Define “Airport Security”

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Todos Deseamos La Paz

Todos Deseamos La Paz

I have traveled quite a lot since September 11. Actually, to be more accurate, given that I turned 18 that year, my world traveler career only boomed after that. I am a pure product of the modern terrorist-hunt era, therefor I should be fluent with airport and travel security.

But I still don’t get it.

I remember that right after 9/11, flying was not popular, and ticket prices were at a all-time low. Planes were also quite empty: I remember having a whole four-seats row for myself on my flight back from Hong Kong to France, and then from France to Mexico! I can’t remember any specific regulations at that time. I’m sure some were being implemented, I just wasn’t aware of them.

Now, forward a couple of years. I was living in Canada half of the time, in France the other half, always looking for a way to extend my work visas and already planning to apply for permanent residence in Canada. I was going back in forth on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. At the time, the cheapest flight available was often the Toronto-Philadelphia-Paris one, with American Airline. I didn’t mind the stop-over in Philly: I was a student and I was broke. If the stop was going to help me save a couple of hundred bucks, it was good for me.

But at the same time, US airport security and immigration procedures were getting tighter and tighter, and the rest of the world was soon to follow.

One thing a lot of people don’t know is that when your flight stops in the U.S.A, whether it is for a couple of hours or for a day, you are not really considered as being in transit, as anywhere else in the world. You need to pick up your bags, go through immigration, and then check in again. To my knowledge, the U.S.A is the only country with this policy. Usually, as long as you stay in the airport, you are in an international zone, so you don’t go through immigration and you don’t pick up your bags, which are typically checked all the way to whatever destination anyway.

The U.S no transit policy confused me to no end. I’m lucky though, because as a French citizen, I do not need a visa. Upon arrival in the U.S, I just have to fill up the visa waiver program form (the famous I-94W green paper), have a little chat with the immigration officer (that can range from very straightforward experience to extremely unpleasant one) and the form is stapled in my passport. I have to give it back when I leave.

Now, when you go through the U.S, you still have to follow that process, even though you won’t be going outside the airport. Sometimes, the immigration agent does not understand we don’t have an address or an hotel in the U.S. Which is very logic since we are not traveling there…! Sometimes, we are given the visa waiver form, stapled in the passport, and give it back 30 minutes later upon boarding the next plane. Stupid if you ask me.

Since January 12th 2009, there has been new requirements implemented for passengers traveling to or transiting to the U.S.A under the Visa Waiver Program. We are required to apply for an Electronic System for Travel Authorisation (ESTA) no later than 72 hours prior to departure. You then receive a response determining whether travel to the US has been authorized. If the application is not authorized then a visa may be requested through the US Embassy.

I haven’t apply for an ESTA yet because I’m scared of the system. I have nothing to hide and there is no reason why I shouldn’t be allowed. Yet, what if…? What if the computer system screws up? What if, what if, what if? Am I going to be banned from traveling to the U.S? As a Canadian resident, it would be very tough. Because a lot of flights go through the U.S, whether we want it or not. Most Latin American bound flights from Canada go through the U.S, as well as a fair share of Europe bound flights!

Recently, another blogger wrote a post criticizing my attitude towards U.S security policies. Her message was simple: if you don’t like the way we do it, don’t come here. Yeah, well, I don’t really have the choice. As I explained before, I comply to any requirements to enter a country that I’m visiting, because after all, I don’t have to come if I don’t like it. Now, I don’t have the choice on where I will be in transit, and since I live in Canada, I simply can not avoid being in transit in the U.S.A quite often. Yet, I’m aiming for direct flights until I — hopefully – get my Canadian citizenship.

But this is only the tip of the iceberg. I used to like flying. I don’t anymore, because it’s such a hassle, no matter which airport, no matter which country.

First, what can you put on your bags, what can you put in your carry-on? This is not clear to me. I usually travel light, with a backpack and a small rucksack. I used to pack a few items for the first night of travel in my carry-on bag, in case my checked-in luggage is lost (yes, it does happen). But I have to consider what considered as safe. I would never think of carrying an ice pick, a sword or a saber, items which are all — understandably — on the prohibited items list. On the other side, I do frequently have small scissors, lithium batteries (for my camera) or tweezers, which are prohibited items as well!

