By Sara Sanabria
As students flock back to the city of Kings, some will have to navigate the ins and outs of airports around the world. Whether it’s good old Charles de Gaulle or LAX, they all have one thing in common; unnerving encounters with airport security. As unpleasant as taking your shoes off and emptying your pockets is, haven’t you ever wonder what it’s like for the officers reminding you to take off your shoes and empty your pockets? This week The Sundial Press’s Sara Sanabria interviews Travis, a TSA officer at a major international airport in North America.
- Let’s start off small, what exactly do you do?
I am a screening officer, my job is to follow security procedure in order to maintain people’s safety. This involves screening peoples luggage and peoples handbags as well as their persons.
- What is your favourite part of your job?
Knowing that I play a part in ensuring peoples security and ensuring that they get on the plane safely and can arrive at their destination.
- What is your least favorite part of your job?
It is a two parter. The first is dealing with inconsistencies in work ethics, I mean things like laziness, which leads to not following security procedures such as “passenger throughput”. A part of that is that we have a lot of pressure from management to do our job quickly, so some people cut corners because they do not feel that it is necessary. Another thing is seniority in the workplace; certain people will use it as leverage to take longer work breaks or work certain positions even though sometimes it works against them because they will use outdated procedures etc. The second answer is dealing with passengers. For obvious reasons. When people look at us they think we are a joke and that all we do is seize oversized liquids. But in the end, we are always watching out for threats to security. A lot of terrorist acts have had a role in shaping our procedure. For example, the reason we take away water bottles is that someone once planned a terrorist attack using liquid explosives in gatorade bottles.
- With terrorist acts occurring more frequently these days are you ever afraid of your job?
Not really, but I also don’t really think about it. It isn’t something that happens very often. Also, our security measures are in place to reduce the risk as much as possible. That being said, we sort of go blindly into it, and we are trained as much as possible, but anything can be turned into a bomb. It only takes two or three things. So in general, I don’t think about it everyday, but when I do, I can see there is reasons to have some fear.
- What is the funniest thing you have seen through the X-Ray?
Recently, I found a dragon-shaped sex toy. Obviously because of the shape and battery pack, along with other things in the bag, it was definitely alarming. Sex toys in general are common. Someone also once brought live chicks in a fruit box as a carry on.
- What are you really looking at through an X-ray machine?
Orange is organic material, green is any mixed materials so something like glass, plastic or rubbers; anything mixed in with organic materials, blue is anything metallic. When we are looking through the machine we are looking for things that may be in our “pyramid of threats”. The highest threat level is IEDs (improvised explosive devices) and any components of them. Most explosive materials have dense organic materials attached to them. They would be a deep orange. In metallics we look for detonators or lose wires that lead to organics.The other parts of IEDS include, explosives, initiators such as a timer and a detonator. The second threat tier is prohibited items such as guns, weapons, blades, numb chucks, fireworks and that sort of thing. The last level is non-permitted items, such as oversized liquids and powders.
- Have you foiled any criminal schemes?
On one occasion there was a passenger that came in around 1:00 going to Miami carrying a suitcase full of cash. The limit of cash you can bring is $10,000. This passenger was well beyond the limit, and it was undeclared. In fact, he was carrying around $28,000. Even if the amount is only slightly over $10,000 it is our procedure to call the police. They interviewed him, and he was allowed to carry on his way. However, two hours later another man came in with a suitcase full of cash also headed to Miami. This man was carrying $64,000. In fact the suitcase was so full that I could not close the bag again. The police came again, and I am not quite sure what happened after.
Another time, I was scanning boarding passes. A lady was speaking in French to her partner and said, “Do I have to declare it if it is only 10 grams?” Her partner said, “I don’t think so if its not 5 grams.” I speak French and immediately found that suspicious. I told my manager, and when they were scanning her bag they took her to the side.There was a small Chanel bag inside the bag. She had the nerve to say “careful with that bag it’s expensive”. When we finally looked through it we found marijuana, ecstasy pills and cocaine. The police were called, and she was taken away.
- What is the worst passenger experience you have had?
There was once a drunk man who was randomly selected. I had to give him the option of a pat down or a full body scan. He chose the scan. I asked him to take off his watch, belt and shoes, as they would set off an alarm. He kicked his shoes off, and one flew across the checkpoint. When he was pulling his belt off he also decided to pull down his pants. He was deemed a level 3 risk, so we had to call the police on him. Another time, I was working a transborder checkpoint. A little boy had a lot of toys in his bag. It seemed suspicious in the X-Ray machine. It turns out they were toy guns, because they have the components of a gun I had to pry them out of this 4-year old hands. Also, a lady once threw saltine crackers at me.
- Do celebrities come through your checkpoint often?
Yes, I met a couple of Game of Thrones actors. Recently I have met Dikembe Mutombo, a 7’2 retired NBA player and Steph Curry. I have also met Sophie Gregoire Trudeau as well as Chloë Grace Moretz. I once met Forest Whitaker, so far he was my favourite because he was very nice. Unless they are VIP members with an airline, high-profile people do not get special treatment, they have to go through all the same lines as normal people. Of course, diplomats and heads of states are the exception. However, if they have their own plane or have a chartered one then we provide screening officers for them.
- Are people actually randomly selected?
Yes. I can absolutely confirm that. I am not quite sure how the selection algorithm works. The selection is made through the walk through metal detector. It doesn’t know who you are or what you look like. It just beeps to let us know that an individual needs to be additionally screened. Sometimes we will get five random selections in a row while other times we may get 30 passengers without random selections. As screening officers we are completely impartial in the selection process.
- What goes through your mind while you are patting people down?
I pay attention to feet. When it is a transborder screening people have to take off their shoes, and while we pat them down it can get smelly. I just hold my breath until it is over. Otherwise we just try to make it as least awkward as possible. I try to make small talk or something like that to make the process go by quicker.