Carry-on contraband: Three recent flights and my (completely avoidable) trouble in scanner-land

February 4, 2017

By Matthew E. Milliken
Feb. 4, 2017

I flew from the New York metropolitan area to Raleigh-Durham International Airport on the afternoon of Thursday, Nov. 3 — a one-way trip that I made for reasons that I may eventually get into in another blog post.

I arrived at the airport in plenty of time to make my flight — or so I thought. While using the automatic kiosk, I opted against checking my larger bag because of the $25 fee. After printing my boarding pass, I paused to help a foreign woman attach a luggage tag to her bag and got on the line that would bring me to a security checkpoint.

The line behind me was quickly growing, while the queue ahead of me moved extremely slowly — an alarming combination. As the minutes slowly passed, I began to worry about getting to the plane.

My fears were exacerbated when my roller bag was flagged by security personnel as they put it through the scanner. After a short delay when two Transportation Security Administration employees chatted with one another, one of them asked me sharply what illicit item I had in my bag. I said, honestly, that I did not know.

The woman pulled my bag and asked if I had a knife in the bag. I don’t think so, I said.

As she prepared to open the bag, the employee warned me against reaching for any item. She rummaged around briefly and then pulled out an old Swiss army knife that I had stored in my toiletries kit.

When she held it up, I sighed. I’d forgotten all about that, I conceded.

She told me I could either surrender the knife or check my bag. Since my flight was due to depart at any moment, I announced that I’d give up the item.

As quickly as I could, I closed my bag and ran for the gate. Fortunately, it was near the security checkpoint.

We’re glad you made it, the airline worker said.

So am I, I replied, trying not to pant.

The flight was fairly crowded, so — ironically? — I had to check my bag on the gangway. But I made the plane… albeit without a rather old pocketknife.

About nine weeks later, I flew from RDU back to the New York area, this time as the outbound leg of a round trip. My flight was supposed to be on the afternoon of Monday, Jan. 16, shortly after I was scheduled to finish playing in a weekend-long Scrabble tournament. (Fear not: This event will be the subject of several near-future posts!) However, around 9:30 that morning, the flight was pushed back to the early evening.

At some point during the Scrabbling, I grabbed a water bottle from the cooler. Later, as I helped my pal square things away following the end of the tournament, I stuck it in my backpack. Then we drove to an arcade in Raleigh and played a bunch of pinball. On the way back to Durham, my friend dropped me off at the airport. The water bottle — probably a 12-ouncer — was snuggled away in my backpack, forgotten.

Although the bottle was probably two-thirds empty, screeners flagged it as my bags passed through the scanner. The backpack was searched; I was asked if I wanted to surrender the bottle or check the bag; I naturally surrendered it; and I was on my way.

My return flight was on Wednesday, Jan. 25. This flight, too, was delayed, although it worked a little differently this time. Instead of getting one notification five or so hours in advance of the scheduled departure, the flight was pushed back around 40 minutes as I was riding down to the airport. Later, as I waited in the terminal, the flight time was moved up a little bit. In the end, the plane reached the gate at RDU around 10 minutes after the original slated arrival.

But the real story here, of course, is why my bag got flagged in the scanner yet again.

As with my previous flights, I declined to check my roller bag because of the $25 luggage fee. What I didn’t realize, alas, was that the brand-new tube of toothpaste I’d packed in one of the bags violated the limit on liquids, creams, pastes and gels. It hadn’t occurred to me that toothpaste was subject to this stricture.

So once again, my large bag was set aside for an additional search when I went through the security checkpoint. The agent told me what she was looking for, but embarrassingly, I didn’t remember where in my suitcase I’d stowed the contraband item. After a couple of minutes, the agent came across it and asked if I was willing to surrender it.

I guess, I told her. But just for the sake of completeness, what are my options? Either I surrender it here or I check my bag?

The agent confirmed this information, but with an added wrinkle: If I wanted to check my bag, I’d have to leave the secure area and essentially go back to the check-in counters next to the car drop-off point.

I’d been idling quite a while at the terminal, but outside the secured area. By this time, about 35 minutes remained until the plane was supposed to leave, and the prospect of checking in my bag and then going back through security screening seemed unnecessarily stressful. I surrendered the unopened toothpaste, contained in an unopened box, hurriedly stuffed everything back into the suitcase and zipped it up, and proceeded to the gate.

So there you go: Three straight flights, three straight searches for prohibited items. This is, surely, a dubious personal record that I hope not to extend with my next airplane journey.


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