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Just Back from BWI - A Thanksgiving Checkpoint Report

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Wednesday, November 26, 2008
happy thanksgiving


I just spent five hours working alongside Transportation Security Officers at Baltimore Washington International's Southwest Terminal A to help out with the traditional Wednesday-before-Thanksgiving-rush. Thing is, no rush ever occurred. Sure, there was a steady flow of traffic through the checkpoint without much of a break, but the queue never really grew beyond 30 people.

Officers were out in full force manning five separate lanes-including the Family Lane that rolled out November 20. While families and those with special needs certainly appreciated Family Lane availability, the checkpoint was moving so smoothly, that all lanes were readily able to handle all types of passengers regardless of their particular situation.

Like many of my fellow headquarters colleagues who volunteered for the Thanksgiving weekend, I helped officers with bin removal and replacement in the lanes. I also helped spread traffic around to each of the five lanes to expedite the entire process. As I stood behind the Travel Document Checker podium, a frazzled mother approached me and asked:

"Is that the Family Lane over there?"

I replied, "Yes it is."

"Should we go over there?"

"Do you have any medical liquids over 3.4 ounces?"

"Nope. We're traveling pretty light here."

"Then you're good to go right where you are [which happened to be lane 2-the shortest line at the moment]."

Another good thing I noticed during my time at BWI: pies, cakes, and other holiday food items went through checkpoints without incident-though some items were subjected to additional screening.

The holiday spirit was on display as another passenger approached "TSO Dave" while he was helping bags through the X-ray machine and said: "You guys are doing a heck of a job today." Little things like that mean a lot.

While things went smoothly for the most part, there was one interesting moment around noon. As I was chatting with passengers and helping them with their bins, I noticed an Evian bottle with less than three ounces of red liquid in it under one of the metal tables situated in front of the X-ray conveyor belt. I picked it up, and let an officer know where I found it. He quickly placed the bottle into a little bowl and sent it through the X-ray machine. Based on the image displayed on our end, the officers was able to verify that the liquid was not in fact dangerous and disposed of it.* I love technology.

There's been plenty of articles out there about the decrease in traffic over the 2008 holiday season, but it was very clear from my first hand experience at BWI that TSA's officers, expeditious security features, and prepared travelers certainly helped the flow of traffic today.

It was an awesome experience to work with the BWI team and experience firsthand what they do every day.

Hopefully my experience at the checkpoint will continue through Sunday and Monday. Look for another post from my colleague Christine, who will be volunteering at Washington DC-Reagan National Airport on Monday.

Quick update: Traffic has just started to pick up (2:45pm), but all five lanes are still running smoothly. Family Lane is being used primarily by families. Special needs individuals (wheelchairs, etc.) are still being taken care of in all lanes.

Happy Thanksgiving and safe travels to all.

- Poster Paul

* Clarification: While X-ray can detect many things, it cannot detect all types of liquid explosives. That's why the 3-1-1 liquids rule was put in place in September 2006 and will remain in place until a technology solution is tested and deployed. In this case, when an abandoned item was found at a checkpoint, officers used available technology to screen it to ensure passengers' safety and then disposed of it.


Submitted by MarkVII on

I read these anonymous comments with great interest:

Although only one lane was open, TSA had enough staff for two apparent BDOs to walk up and down the line glaring at passengers. And TSA had enough staff to make a disbled guy with a cane and serious mobility issues miserable. He's made to walk from the x-ray belt to a far off chair, sit down and take his shoes off with great difficulty, walk back to the WTMD, walk off to the SSSSecondary pen, and walk back to the x-ray belt. I didn't see him re-shoe because I was long gone by then.

How does treating a handicapped person in this manner increase security? What is the point of treating the individual in this manner? What's wrong with bringing the chair to the passenger, instead of forcing the passenger to go to the chair? Presumably the TSA has heard of the Americans with Disabilities Act by now.

I've had the perception for a while that there's way too much unchecked power being wielded at the checkpoint. The party line is "talk to a supervisor", yet the comments posted here time and again demonstrate that supervisors simply rubber stamp whatever the front line personnel say and do. The TSA has yet to announce any effective means of making amends to a passenger who is treated wrongly by checkpoint personnel and loses property as a result, but has its system of fines that can be summarily levied against a passenger. Accountability needs to be a two way street.

Kip Hawley spoke of "reconnecting with the passengers" this year. Once this blog got established, the horror stories began to flow, describing the yelling, the intimidation and the threats. The TSA eventually tried to produce a "calmer environment", but this was done primarily to make the BDO's job easier, rather than as a matter of ordinary civility. I wonder if the TSA would have sought to create a calmer environment were it not for the BDO factor. The TSA's level of interest in ordinary civility was (and still is) underwhelming, and "checks and balances" seem to be missing altogether.

