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.