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Scan This

November 20, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

My last post, written last Sunday night from the O’Hare Hilton, was a bit unfocused. Let me see if I can do better with this one.

Before writing the last post, I had planned for days to discuss the full-body backscatter scanners used at airport security by the TSA, the unattractive alternative of being groped, and the puzzle of what I would choose to do when I went through security at SeaTac on the way to Chicago. I never did write the intended post. And I had no idea the issue would explode into what might have been the most covered news story of the past week. (No, not the issue of what decision I would make. The issue of the idiotic TSA requirements.) “Don’t touch my junk” has become the phrase of the day, and even right-wing nut cases (I mean you, Charles Krauthammer) who traditionally adore all possible security measures — privacy, what’s that? — seem to have re-discovered their libertarian roots.

In my post last Sunday, I touched on the scanner issue only in passing, observing that I didn’t have to scanning and groping that morning because I ended up on a security line that used the traditional metal detectors rather than the scanners. But now I have a TSA story to tell, a different kind of story. I’ll get to it in a moment. Let me first review the circumstances of my trip.

I flew into O’Hare Sunday for the eighth consecutive November in order to attend the annual board meeting Monday for Apache Point Observatory in Sunspot, New Mexico. The meeting is always held in the Athens-Berlin meeting rooms on the mezzanine level of the O’Hare Hilton, with breakfast from 8:30 to 9:00 and the meeting itself from 9:00 to around 3:00. For years, I would fly home on a United flight that would depart around 5:30 PM, but United has dropped that flight. Last year, Gail and I took an American flight with a departure around 4:00 PM. (We were both there because we scheduled our France-Italy trip so that we could stop in O’Hare on our return to Seattle.) But this year the only options were a cluster of flights on assorted airlines around 3:00 or 3:15 PM or another cluster around 8:00 or 8:15 PM. One option would force me to leave the meeting at least an hour before its end; the other would give me 5 hours or more to kill at O’Hare.

I agonized about what to do for a couple of weeks, then went with United’s 3:20 departure. Hanging out at O’Hare didn’t seem too attractive, and I’m not so essential a participant at the meeting that I would be missed if I left a little early. But I knew another issue would await me — just how much time should I allow to get from the Hilton through the underground passageways to the United terminal and then through security? I knew in particular that I would be fretting about this in the closing minutes of my time at the meeting. To minimize fret, I decided ahead of time that I would leave at 2:00. No point fretting when my departure time was pre-ordained. I would enjoy the meeting until that moment, then rush over to United and allow the fretting to begin. Anyway, how bad could it be?

Well, I’m about to tell you. But one more piece of background first.

When I checked in online from home Saturday night for the flight to Chicago, the United website gave me a choice. I could print a boarding pass, or I could have an electronic, scannable boarding pass sent to my mobile device. I thought — at last! I could use put the boarding pass on my iPhone screen and board that way. This isn’t new technology, but it’s not widely in use, and I was eager to try it for the first time. The webpage also had a link to click in order to find out what airports you could use an e-boarding pass at. I clicked, discovered that Seattle was in the list of airports where this feature was not yet available but would be coming. O’Hare was listed as having it already. Oh well. I dutifully printed out my boarding pass, but I looked forward to using the e-pass on my way back.

Sunday afternoon, in my room at the O’Hare Hilton, I checked in for Monday’s return flight, and this time I clicked on the option to have the e-pass sent to me by email. I checked the iPhone email, opened the message from United, and clicked on a link that opened on my iPhone browser. There was the scannable block pictured at the top of this post, below which were the flight details. I was in business.

Let’s move to Monday afternoon. At 1:55, with my 2:00 departure from the meeting approaching, I started to the process of checking the time on my iPhone regularly. I must have checked roughly every 45 seconds. When 2:00 came around, I got up, grabbed my bags and jacket, and left the room. Down the stairs to the lobby level, over to the escalator, down to the basement level, out to the main underground passageway, up to the United terminal baggage claim level, left turn, 50 yard walk to the up escalator (a routine that has become familiar to me over the years), up to the departure level. It’s 2:06. I think, what if the e-pass doesn’t work? Why not put my credit card in one of the United kiosks and print out a paper pass. Alas, the kiosk won’t read my card. On try four, it does. Then I push the buttons to the point where I ask it to print my boarding documents, and it says it can’t. Hmm. Maybe once one has an e-pass, one can’t get a paper pass. Anyway, time is passing. Let’s get through security.

I go to the main security entrance, show somebody there my phone with the scannable square, and he says that’s fine, just go through and make sure to go left. But there must be hundreds in line, and I had used United mileage to upgrade to first class, so I ask where the first class line is. Actually, I knew. It’s way down at the end of the building, which is where he points me. I race over there and discover a line that, while much shorter than the standard line, is not short at all. Priority boarding it’s called. It snakes back and forth about four times before leading to the lone TSA agent, who is doing that stare-at-your-pass-and-license thing. I’m starting to get anxious.