As for clothes, the TSA websites advise you to “avoid wearing clothing, jewelry or other accessories that contain metal when traveling through the security checkpoints: clothing with metal buttons, snaps or studs, metal hair barrettes or other hair decoration, under-wire bras“. I should call the airport for fashion advice because most of my clothes do have metal button (jeans) and I won’t even mention my bras. Fortunately, my hair is short… so no barrettes.

Since September, 2006, all liquids, gels and aerosols in their carry-on bag must be in three-ounce or smaller containers. They must be placed in a single, quart-size, zip-top, clear plastic bag, and each traveler can use only one. It has to be removed from the carry-on and placed in a bin for separate X-ray screening.

Now, I check in everything. In my bag, I only have my camera, my wallet and a book. But it’s not good enough apparently. Ooops, forget the lip balm in my inside bag pocket, next to my tampon. Ooops, my camera has lithium batteries. Ooops, I smuggled a knife… actually, not. But the X-ray — wrongly — said so.

Once I have taken off my shoes, belt, change, coat, scarf, ziploc bags or sample-size toiletry, thrown away my bottle of water, I am hopefully allowed in. Not so fast: I am always the one pull on the side for the body search (how nice) even though I am only wearing a skirt and a teeshirt (scarf, coat etc. being in the X-ray bin).

Don’t get my wrong, I’m not against airport security. I just find the current policies more ridiculous than efficient. I feel it basically discourage people from traveling, and for the rest of us that still do, it’s a huge hassle. September 11/9 was a tragedy for the U.S.A and the rest of the world. Yet, we have to admit terrorism can strike anywhere, and no matter how tight the security is, there will always be loopholes. What’s next? No weapon-like objects, no liquid, tight passenger screening and… and what? The day a lunatic strangles someone on board we will have to have our hands cut?

We flew to France yesterday, and after our travels in Latin America, where airport security is straightforwards and quite basic, it was a shock. Security in Montreal was very tight. We flew from Paris to Nantes, my hometown, and even for this domestic leg of the trip, we had to remove our shoes, have our carry-on X-rayed and searched etc. The woman in front of us almost wasn’t allowed on the plane because she was traveling with her kid who had an American passport (dad was American she explained) while she had a French passport. Phew. Come on guys, it’s domestic…!

Anyway, we are in France and it’s all good. Gotta go eat some cheese and drink some wine now.


About Author

French woman in English Canada. World citizen, new mom, traveler, translator, writer and photographer. Looking for comrades to start a new revolution.


  1. Security in Montreal was very tight. Did you spot me at work? :p I understand how you feel as it it my job to make sure the aircraft is safe. A lot of rules are stupid but we have to follow them anyway because it’s our job. A lot of people are often frustrated and yell at us, but there’s nothing we can do because it’s simply the way it it.

    U.S. is a different story that’s why I avoid to have transit there when I go to Denmark. It’s too much hassle and problem for no reason. It’s better to have tight security than having slackers who don’t care about anything. You never know what’s gonna happen. As for random research…it’s just really random…there’s not racial profiling or anything. We’re told to search random women so we do it regardless the size, the colour of the skin, nationality, etc. It’s not pleasant to search people either but we still have to do it.

    I already asked about the liquid rule to CATSA because it annoys the hell out of me that I have to search every single bag. They told me nothing will be changed for a long time…it’s the government that decides what kind of airport security they want. So if you want to make a complain write to Harper and see what they can do, because we’re at the bottom of the food chain. Trust me, if I can change the rules I’d do it.

    Btw, scissors are not allowed but the rest you mentioned is okay. Sometimes it’s hard to see from the x-ray therefor we need to search the bag. I know it’s not pleasant to be searched but please bear with the security for a moment.

    Also, I’d have to explain to you everything in person regarding on this subject.

  2. @Bluefish – Hey you! I actually looked for you in Montreal, since I have seen your picture. But I haven’t seen you… would have said hi otherwise.

