Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Frequent Traveler's Experience on the Other Side of the Line

My name is Christine, and I've worked for TSA for about 3 years now working on the Web team at Headquarters. I spend most of my time doing technical stuff, but I also dabble in some writing. I'm an avid traveler (it's a passion of mine) and I've had the pleasure of going through airport security in 22 countries across 6 continents. More on those experiences in later blog posts 'cause today's is about being on the other side of the security line....

I spent 4 hours volunteering at DCA's Terminal 'A' checkpoint on Monday. It was pretty busy and after a quick briefing with the Supervisory Transportation Security Officer, I was given the title of "bag loader"and jumped right in there to assist passengers with placing their carry-ons through the X-ray, and answer questions like, "Can I bring this through?" or "Do I have to take this off?"

I encountered many friendly passengers during the first half of my shift, and I have to hand it to the elderly, they were just so laid back and had a pretty good sense of humor about the whole thing. One elderly gentleman, sitting in a wheelchair no less, joked to his wife about having to get down to his "skivvies." After that, came the extra friendly passenger who winked at me...twice. Okay, maybe that will work in the grocery store checkout line but it's not going to get you too far in this scenario, buddy. Another female passenger asked whether or not she had to remove her "bling." I told her it would probably be a good idea.

Speaking of the metal detector - it's called that for a reason. Much to my surprise, many of the passengers did not check their pockets before going through it and guess what? They beeped. Repeatedly, I watched passengers get back in line for another bin and go through the metal detector again. In my opinion, this is the easiest part of security (metal=beep) yet it continued to be a sticky point for passengers throughout the day and probably cost them the most time.

Now for the second part of my shift. First up was a passenger who presented an expired airport ID to the travel document checker. A few minutes were added to his security experience to verify his identity and then he was cleared to go. Next up I encountered the stereotypical late, rushed passenger stressed out about having to make his flight (he was sweating and saying things under his breath). He got to the metal detector and X-ray with his with jacket, shoes, and tons of stuff in his pockets. I watched as he made not one, not two, but three trips to the metal detector to get it right. His last trip through was the kicker, though: he took his belt off it and swung it down on the conveyer belt so hard that it bounced up and almost hit me in the face.

By the end of the day I needed a break (I'm used to sitting at a desk all day, after all) so I took 15 minutes. On my way back to my post, I got in line to go through the metal detector in front of a woman holding her dog. I stepped through and the metal detector alarmed. Not sure why, but I might have brushed the side of the detector by accident. The woman with the dog rolled her eyes and sarcastically asked me if I spoke English. Clearly she wasn't in the holiday spirit with fellow passengers (she thought I was one). I wanted to say that I spoke English and Spanish but I smiled politely instead and went back to my post.

My experience on Monday made me acutely aware of just how fast everything happens at the checkpoint, even though, as a passenger, I feel that I go through at a normal pace. It was difficult for me to focus sometimes because of the chaos in the background. The most challenging part was placing the seemingly never-ending load of bags through the X-ray and watching passengers walk through the metal detector and back, over and over again. It's monotonous but also must be mentally challenging to officers who have to do their jobs while also looking for threats. Kudos to all the TSOs out there who do this every day.

EoS Guest Blogger