I suppose it took 10 minutes to snake through, during which time I got to study the options once one passes the ID inspection. There are two conveyor belt lines, to the left and to the right. Most people go right. Left is shorter. But right has a body scanner. The odd thing is, not everyone is going through it. Most go through the traditional metal detectors. A handful are directed to the scanner. I figure I’ll just choose the conveyor belt to the left when the time comes.

It’s maybe 2:22 now. I reach the ID guy. I show him my phone and he says he can’t read it. One needs to read it with a scanning tool, and he doesn’t have one. I should go way back to the left, toward the main security line ID checkers, whom I can reach by walking along a wall, squeezing past the main flow of people heading to the conveyor belts. And then, once my phone is scanned, I can return to the priority line’s conveyor belts.

Anxiety increasing. I do as I’m told, squeeze pass a hundred people, reach the regular ID checkers from behind, get the attention of one of them, approach (in effect cutting ahead of the line, except I’m coming to it from the other direction), and show him my phone. He looks at me like I’m out of my mind, shrugs, and says he can’t scan it. I explain that I was told to come this way from the priority line. He shrugs again, not too concerned, and says there’s only one scanner, and it’s at the other end. He suggests I go out and get a paper pass. I ask if I’ll have to get in the line again. I don’t know that he gave a clear answer to that, but I point out that I didn’t want to miss my flight. Again, not his problem. Finally he says he’ll have to get his supervisor. He speaks into some walkie-talkie, no response, takes the next person in line, then stands up, looks around, spots Connie over by one of the conveyor belts, and shouts to her. She’s busy taking people’s bags and orienting them correctly on the belt. She nods at him, spends another minute and a half handling bags, then heads in some big circle away from the conveyor belt and possibly toward us, though I can’t be sure. She has to pass through some area accessible only to TSA staff, then emerges near us, fusses with something on the other TSA ID checker’s counter, looks at my guy, finds that he needs a scanner, and then she disappears back to that private TSA area again. I have no idea what she’s doing, but she clearly is in no hurry to help me. I ask my guy again what my options are. He says look, he asked his lead for help, she’ll ask her lead, and her lead may have to ask his lead, and so on. I can’t tell if he’s serious or just being an ass. But he obviously isn’t too concerned about my plight. I ask if I could just be interviewed, answer some standard questions. No, my pass needs scanning. I explain that United said this would work. He suggests, in effect, that I should complain to United, it’s not his or TSA’s problem. I say okay, if I get a printed pass, can I come right back? He says sure.

It’s getting later and later. I race out some non-standard security exit, head to a machine, and this time it will let me print my boarding documents. I run back to the exit, the two TSA people there move to stop me. I point to the ID guy, say he knows me, he sent me out to get a printed pass. They look at him, he nods, they let me through, I run up to him. Connie is back. She starts to shout at me to stop, but I point to my guy, he nods to her, and she lets me be. I hand him my boarding pass. But now a new panic. Where’s my license? I can’t find it. It’s not in my wallet. Turns out, I had been carrying it up against my iPhone the whole time, the two held tightly together, and he sees it. He pulls it out of my hand, gives it a quick look, hands it back. I’m through.

Now back to priority security to get on one of the two conveyor belt lines. This time they are both far longer than when I left them behind. I choose one, which doesn’t move for about two minutes. Some problem with someone’s bag I guess. But I see myself missing my flight. Should I cut 15 people, say I’m about to miss the flight, and ask to be let in? It’s 2:30. My flight is 3:20, boarding at 2:50. I’m probably okay. The line begins to move. Slowly. I get through, get my laptop and iPad back in my bag, my iPhone back in my pocket, my shoes back on.

It’s 2:38. B-9. B-9. Where’s gate B-9. Ah, right in front of me. I have somehow come out of security directly in front of my gate. I’m going to make my plane! I search unsuccessfully for a nearby men’s room, then remember that in the B concourse, I need to walk a ways from the center to find one. To heck with it. I get on line at the priority boarding area, and 5 minutes later we’re boarding.

All that anxiety for nothing.

But really, how was I to know? When I got to the TSA ID guy and he got Connie and she came over, then walked off without a word, I was not convinced that I was ever going to get through security. They so obviously didn’t care about my problem, which was between me and United.

So, by the way, what’s the deal United? Why roll out e-boarding passes, offer the option of downloading one when you check in, but not tell you that your options for getting the pass read by TSA are extremely limited? There’s no apparent coordination with TSA to lead you to the right place. There are no signs directing you to a line that can handle it. You’re pretty much on your own.

I won’t have to think hard next time. I’ll just print my boarding pass. And maybe leave the meeting earlier.

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Categories: Security, Technology, Travel
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