A nice way to leave the UK

I don’t travel well. To be more precise, I fall apart when I travel. I suppose it is because my limited supply of neurons cannot take the onslaught of stimuli.

On the way to London, I was confronted by a TSA agent in Chicago who told me my roller bag was too big to carry on. Never mind that I had already “carried it on” the prior flight. Never mind that I had frequently “carried it on” other flights, particularly international flights. With a curt and dismissive gesture from the very bored security official, I quickly found out that there is no appeal from the pronouncements of those officers in the US. OK, so, that’s the context.

I left London Friday. Heathrow airport at 5:30 AM in the morning is busy. Since I had stayed up all night, I was naturally tired and, to boot, my Xanax was kicking in. I checked the “carry on” that was not a “carry on” according to the TSA agent in Chicago. Then free of that bag, I headed to security.

I take a shoulder bag to and from work. It has all the things I think I may sometimes need. In particular, since I smoke a pipe (an affectation picked up when I was a college student and never dropped), the bag has a clear plastic baggie of pipe tobacco. It looks like dope but smells like what it is, pipe tobacco. It also contains my lighters, my judicial credentials, pens, and other stuff. When I travel, the bag also has the travel paperwork and whatever books I am taking along with me together with my increasingly numerous medications. I love my bag.

Back in London, I made it through security, happy that the Brits did not make me take my shoes off. I had a hole  in my right sock where the leather of my loafer had rubbed through and blistered my little toe when Keller and I did our walk-about in London.

While I quickly made it through screening, my shoulder bag was another thing. An alarm went off, and I was asked to take a seat as a British security officer removed the bag from the conveyor belt and took custody of it.

Soon summoned to a table, I was politely requested to remove my things from the bag. I did while nervously explaining my baggie of pipe tobacco. The security agent smiled nicely and said, “Of course, sir.” The inside and outside of the bag was rubbed down with a small cotton square and off the Brit went to test the sample. Another alarm sounded. That process repeated itself three times with the same result.

Next, a senior security officer approached me. He asked the people around me to stand back “for the gentleman’s privacy.” He did so quietly, and with a smile. He then engaged me in a short conversation, asking first very politely if I would “object” to answering some questions. Of course, I said no. Then, he asked questions about the bag and took down some personal identifying information. After that, he said something like, “Sir, you have  been very helpful. I am so sorry for troubling you. You are free to leave with your bag.” He added, “Do have a safe journey.”

The practical, sensible and polite treatment I received from security officials at Heathrow was a nice way to leave the UK. I could not help but contrast the way I was treated as a foreigner in London as compared with the way I was treated as a citizen in Chicago.


2 responses

  1. My friend and I had a similar reaction upon leaving South Africa with its friendly, efficient and noninvasive airport and security personnel last fall and returning to New York where we were immediately struck by the rude and grouchy (not to mention practically nonexistent as the federal budget crunch had begun to hit) personnel. “Coming to America”….

  2. Too many years ago, I had occasion to travel to Israel. The ride in and through customs was routine and uneventful. On leaving Israel, we were required to check our bags the night before. When I arrived at the airport for my initial leg on El Al, Israeli security did their screening check. No patdowns, no X-rays, not much of anything–just idle conversation with those security agents. Polite, efficient, idle chit-chat sounding, efficient. They’re very good at character screening, which is better than just trying to intercept contraband.

    I had, while in the USAF, occasion to make a number of trips through FRG airports. The Germans at the time, had a different technique for airport security. They simply had the polizei omnipresent, with their Uzis plainly visible, and plainly loaded for those who recognize the indications. But those, also, were the days of the Bader-Meinhoff Gang and its follow-on, the Red Army Faction (which gang bombed my wife (among too many others) one fine morning. No deaths, but the injuries terminated one general officer’s flying career, and it vandalized the building’s facade).

    I’m inclined to support airport (and other) security. It would help, though, if TSA didn’t insist on hiring the failed children of MacNamara’s Project 100,000. Although, in fairness to TSA, they’re not uniformly bad; their performance seems to match local mores: DFW in red neck Texas, and SEATAC, in the heart of granola-land, both have been efficient, polite, and friendly.

    Eric Hines

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