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Posted: December 13, 2010

The adventures of a road warrior

Top tips for dealing with the new drill at the airport

Robert Polk

Heading out this holiday season? Whether you are traveling for business or pleasure anytime soon, you should be prepared for new TSA regulations, more secondary searches, and know the drill before you get into the body scanner line.

This certainly is a hot topic around our office. We have had several of our staff on the road quite a bit this fall while implementing a new corporate account. Unlike my lucky self, one of our staff was pretty unlucky when it came to the security line at several airports and, with her help, I am now able to share her story and some tips for other travelers.

Secondary Searches
If you have not seen it, TSA in many airports are randomly selecting people from the security line to swab travelers' hands to look for suspicious substances. Unfortunately for my road warrior, her hands tested positive for nitrates and she and her belongings were whisked off to the "secret booth" to be cleared for takeoff.

Once inside the secluded area, she was asked to stand aside while every item in her carryon was swabbed and tested. Luckily for our internal travel budget, she refuses to check luggage (out of convenience more than cost). Unfortunately for the two women who were tasked with swabbing every item, her carryon rolling suitcase was packed full. They were methodical in their search and used care not to make a mess of her suitcase or otherwise disturb her belongings.

She settled in and was jovial with the TSA staff. She has traveled enough to be relaxed and let them do what they are paid to do without putting up a fuss.

While her belongings were being searched and swabbed, the gentleman from TSA asked her where she may have encountered nitrates before coming to the airport. Her relaxed response was, "If you could tell me what a nitrate is, I may be able to help; but, I wouldn't know a nitrate if it walked up and shook my hand. What is a nitrate?"

The TSA's reply was friendly, but less than helpful: "I'm sorry, ma'am. I cannot give you that information."

It was perplexing to her that they would ask her where she had encountered a substance, but could not give her any information to assist her in identifying it - classified information at its best.

After quite some time, the "offending" item in her carry on was found. Her flat-itron (i.e. a hair straightener) was found to have nitrates on its surface. It was then whisked off to be x-rayed by itself to ensure it had not been altered in any way. It had not and the two women were careful to repack her suitcase.

Now that her belongings had been cleared, she received a full pat-down search to clear her for takeoff with her bags.

While she did describe the pat down search as "thorough and pretty personal," she was very careful to say that the woman who performed the search was absolutely nothing but professional. The TSA employee was extremely communicative in what was going to happen, explained everything she was doing as she performed the search, and did her best to keep our road warrior at ease. While the search did include pat downs over intimate areas which were not exactly enjoyable, it was done in a professional manner and did not make her feel terribly uncomfortable.

Our employee did say that she is pretty easy-going about this sort of thing, and that she could see how this could make others very uncomfortable, especially men. "For once it is the guys that will probably get a little more squeamish than us ladies!" She did have to also add that she would think twice before letting her children be subjected to the search, though there does not seem to be a better alternative.

After the fact, she did finally get an answer to her question about nitrates. Apparently, nitrates are found in any substance that contains glycerin. What contains glycerin? Just about every hand lotion, hair product, cosmetic product, toothpaste, and everything else in your toiletries bag, explaining perfectly why she could have such a substance on her hands and her hair appliances and accessories.

Body Scanning
Our road warrior was also lucky enough to utilize body scanning security screening as well during her fall whirlwind tour of the US. Again, she said she is pretty easy going about this sort of thing. While, yes, the scan images leave little to the imagination, she trusts that there are professionals viewing the images and it is simply their job to ensure our safety.

It is also important to note that we have heard the TSA is working on computer technology to read these images instead of the human eye, alleviating many travelers' privacy concerns. We will keep you posted.

The only drawback to body scanning over the simple metal detectors? You have to take off a lot more stuff!

Our road warrior is just that. She knows the drill. By the time she was at the front of the line she had removed her jacket, shoes, placed her laptop and toiletries in separate bins and was ready to walk into the scanner.

The TSA employee looked at her and said, "Oh, no. You have to take that off." He then pointed to her beaded necklace, non-metal watch, and the ribbon belt that was part of her knit top. These items had never been required to be removed for metal detector screenings, so she sure felt like a you-know-what holding up the line to fiddle with the closures on her necklace and watch and removing the sash from her top.

"It wasn't a big deal that they needed to come off. I just wish they had told me so that I didn't have to make the people behind me wait," she says.

Tips for Travelers
So, from her story, here are our tips for a smooth trip through security.

1. Know the drill. And, if you aren't sure, err to the side of caution. If you don't know if that necklace needs to come off, or if that sash counts as a belt, remove the item anyway or choose another outfit for traveling.

2. Wear comfortable clothes. The days of dressing up to travel are officially gone. Ladies, we recommend you absolutely wear pants and a heavier-weight sweater or blouse in case you are subjected to the pat down search. We also recommend men wearing jeans or pants of a heavier weight. Having a heavier layer of fabric between your intimate areas and the hand of TSA may not increase your comfort, but it can certainly decrease your discomfort! So, leave the party dress for formal night on your cruise and cruise through security in your jeans and flip flops.

3. Lay off the lotions and potions. Again, the days of getting all dolled up to travel are long gone. Going easy on the cosmetics and lotions may speed up your security experience if you are randomly selected for the hand swab, and you can always moisturize and put on that makeup once you are through security.

4. Relax. Remember we are all in the same boat and that TSA personnel are simply doing their job. If at any point you feel uncomfortable, do not hesitate to ask for a supervisor or another agent to conduct your security screening. And please remember that the TSA personnel you interact with have no authority to change the rules. Contact your congressman for assistance in that area.

Whether we agree with procedures or not, we can all agree that safety is a necessary component of traveling. We know there are many other concerns over the new TSA pat-down searches and body scanners. We also know that procedures are not as standard from airport to airport as we would hope. We would love to hear your experiences, both good and bad. If you have had an unusual security story, a mundane story with a good tip at the end, or an airport-specific tip, we would love to hear it!
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Robert Polk is CEO of Polk Majestic Travel Group, Denver's largest independent travel agency. He welcomes your comments and questions at Robert@polkmajestic.com.

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