Airport Security and 10ml of Toothpaste

One normally expects ridiculous airport security stories to come from the USA… here is one from Manchester Airport.

I have a small washbag with a mesh cover. Its total volume is probably about the same as a standard-issue 1-litre clear plastic bag. Often, I just toss it in the tray as-is, and up to now security has had no problem with that.

On this occasion, it contained a toothbrush, a razor and a mostly-empty tube of toothpaste. These tubes are 100ml when full (a valid size for security); there is no way this one had any more than 10ml in it.

I loaded up, passed through the gate and waited for my luggage. My wheeled bag came through fine, but the rest was diverted for further inspection. “Odd”, I thought. I always travel with the same stuff, and make sure it’s nothing they’d object to.

The lady asks me the usual preliminary questions, and then extracts the flaccid tube of toothpaste.

“Sir, this is a problem. It needs to be in a clear plastic bag.”

“Well, I suppose so, but you can see it now.”

“No, sir. You either need to go back and buy a bag”, (at several low-cost airports, including Manchester, plastic bags are dispensed by vending machines packed in little plastic balls, and cost £1), “or I can’t let you take this through.”

I wondered if this was some strange revenue protection policy, or whether I was living in a parallel universe.

“Those are the rules, sir. If it’s not in a bag, it can’t come through.”

I laughed. I attempt reason. It fails. So I said, “Well, it’s not worth £1, so you can keep it.” I moved to pick up my other bags, and go.

“Sorry, sir, you can’t take those bags. They have to go back through the machine.”

“But you had a problem with the toothpaste, and now you’ve removed the toothpaste, so what’s the problem?”

“No, sir, they have to go back through the machine.”

Which they duly did, and no problems were found.

As I was leaving, I said to her “In your heart of hearts, you know this doesn’t make anyone safer, does it?”

She said, “We have to do a vapour test, and I can’t do a vapour test if it’s not in a plastic bag.”

Now, there may be a tiny core of truth in that; perhaps vapours accumulate in the bag while you are waiting and that makes explosives easier to detect. Although I don’t see them checking people’s plastic bags for holes, or making sure objects spend a good long time in the bags. If their tests really require that, then they must be pretty dangerously insensitive.

But the real issue here is the lack of common sense applied to the problem. This was less than 10ml of… something. If I stuck that much explosive in my underwear and tried to detonate it, the worst that could happen would be that I’d not be having any more children! We’ve lost sight of the original goal of the rules, and fallen back on enforcing them unbendingly as an attempted route to safety. It’s a secular form of legalism.

5 thoughts on “Airport Security and 10ml of Toothpaste

  1. I don’t know if we ever had sight of solid goals in the U.S. There was an industry ready to jump in and sell our governments lots of expensive new equipment, a bunch of scared people, and politicians with more taxpayer money than sense looking for quick fixes.

    It’s theater, very expensive theater that has yet to demonstrate any real ROI.

  2. Don’t expect anyone with intelligence working at security. That is the outcome in installing a police- and surveillance-system. Look at all these CCTV in GB. This country – like the USA – is dead and I won’t visit it anymore.

  3. Last year I was in Cairo and tried to enter the airport at ground level. I had to wait until a guy at the x-ray machine woke up and scanned my luggage. After that I went up to the first floor just to realize that I ended up at the entrance of this level without any x-ray machines. So all people entering the airport at level 0 got scanned and the others at level 1 not.

    But all were scanned again later inside the building.

    Never expect any IQ in security related things.

  4. What use is a vapour test when something is already in a sealed plastic container inside the bag? All you’d be tested for would be someone being sloppy when filling the container and spilling some whatever on the outside of the bottle.

  5. Several years ago, after 9/11 but before the shoebomber incident, I took a plane from a small town in Colombia to Europe. My luggage was checked thoroughly by machine and by hand (for obvious reasons). But I noticed that nobody checked my hand-luggage, even though it contained a large (50cm) and heavy (3kg) metal sculpture that I couldn’t take in the big luggage (it was partially hollow, and thus needed to be checked manually). When I asked the police officer, he told me that it wasn’t important, he only wanted to check if my main luggage didn’t contain a bomb (the guerrilla was sometimes using them). When I remarked that it would be easy to carry a gun on board, he responded that I wouldn’t the only passenger with a gun on board (even though, owning and carrying a handgun is actually prohibited in Colombia, contrary to popular believe).

    Then I went to the cafeteria, and then I noticed that my family and friends were there, without being passed through the checkpoint. They could have easily been given me smtg (gun, drugs, whatever). Even worse, I was still carrying my main luggage (it was a small airport, you had to carry them to the airplane yourself), it was only sealed by a label. I wasn’t checked anymore during the 2 transfers (still carrying the luggage myself, there was no checkpoint for the international flight), until I reached Paris. Only the handheld metal detectors that they used at the airplane entrance beeped every time, but they didn’t bother.

    When I reached Paris, I was taken aside by the French police that wanted to check the luggage again (they knew that it could be a problem). To their surprise, they discovered the metal sculpture in my hand luggage, which was more than big enough to have been used as a weapon. And it was hollow one too, so it have contained anything you want.

    2 years I ago I went though the same small airport again. This time, the X-ray machine wasn’t working. Apparently it was non-functional for a while. So what did those police men do ? They checked the hand luggage very thoroughly, due to the new rules about liquids on airplanes, etc … Obviously, I couldn’t have taken such metal object anymore. But … nobody looked at the main luggage. At all. Although I have to say that the checkpoint in Bogota was actually improved, and you couldn’t board an international flight without a proper check.

    Don’t bother asking for the name of the airport, according to the local paper, a woman apparently had used the airport to smuggle drugs to Barcelona, and finally the authorities took action. Today they have a proper X-ray machine and metal detector. And you’re not allowed to carry the luggage yourself anymore.