in Checking In, Meddling, Travels, TSA

Electronics testing at the airport

I haven’t posted a TSA story in a while because I’m lucky enough not to travel as often as I did. When I have traveled, I have come to appreciate how professional the team at my home airport, Raleigh-Durham, is. I’ve never had a bad experience with them and this – I want to stress – is not a bad one, either. Just unusual.

For years I have enjoyed the benefit of TSA-Pre, allowing me to speed through security lines. Naturally, I headed into the TSA-Pre line when I flew out of Raleigh on Wednesday morning. Expecting all to be well, I was intrigued when I apparently set off the metal detector.

“Wait right here, sir,” the screener said, calmly. “We’re going to screen your electronics.”

I waited on the mat next to the metal detector while another agent got through checking another traveler’s electronics. He invited me over and I carried my bags to the testing station.

“Got any thing that is sharp, going to stick me, contraband, etc?” he asked. When I answered no, he politely asked if I had a laptop in the bag. I showed him the pocket it was in and he laid it out on the counter.

He then swabbed my laptop with a chemical pad, popped the swab into the sensor for analysis, and stepped away. To my surprise, the sensor began beeping. My newish work laptop had only been on my office desk and my home desk – not to the coca fields of South America or anything. I began to think over kind of substance could have possibly set off this false alarm.

Another agent walked up, checked the code on the machine, then looked at a placard that was on the top. “You’re looking for a block or a powder,” he told the original screener as the first screener returned to the machine.

The agent then checked through all the big pockets of my bag, looking for said “block or powder.” The agent, still calm and professional, told me he would pass my laptop back through the X-ray machine. It came back fine, of course, and the agent reassembled everything and cordially sent me on my way.

I was mystified why a machine would flag my laptop – one so new that its practically spotless. The whole episode was done with no sense of urgency or passion at all – it seemed everyone was in on the drill but me.

Only later when I arrived at my destination did I realize that even though I had somehow set off the metal detector, no one had ever searched me. No pat down, nothing. My jacket stayed on the whole time and had I had the mind to, I could have smuggled anything I had wanted to onto my flight. I watched a TSA agent in Boston kick the metal detector to make it falsely alarm, though, so just because it buzzes doesn’t mean it’s a legitimate alarm. So I assume it was just a drill.

Fortunately for me, I had budgeted enough time to play the game.