Here is a list of major cities — arguably just as “under threat” as London — where I’ve never had a security issue at an airport: New York, Paris, Tel Aviv, Berlin, Munich, Tokyo, Beijing, Shanghai, Sydney, Chicago, Mexico City, and my home town of Los Angeles.
Here’s a list of cities I’ve had persistent security issues: London.
On Saturday, January 16 I arrived at Heathrow Terminal 5. I went through the “fast track” for my flight to Munich. At the metal detector I went through and nothing alarmed. As I patiently waited for my bag at the other end, I watched with a sense of dread as it got pushed — by the automated machine — into a queue for secondary screening. I was used to it — Heathrow Terminal 5 without fail likes to secondary screen my bag — but was not prepared for what happened next.
After waiting a few minutes, a woman came over and asked me to lift my bag out of the normal tray and into a red one. After doing that, she proceeded to open my bag. She pulled out my toiletries and started opening the plastic bags I keep each item in and putting the explosives detector in each. She set aside my contact solution and asked me to wait, insisting on putting my toiletries in a very specifically sized plastic bag (why Heathrow is the only airport in the world that still does this is a mystery to me). After coming back she told me I could start re-packing my bag, but that my contact solution was too large and I couldn’t take it on. I then presented her with a note from my eye doctor — which I started to carry a few years ago specifically for Heathrow after having a similar issue— stating that I needed to use a specific contact lens solution, and it doesn’t come in bottles 100ml or under. She asked me to wait while she ran the note by her supervisor. I said “no problem” — thinking this would be fine, as it has been in June of last year, and January of last year, and so many times before, using the same note.
She returned and informed me that her supervisor would be speaking with me shortly. A man then came out to tell me that since my doctor’s note was dated 2013, it wasn’t valid and I couldn’t carry my contact solution with me. I told him that since I hadn’t changed contact solution, I hadn’t bothered to get an updated note, but that it had never been as issue in the past, and I was following their security guidelines — showing him this website.
That’s when things went sideways. Apparently, in the name of national security, you’re not supposed to question anything, no matter how absurd.
Another — much more aggressive — supervisor came out and told me that I couldn’t take the solution no matter what, and asked me to stop causing a scene or that he would call the police. I said very calmly that I wasn’t trying to cause a scene but follow their security procedures, which clearly state you can carry liquids over 100ml in a carry on with a doctor’s note. He told me that my doctor’s note wasn’t valid, and said it looked like I had forged it. I suggested he call the phone number on my doctor’s stationary to verify. He refused to call anyone — but — then said that he had called Boots — a UK drug store — and that I was lying — that my solution does come in 100ml bottles. When he named the solution he had discussed with Boots — Optifree Refresh — I pointed out to him that it was in fact different than mine, and he said that didn’t matter. I then asked him my final question — why wasn’t my note valid, and what can I do next time to make it valid. Instead of answering me, he grabbed my passport and proceeded to guide me out of the security line, and back into the departures area.
Once there, he proceeded to tell me that he didn’t feel comfortable letting me fly — and that while “they” could deal with me on the ground, that it’s a different story in the air, and that it would take “about 3 or 4" guys to “tackle” me in the air if I “misbehaved.” He then held up my contact solution and asked me if I understood the “threat level” the UK was under, and that “this” (pointing to my contact solution) is part of the danger. I told him I was no threat to the plane and — deciding that my plans in Munich were more important than further challenging a truly absurd and irrational situation — apologized. He let me go.
Humiliated and angry, I went back to the BA check in desk I had started at an hour before, and was charged £65 to check my bag — a bag I didn’t want to check — and shouldn’t have had to check, if the supervisor had wanted to follow his own security procedures.
Terminal 5 is a beautiful building, but it’s filled with supervisors who will justify anything in the name of security and the UK’s “threat level.” This isn’t the first time something like this has happened to me at Heathrow — just the most extreme.
On my way back home a few days later, I arrived at Munich airport and the bag — with the same solution — passed without an issue in both Munich and back at Heathrow — now Terminal 3. What a “risk” for the plane I just took home to Los Angeles!
I followed Heathrow’s security procedures and was treated like a criminal when I questioned why following their own procedures wasn’t good enough. Orwell’s premonition is live and well in Heathrow T5.