Having just returned from a trip to Canada I have now experienced the new TSA security theater1 for flights inbound to the US from abroad. Hopefully your own experience will not mirror mine, but if these restrictions stay in place this post could be helpful to some.2

At check-in we discovered that the TSA will allow outbound flights to take backpacks and carry-ons, but when coming back into the country you must check them. In my case I was required to check both my backpack and my suitcase. This incurred a $20 charge for something I was forced to do, but the agent “generously” allowed me to check my backpack for free. Since that backpack was explicitly designed to hold only my laptop and camera equipment I had to pick a lens, attach it to my camera body, grab my (bare) laptop, and hope the rest of my equipment wasn’t damaged.

Once we dropped off our bags we entered the actual screening line. The staff there announced that each passenger would have their personal effects individually inspected and then they would undergo a body search. My agent searched through the belongings I had left (cell phone, keys, belt, shoes, wallet, coat, camera, and laptop) relatively thoroughly. She even looked through my wallet. I was informed that the new rules do allow laptop bags as long as they contain nothing but laptop-related equipment, as well as camera bags with the same restriction. Of course, you can’t carry two bags on so that doesn’t help people who need both.

After this I was supposed to receive a pat down search, but since every screener was busy the agent used an alternate method. She instructed me to rub my hands in my pockets and then hold my palms out face up so she could rub a tissue on my hands to check for bomb residue. Once cleared I was allowed to gather my things and proceed to the gate.

On the plane the lack of a case for my camera or laptop became more of an issue. Both overhead and under the seat are difficult locations when your equipment has no protection, but eventually my items were stowed. We were seated in the second to last row of the plane, which became the last when the flight attendants requested that those behind us move to different seats further up. The rationale given for emptying the final row was to help prevent the congregation of people near the lavatory and this rule was strictly enforced. We were also told that we would be required to put away all electronic devices and remain buckled in and seated for the final hour of our flight into Chicago. Anything that could obstruct the lap (such as a coat, blanket, or pillow) had to be stowed overhead or underneath the seat.

Our flight completed without incident3, but these new restrictions aren’t making me feel safer – they’re becoming real obstacles to using air travel.

  1. Thanks to Bruce Schneier for the name. 

  2. I want to be clear that at no time did a TSA agent behave in an unprofessional or belligerent fashion. My complaint is with these policies, not the people tasked with carrying them out. 

  3. Other than a small child who simply could not hold it after the “final hour” restrictions started. The attendants allowed his mother to take him to the bathroom.