One thing I'd have loved to see was an admission on the TSA's part that its model for interacting with passengers was counterproductive. I'd have also loved to see an announcement that the TSA was going to put as much emphasis on interpersonal skills as they put into detecting prohibited item.

The TSA still has the opportunity to effect a major turn around, but is doing too little to bring this about. There have been mentions on this board of that the "barkers" have toned it down, but it's going to take more than that to change my opinion of the TSA.

Between the airlines increasing prices and decreasing service, the TSA's lack of a strong stand to treat law abiding passengers as such, and the falling price of gasoline, I'm more inclined to drive....

Submitted by Anonymous on

I'm sick of these rules that aren't doing anything but harassing passengers.
Today the guard took my half-used tube of Crest Toothpaste. My TOOTHPASTE, that was in a ziplock bag, because he said it was too big of a tube of toothpaste. Well, it fits in the ziplock bag just fine and I've gone through several airports over the last few weeks with exactly the same tube (it's just the standard size tube of TOOTHPASTE!!) when it was even more full. I offered to eat some but that didn't help either.
It's the little things (random acts of unreasonableness) that are ruining our society and also happen to make me so angry.

When will you tell your people to start using their brains? The TSA is going to give me JET-RAGE.

Submitted by Tomas on
Yet another Anonymous wrote...
I'm sick of these rules that aren't doing anything but harassing passengers.
Today the guard took my half-used tube of Crest Toothpaste. My TOOTHPASTE, that was in a ziplock bag, because he said it was too big of a tube of toothpaste.

Yesterday my most recent "6.0 oz. net wt." tube of toothpaste finally gasped it's last and was empty. Just to verify what I already knew (toothpaste is heavier than water) I thoroughly rinsed it out, grabbed a syringe and pumped the empty tube full of water. Pumped up ready to explode, it would not take 4 ounces of liquid, measured when I poured it out into a measuring cup.

I suspect that brand new that "6.0 oz. net wt." tube of toothpaste probably held less than 3.4 ounces, liquid measure. (They do not fill them anywhere near as full as I pumped that tube up to.)

Blogger Bob! Can we get some sort of valid TSA response to TSOs rejecting "liquids" by weight instead of volume? We have asked quite nicely a number of times over a considerable period.

Tom (1 of 5-6)
Submitted by Phil on

Questions awaiting responses from Lynn and Paul, over one month after we asked:

On November 26, Lynn at TSA wrote:

"You're not missing anything - you and Phil caught a mistake. I missed this error in Paul's post before it was posted,and I sincerely apologize for that."

In response, on November 26, I asked:

"Lynn, what was the error in Paul's post? He simply relayed what he experienced today at the BWI checkpoint."

In the original post on November 26, Paul at TSA wrote (emphasis added):

"He quickly placed the bottle into a little bowl and sent it through the X-ray machine. Based on the image displayed on our end, the officers was able to verify that the liquid was not in fact dangerous and disposed of it."

In response to my question about how the x-ray image allowed the luggage inspector to determine the threat level of the unidentified liquid, Paul responded:

"If I got into more detail about what they did beyond putting it through the X-ray, I'd be revealing too much about our procedures."

You already told us that they were able to determine using the x-ray image that the liquid was not a threat. Now you're telling us something different.

Assuming that your second, revised, description of the incident is accurate did your colleagues do whatever else they did in secrecy or there at the checkpoint where anyone watching could see what they were doing? If in secrecy, then where? If not, then why not tell us?

Paul later wrote:

"There was less than 3 ounces of red liquid in the Evian bottle."

How was it measured?

"And it was "disposed of," meaning thrown in the trash, i.e. not brought onto a plane."

They would throw anyone else's less-than-three-fluid-ounces of unidentified liquid in a greater-than-three-fluid-ounce container directly into the trash. Why was it necessary to x-ray this bottle?

Add your own questions at

Submitted by Nick on

It was hard for me to see if here was a lot of travelers this holiday as I choose to travel in the off season. So for the most part things went very smoothly.

Airport security varies a lot depending on where/ when you travel. Some places treat you lie a criminal and others do a great job of moving you through and keeping the environment nice. The interesting thing is that the ones who treat you nicely, tend to be the ones who are paying more attention.

Submitted by Phil on

Lynn, it has been about nine weeks since I posed the above questions about Paul's experience at BWI. My questions are very relevant to Paul's post, to the comments you posted in response, and to airline security in general. Could you please answer or explain why you are unable to do so?

Add your own questions at

Submitted by Phil on

Lynn, Paul? Ten weeks have passed, and you've yet to respond to simple questions about the information you presented here.

Add your own questions at