    I totally understand it is your job to search and apply current regulation, and I have never ever expressed any complaints to any agent — I know you guys are doing your job! It’s stupid and unproductive to yell at airport employees!

    I know searches are random, yet it is very annoying especially when nothing seem to trigger the search. As I say, my last body search, I was wearing a skirt and a tee shirt, so pretty easy to see I didn’t have anything on me. Nevermind though.

    As for lithium batteries, I have troubles with that in the USA, not in Canada. Tweezers as well, long time ago (now by beauty bag is checked in). Not sure if they are okay in Canada, but I take your word for it.

    That’s something annoying as well: regulations depends on airports, and it’s hard to remember what is okay in what country!

    Thank you for your input! I will be back through Montreal on the 22nd, let me know if you are working that day!

  3. Ugh, I know how you feel. I absolutely hate flying because of the way airport workers treat people. Even when I go back to the US, just to go home to see my family, I’m treated like a criminal. It makes me so angry.

    The liquid ban is the most ridiculous thing ever. I just love that lighters are not banned, yet water is. Hmm, which one is more dangerous to an airplane???

  4. Tweezers? There’s no danger to them…I know every airport is different because I heard it many times…but Canadian airports are nice enough to guide people through the process. We do real customer service here–>sarcasm. I don’t know how many time we got yelled at for something we’re not responsible for. But people like to yell at the first person they see.

    I guess sometimes people like to search women who wear less clothe because it take less time to do so:p Would you rather search a lady with a lot of clothe or less clothe? :p Hehehehe…I have so many anecdotes to share. Less work for us.

    I think if every citizen writes to Harper it’ll be very effective, but then again all the nations have an accord regarding on the liquid limit. Maybe you should write to Obama first…

  5. I will be flying on Monday for the first time since moving to Canada from the United States. In fact, it will be my first “international” flight. I practically grew up on planes so it’s no big deal I am sure. But it is just something I realized. And I am flying back into my country of origin. Gotta love it.

  6. I agree… it is no fun anymore to travel by plane…
    Of course a hijacked plane isn’t fun either…;-)
    Enjoy the cheese and the wine !

  7. If you are discouraged to fly because of the airport security, the environmentalists certainly will celebrate 😀

    U.S. Immigration officers seem to act inconsistently. Once, I entered the country together with my two other co-workers in a business trip. I was given a 4-month stay, but the other guys were given 3-month stay :S

  8. I just get naked at airport security anywhere in the world, trying to keep abreast of country requirements is too difficult… in the US, I make sure I don’t shower or shave for days and work up a good lather of sweat before going through security… if it is a woman security officer, I will produce an on-demand hard-on and gently moan when frisked…

  9. I totally understand your opinion on this topic. And yes, sometimes, just the mounting requirements and prohibitions that different countries have just can be a big headache. However, there is also the threat of terrorism. Now, I am not saying that the threat is always true. I just believe that the balance between communal security and personal freedom is a hard one to achieve, and I do not know how much people are willing to give their freedom away for security. Personally, I’d rather undergo security measures than be blown up in a plane, but I would like to see rational and logical measures implemented, instead of ridiculous ones, like the liquid ban. And some standardization across the whole industry would be nice. If shoes are out in New York City but not in Zurich, then either one is slacking or the other is over-reacting.

  10. It must be nice to be back in France where customs and language are familiar. By all means drink some good wine and eat some nice cheese with that wonderful crusty bread.

    Airport security is a great nuisance albeit a necessary one. I worked for American Airlines for 30 years before I retired in 1997. Over the years I did quite a lot of traveling both personal and for business. In the old days you just handed your suitcase to an agent when you checked in and walked on the plane.

    Security measures got more serious when airplanes started getting hijacked to be diverted to Cuba or where ever. Initially agents were trying to intercept real weapons, pistols and daggers. Security was an inconvenience sometimes but seemed reasonable.

    After 9/11 concern for bombs and other explosives shifted everything into high gear. After the infamous “shoe bomber” we all had to take off our shoes in addition to everything else. As Bluefish can tell us, agents really don’t know what the next dangerous contraband will turn out to be.

