-- Last modified Wednesday, July 18th, 2007 at 12:21am

My Encounter with the TSA I've been taking 4-6 flights per month for almost a year now. On every flight I had my trusty laptop backpack containing the following:

This bag was once sent back for a second scan through the X-ray machine, but nobody has ever bothered to question it or its contents. Today was different.

I'm on my way to catch my 8:30am flight from JFK to Orlando, carrying the previously mentioned backpack plus a suitcase with a bunch of cables and adapters along with my camera. It appears the lady running the X-ray machine was new, she is slowing everything down. I've noticed that JFK puts the new people on the morning shift.

I'll take this moment to introduce you to the team:

[The above titles are just ways of identifying people in the story, not a comment on their character. Their race doesn't mean anything, I just didn't get everyone's name.]

The Indian woman stares at the screen for a while when my bag is in the X-ray machine. After a few minutes she calls the African American Man over. After about a minute of him staring at the screen he decides to pull my bag. He asks if anything will poke him and I reply, "I don't think so." He wipes down the bag and feeds the cloth to the calorimeter, which indicates everything was safe.

That's apparently not good enough.

The African American Man starts pulling goodies out of my bag and putting them into a tray. He removes much of the big stuff; laptop charger, extra battery, inverter, USB FlexLight, and a few cables. I'm wearing my Bose headphones and iPod at this time. They run the tray and the bag through the X-ray machine, then start rummaging through my bag again.

When he finds the MintyBoost! charger he gives me the evil eye.

Now if I was stupid I would have shut down the airport when I saw such a device. It doesn't look like *anything* they sell at Walmart.

He asks what it is. I tell him it is a battery charger for my iPod. He asks if I made it myself, to which I reply that I purchased a kit over the internet. He says that he can't let me on the plane with it. I explain to him that I have flown with it 4-6 times a month for a year now and nobody has questioned it. He says, "Not on my watch and not with my people."

He swabs the device and runs it through the calorimeter. Again, no residue.

I ask why it can't be taken on the plane and he said, "Because it looks like an IED." Now, I agree it looks suspicious, but the machine found no traces of explosives, and the device wasn't big enough to do any damage.

Next he finds my green laser pointer, shines it at his hand, and tells me I can't take that on the plane either.

At this point they shut down one of the two screening lanes. There was a request to, "get Donna down here," which means that all heck is about to break loose. I pulled out my cell phone and start typing an email to my wife to inform her what was going on. I type:

Airport security just
and the African American Man walks over and says, "I can't let you make a phone call now sir." I tap the button to send the email and he asks me to hand over my cell phone. I gave him the cell phone. He asks for my boarding pass and I hand that over too.

As Donna shows up to assess the situation I was asked by the Haitian Man to take everything off of my person and put it into another tray. Headphones, iPod (with charging cable still attached), wallet, and belt went into the tray. As that tray was put into the X-ray machine by the African American Man I was directed by the Haitian Man a few feet away from my stuff for the pat down. He informs me that when he touches my butt he'll be using the back of his hand, and I have the right to request to do the screening in private. I waived my privacy right, in preference of expediency and convenience. He started the pat down in the back, and repeated the "back of hand" notice and "private screening" option when he got to my left buttock.

He repeated it three more times, right buttock, right front leg, and left front leg. When he repeated it the fourth time I said, "I'm sure you dislike this as much as I do." At that point he smiled and said, "Oh man, you have no idea!" Someone that morning had a sense of humor.

He tells me to sit down and he checks my feet. I was about to make a joke about him giving me more attention than my wife when Donna comes over and sits down next to me. She asks what the thing is, I tell her it's a battery charger. She asks why I have it, and I begin to explain that the iPod only has about 2 hours of video time, but with the MintyBoost! I can get about 20 hours of video time. I explain that the airport commute and the airplane flight take a few hours...

She interrupts me and says she doesn't like the look of it. She starts in with the typical, "In these times..." excuse for the concern. I explain to her that I have flown with it 4-6 times a month for a year now and nobody has questioned it.

She said I could leave it with her and get on my plane, or she can call PAPD. I asked if I could just go back home and take it with me. Both Donna and the African American Man, in turn, tell me that it was going nowhere from there. At this point Donna mumbles something indicating she was fed up and got up from the chair.

I knew that meant the police were being called in.

A few seconds later PAPD arrives to check on the situation. She asks if I have ID on me, as if I would have gotten that far without ID, and I direct her towards my wallet. PAPD asks what the device is, and I tell them it is a battery charger. One of the officers looks at it for a few seconds, talks with Donna, then asks me where the battery is. I point out the iPod with the cable attached.

The iPod was shut down during a video, so it took about 10 seconds for it to give me the screen. Ten seconds seems like an eternity when the police are staring at you. I show them how to disable the backlight timeout so they can see the icon change as they plug the iPod in and unplug it.

At this time one of the PAPD officers gets a brilliant idea, and I'm so glad he did. He picks up USB FlexLight and asks, "Is this a light?" I said yes. He asks if it will light up if he plugs it into the battery charger. I had never done this test before, but 5v 500ma is 5v 500ma. I say yes and he plugs it in.

The USB FlexLight puts out a faint white glow and he gestures it around. The PAPD officers look over at Donna as if to say, "So what's your problem? Fuhgettabout it!"

One of the officers say they will let me go if I agree to let them take the two D batteries out of the MintyBoost!. I agree. Donna asks if they want to see my ID and they decline. I thank the officers and am informed that I may start rebuilding my backpack. The African American Man asks for my phone number, maybe so they can call me for a survey later. I hear the African American Man tell the Haitian Man to call my gate and tell them I'm on my way. To this I say, "THANK YOU!"

As I pack up, the Haitian Man calls the gate to hold my plane. I put the MintyBoost! back into its case, put the laser pointer back into its case, and contemplate whether the convenience store just 20 feet from me sells D sized batteries. Doesn't really matter, there's AA batteries in the GPS and AAA batteries in the laser pointer.

The Haitian Man hands me back my boarding pass and tells me to run. I almost forgot to get my suitcase. It was sitting in the middle of the floor, the TSA had completely forgot to look at it, and nobody noticed a lone piece of luggage unattended in the security screening area for about half an hour. I jog to the far end of the airport and rush onto the plane well beyond the last boarding call.

So what lesson did I learn today? I knew from the Mooninites Scare of 2007 that D sized batteries were considered by security personnel to be dangerous items. However, there were no blinking Christmas lights connected to these batteries, just a glued circuit board. I was all eager to draw out a schematic and explain to someone how a switching regulator works, but these people wouldn't have understood it.

They wouldn't have grasped that the spare battery for my laptop was far more dangerous than the iPod charger. A dead short of the MintyBoost! would produce a little heat (maybe 4 watts total), a dead short of the laptop battery would likely cause an explosion of the battery.... and I had two of them fully charged.

But these are the times we live in. A handful of people with no knowledge of physics, engineering, or pyrotechnics are responsible for determining what is and what is not safe to bring on a plane. They're paid minimum wage and told to panic if they see something they don't recognize. Does this make me feel safer? It doesn't really matter. Implementing real security would bring the cost of flying up, which would likely cause a collapse of the airborne transportation network this country has worked so hard to build up.

The UK banned laptop computers in carry-on luggage for a few days and quickly reversed the idea. The lack of laptops would make the option unattractive to business professionals. Security would cost more than money and many passengers wouldn't have accepted it.

So the TSA finally let me onto my flight with the two devices they told me they weren't going to let me take on my flight. They told me the device looked like an I.E.D., then let me on the plane with it.

Does that mean I can bring them on my flight next week?


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