers or sisters?” (No.)
“Where do you work?” (At an asphalt company.)
“What’s the address of your employer?” (Somewhere in Santa Fe.)
After barraging him with all of these questions, she repeated everything to the person on the phone. While all of us continued waiting, I asked the guy where he was going. It turns out he wasn’t going anywhere… he was just trying to get into the terminal to see his thirteen-year-old son, who was on a layover. In other words, he was being subjected to all kinds of personal questions, asked to reveal his family and employment history, and he wasn’t even getting on an airplane!
I was stunned.
Anyway, the clock continued to tick. It had been about twenty minutes, and I was starting to worry that I was going to miss my flight for this nonsense. I asked one of the TSA guys who was hanging around doing nothing how long this usually takes, and he told me he’d seen it take “a lot longer than this”. This guy was all business: he was absolutely serious that twenty minutes was nothing in the identity-verification game they played. I asked if some other TSA person could call the magic phone number to verify my identity while they sorted out the craziness with this other poor guy. Nope. Apparently only a supervisor can make the call, and even if another supervisor called, they’d use the same number so I’d have to wait for this first woman to finish anyway. What?
A couple other TSA guys wandered over. I started chatting with one of them (he was really nice, and even shared his last Altoid with me) and explained that I’d been waiting for a while, and my flight was leaving shortly, and asked if there was anything we could do to speed up this ridiculous process. I told him I’d be willing to go through extra screening or whatever (like the Good Old Days) but he said this was a new policy and they had to verify everything using this inane process. I told him I found it really hard to believe there was only one guy somewhere in a TSA office who handled every passenger verification. Couldn’t someone else call? He agreed that it was indeed sort of silly, and promised to see what he could do.
A few minutes later yet another TSA guy came up to me. Apparently he was another supervisor, and he was willing to help. However, the TSA didn’t provide him with a phone to call the secret office, so he was forced to do it on his personal cell phone. He grumbled about that for a minute, and after getting through to someone he had to explain who he was, give his TSA identification code or whatever, and tell them why he was calling from an unauthorized phone. But finally I guess they accepted his credentials, because then the questions for me began:
“How long have you lived at this address?”
“What’s your home phone number?”
“What kind of car do you drive?”
He passed along this vital information and waited. I asked him what the heck the guy on the other end was doing. “Is he looking me up in the phone book or something?” He looked at me and smiled. “Oh no. It’s much more involved than that. You’d be surprised how much information they have on you.” That’s a direct quote. He went on to explain this process was sort of like a credit check, but more involved. As someone who had a security clearance long ago, I’m well aware of how “involved” The Gov can be when they investigate Citizens. But for crying out loud, I’m just trying to get on a one-hour airplane flight here!
The clock continued to tick, and it was becoming clear that I was in real danger of missing the flight. We were pushing forty minutes by now. I pointed this out to the guy, who assured me that he was doing what he could but that The Process just took time. For the love of all that is holy, I could’ve done the verification myself by just going to Google and searching for my name! I have no idea what kind of databases they were cross-referencing back there.
At long last I was cleared, and allowed to hop to the front of the screening line. I went through the metal detector, which beeped at me. Apparently my watch (which contains very little metal!) set it off, so I dropped my watch in the bin about to cruise through the x-ray scanner and walked through again. All was well, but I was asked to move into the little glass cell to await a Wanding. I argued that the metal detector had just passed me, that my flight was about to take off, and that I had already been subject to forty minutes of scrutiny (not counting the time in the security line itself). She insisted that I had to wait for an authorized screener to attend to me– as a woman she wasn’t allowed to give me The Wand. I was saved by one of the other screeners, who was rooting through my backpack and called me over.
This new team (there were three of them) used the bomb residue swab to check my shoes (a pair of cheap sandals from Target– clearly a security risk) and laptop. They also emptied everything from my pack, pausing to examine the network cable I’d brought as if it was some kind of bomb component. Finally I was cleared, so I stuff everything back into my pack, ran up the escalator, and zipped down to the gate…
… to learn that the plane had left early because (in the words of the guy at the Frontier counter) “everyone was on board and we paged you several times”. I told him I’d spent close to an hour in security, but of course there was nothing he could do because the plane was already on the tarmac.
So I’m sitting in the terminal now, writing this and reflecting on how absolutely ridiculous this whole thing has been.
I wonder if the guy from Santa Fe was able to give his son a hug.
I wonder how the type of car I drive has anything to do with my identity.
I wonder whether I’ve been added to a watchlist now because I didn’t follow protocol.
I wonder how any of these New Policies do anything at all to deter an attack on a plane.
And I wonder why so few people seem to think anything of the police state we are gradually becoming.