    It is possible to go to the airlines web site and review a list of the currently prohibited items. Probably the best plan is to get to the airport very early and give yourself time to handle any unexpected glitches. Other than that we just have to grin and bear it. If agents are cross it is not unlikely that they just got yelled out and are acting human. Of course you know all this Zhu. You have probably logged more travel miles then all of us.

    Have a good time in France visiting family and friends. We who are your faithful internet friends will eagerly hope to read all about it. Keep taking pictures, we love you.

  11. i’m sorry you have had troubles travelling. the rules are confusing and sometimes silly. i too have had luggage lost, so my greatest anxiety is what can i bring with me onto the airplane. i always carry the essentials: medicines, phone, camera, passport, book, cash and credit card.
    i think of it as a dance. when travelling through an airport, everyone has to dance.
    sometimes you have to dance with someone smelly.
    if they want my bottle of water, they can have it.
    but if you do the dance, you get to fly.

  12. Unfortunately, I have to agree with you on this: flying has become a complete and utter hassle. And the security is a total show. I won’t even get into the ridiculous travel laws my country has put in place for foreigners, but even flying in Europe is a pain. On the bright side, you’re in France! Amusez-vous bien!

  13. I feel like I’m the only one who doesn’t find flying to be an unbelievable hassle! I honestly don’t find the safety requirements to be that big of a pain. Must just be me. Not that I don’t fly often, I’ve flown uncountable times since 9/11, but I guess I just don’t mind the security checks.

    Btw, you can usually sneak a second quart-sized bag past security. I’ve done it a couple of times, no one has ever hassled me about it.

    Have a great time in France! Hope the nice weather holds out during your trip!

  14. @Jennie – I know, I have troubles to understand too. Once thing I notice is, in Canada and in The USA, when you come home (as a Canadian or an American), the customs and immigration question you as well. Weird… I have a French passport and I go there maybe once a year, and no one ever asked me where I was or what did I do during my time abroad!

    @Bluefish – I lile your feedback! I don’t think tweezers are deadly either but hey, what do I know… 😆 Love the story that you were searched by your co-workers, made me laugh!

    @Adam – Oh, you will be fine! Between Canada and the USA, it’s usually straightforwards. I notice the USA immigration agents were quite nice to me since I have my permanent residence in Canada — before, with my French passport, I got questioned each time… Good luck!

    @Sidney – The thing is, there have been terrorist attacks in planes, trains, subways, hotels etc. And planes are the only places with such high security…!

    @khengsiong – Yes, it does depend on the person a lot. I saw a lot of professional employees and a minority of people who seemed to have fun making travelers miserable.

    @beaverboosh – But what if your sweat is considered a weapon of mass destruction?

    @Linguist-in-Waiting – But I think that people have been giving up too much personal freedom lately, just because the gov’ put us under permanent terrorism threat. Too bad… basically crying wolf. It’s also funny to notice that if you complain (smartly, not by yelling at the employees!) of stupidly tight security, you can be seen as anti-patriotic.

    @the writer – It’s warmer than in Canada!

    @Tulsa Gentleman – THank you for your input! Yes, I do try my best to comply with current regulation, but different aiports seem to have different standards, and let alone different countries… As I say, I usually pack everything in my check in luggage. I have never had a problem with the occasional lip balm or small cream sample, but Montreal was very strict about it. In France, I had water past check point last time and it was okay, but who knows this time…!

    @Seraphine – It is confusing sometimes, due to the fact… that I can’t dance!

    @Aiglee – I know… 🙁

    @Tanya – Merci! It’s not just the U.S.A though: Canada and Western Europe as well. Coming from backpacking in South America, it was just quite a shock!

    @Soleil – I can’t say I mind so much. It’s just the inconsistency of the rules and the occasional headache. Like last year, we were stuck in Montreal aiport past check point for 30 hours (yes, 30 hours!!!) because our plane was er… late… 30 hours is long when you don’t have anything with you because all your stuffs had to be checked in!

