I fly a lot, passing through airports at least a dozen times a year. I’ve dealt with airport security more times than I can count and the vast majority of security officials have been professional and polite. A few have been a bit frazzled and grumpy, but none have acted rude enough for me to lodge a complaint – until last Monday.
I was flying from London to Santander via London’s Stansted Airport. Stansted has several security lines and all were moving at a decent rate. I picked one and waited. They didn’t have any trays available until you actually got to the conveyor belt through the x-ray machine so I couldn’t get prepared like I usually do.
Well before I got there I noticed the security official ahead of the x-ray handing out trays. He was waving his hands in the air and shouting, “Laptops, keys, coins – everything in the trays! All liquids must be in a resealable bag. Come on, people, read the sign!”
He kept this up constantly. I had a lot that needed to get into the tray, including a laptop, belt, boots, my bag of liquids, etc., so when I was second-to-front in line and the woman in front of me was busy loading her tray, I pointed to the stack of trays behind the official (there were none in front of him) and asked, “Could I get one of. . .”
“Wait your turn!” he shouted at me.So I waited my turn instead of saving everybody a bit of time.
Once it was my turn, he threw a tray down in front of me and I started to unload while he shouted at the person behind me. Then he glanced down at my tray.
“What’s this? This type of bag isn’t allowed,” he demanded, holding up my liquids bag. The only liquids it contained were a contact lens case and a pair of disposable contact lenses still in their individual packets. The bag was a type of sandwich bag sold in the UK with a sticky sealant that closes it. I’ve used them with no trouble in Gatwick, Heathrow, Stansted, Madrid Barajas, Antwerp International, Amsterdam Schiphol and probably a few other airports.
“It’s a resealable bag. I’ve used them plenty of times, including here in Stansted,” I said.
“It’s not the right type of bag!” he shouted. He then turned the security sign to face me. “Look! Read the sign! A resealable bag! It’s not that complicated!”
He jabbed a finger to the back of the line.
“Go back there and get a proper bag,” he ordered.
“I don’t have the time for that.”
“Then I have to throw these away,” he said, looking quite satisfied with himself.
“The spare lenses are sealed so there’s nothing I can do about them, but I can dump out the liquid from my contact lens case,” I offered.
At this point I had a choice. I could risk losing my flight while hunting down a bag, give up my contact lenses, or start an argument I was bound to lose. So I let him take my liquids, passed through the scanner, and made a beeline to the security desk to lodge a complaint.
I was met by the shift manager and started to tell my story. He cut me short.
“Oh yes, I know who you’re talking about. He’s always like that, waving his hands in the air and telling people to read the sign.”
Great, so he knew about this guy’s behavior and hadn’t done anything about it. I continued my story and the manager listened politely. When I was done he said, “He shouldn’t have taken the contact lenses. Since they are prescribed to you they count as personal medication. I’ll get the contact lens case too.”
In a few minutes he was back with my liquids bag sealed inside another bag.
“You see, while your bag seals, technically you need this sort of bag,” he held up a Ziploc bag.
“If he had explained it the way you just did, I wouldn’t be lodging a complaint right now,” I replied.
“Well, I understand he can be a bit energetic. Part of it is time pressure. . .”
I swept my arm in an arc to encompass all the security lines and the dozens of officials hard at work.
“All of these people are getting the job done without being rude or condescending. None of them are shouting.”
The manager nodded.
“I will talk to him about his behavior,” he said.
And that was that. I didn’t raise my voice, I didn’t cause a scene, I simply stood up for myself and got what I wanted. Did getting talked to by his manager change that guy’s behavior? Probably not. He’s obviously a petty man using his little bit of power to lord it over people he assumes can’t fight back.
Sad to say, he’s right. At least fifty people streamed through that line while I was talking to the manager. All of them got shouted at and condescended to. None of them came up to lodge a complaint. One complaint won’t change his behavior. But if enough people tell his manager, calmly but firmly, that they refuse to be treated like garbage jut because they’re taking a flight, maybe he’ll change his attitude. Or maybe he’ll be replaced with someone who knows how to act professionally.
Airport security officials are a bit like dentists – we don’t want to deal with them, but we understand they’re necessary. That doesn’t mean we have to take any crap from them. Most of them are decent folks and if you talk with them reasonably they’ll be reasonable to you. If you get confronted by a petty tyrant, you have every right to go to his manager. It’s good for you, and you’ll be doing your fellow travelers a favor.