  15. When you are travelling in a country with very laid back views to security it makes you realised how tough the security at some airports is. Sometimes they are overzealous and in all honesty if someone really wanted to smuggle something in I’m sure they could.

    I am happy for some degree of security though although I will they wouldn’t make you feel like a criminal every time you have to board a plane.

  16. Max Coutinho on

    Hey Zhu,

    I didn’t know that in USA there is not “in transit” policy!
    I remember that in South Africa, in 1997, I had to pick up my back and then check in again (when going to Zambia) – it is a drag!!

    Americans are always surprised when we tell them that we do not want to stay there or that we are only passing through…I don’t know why! Not everybody wants desperately to live there.

    “Recently, another blogger wrote a post criticizing my attitude towards U.S security policies. Her message was simple: if you don’t like the way we do it, don’t come here.” – let me guess…she is American? Most Americans get offended when foreigners criticise their system, go figure (I had an American blogger demanding that I would delete a post I criticise Sarah Palin LOL…where does freedom of speech go in times like this?). If Europeans would get offended every time someone criticises them, they’d be dead by now of so much pain lol *nodding*.

    “First, what can you put on your bags, what can you put in your carry-on?” – oh yeah…it is a drag indeed! Terrorism has turned flying into hell! A friend of mine had to leave behind two boxes of hair relaxer because it is in the prohibited items to take as well – and that stuff is kind of expensive!

    LOL once, in Rome, I was wearing army boots with metal screws underneath them and when I passed by the metal detector, the damn thing started buzzing and the army came running, the police took me to a room and asked me to take off my boots and took them away. 30 minutes later they brought them back and apologised…it was embarrassing and I never wore those boots when travelling again LOL.

    I agree with you, these security policies are ludicrous. One of these days we won’t be able to take tampons or pads because they may be susceptible to carry a material that may be used to blow up the plane – women with periods won’t be able to travel (or they might have to buy tampons and pads inside the plane at double its cost).

    You are in France?? Oh, I didn’t know!

    Bienvenue en France, cherie :D!


  17. Inconsistent is right — everywhere! One of the most thorough bag searches I’ve ever had was in tiny Dinard, France, enroute to London. At the time it was the *only* flight from that airport! Barcelona was also very slow, very thorough last time.

    When I reach security, I go into auto-pilot: have boarding pass ready to show agent, take off belt, take off watch, take off shoes, put computer in tray, put clear plastic bag with small liquid containers into tray, and if I clear the gateway without losing my pants (because I had to take off my belt!) or triggering the sensor, I have to quickly get it all back — THREE TRAYS! — because the next step 20 seconds later is that they take out EVERYTHING from my camera bags and inspect/swab it all for explosives. The bag inspection takes a while, too, since all camera equipment is suspect.

    I would be more annoyed, I suppose, except I know the drill and I’m prepared to zip through it all as quickly as humanly possible. What drives me BANANAS is to be unlucky enough to arrive behind a bunch of people who are clueless, because they hold up EVERYBODY. Then they try and argue with the agent and prolong the whole painful process. If I can, I try and find the business people, because they know the drill, too, and they’re usually ready and get through faster even though we all have to take out our equipment.

  18. By the way, I always grab a supply of those plastic bags at the airports for putting in my plastic containers, moisturisers, etc. Also, I take out everything from my pants pockets and put my phone, coins, keys, etc., into a plastic bag and into my jacket pocket because I know it will go through the x-ray. If they want to look at the contents, they just look at the plastic bag instead of dumping all my stuff out on the counter.

  19. I know this post has been up for a while but I just had to share with you. My husband read this post and we started talking about what is next in security. For instance, just because someone rigged up a bomb in their shoe we all now have to take off our shoes going through security so that they can xray them. Just wait until some guy dresses up like a woman and makes a couple of breasts out of plastic explosives. (At this point, we were giggling hysterically thinking about some guy trying to light fuses coming out of his fake nipples. The Austin Powers movie taken to another level.) When this happens are we all going to be subjected to being molested by the airport security in order to ensure that our fleshy bits are really flesh?

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