Skip to main content

Incident at Heathrow 希思羅事件

Beep, beep, beep.

The x-ray machine went off as I walked through the gantry. I was going through security at Terminal 3 of London’s Heathrow Airport, where I was to take a connecting flight back to Hong Kong from Geneva. I didn't understand why there was no direct flights between Hong Kong and Switzerland. I also didn't understand why connecting passengers who had just got off a plane and never left the restricted area would need to go through security again.

Even the purple and yellow signage inspires hatred

Airport security officer Patel* signaled me over and asked me to stretch my arms for a manual screening. He began waving a handheld metal detector over my body. “Lift your arms higher please,” he said. I complied.

I didn’t have any cell phone, loose change or keys on me. It had to be my belt. But I thought belt buckles wouldn't set off airport alarms. I am a frequent traveler and I don't remember ever removing my belt. And why didn’t the same belt give me problems at Terminal 5 when I passed through London just a few days ago?

Surely enough the metal detector beeped when it swished over my stomach. “Please remove your belt, sir,” Patel said.

I removed the offending belt and placed it in a plastic bin held by female officer Dolton.

What followed was a full body pad-down conducted by Patel. It was more invasive than a police frisk in a drug raid. He ran both the palm and the back of his hands down the arms, over the torso, up the thighs and into the groin. For all intents and purposes, Officer Patel was groping me. In any other setting it would have been considered sexual assault. But it was perfectly acceptable because I was at Heathrow.

"Awwww... yeeaaaah!"

When his hands began to travel from my sides down to the buttocks, I finally said to him, “Is this really necessary? I have already taken off my belt, why don’t you just let me walk through the machine and see if it beeps again?” It sounded like a sensible suggestion; certainly more efficient than what he was doing.

“We can’t let you do that, sir. This is our procedure,” Dolton answered for her colleague. The two were playing tag team.

“I guess some passengers just don’t appreciate being groped because of a belt buckle, that’s all.” I stated the obvious.

“That’s the way we do things here. If you don’t like it, you don’t have to fly this airport,” Patel snapped, taking back the conversation.

“Is that your answer to every question around here: 'you don't have to fly this airport?'” I snapped back. Most passengers don’t get to choose which airport they connect at, and I certainly would have taken my business elsewhere if I could.

“That’s a perfectly sound answer.” Dolton weaseled her way back into the conversation again, ever the faithful sidekick to her partner.

My friends were all waiting behind me on the other side of the x-ray machine just three feet away. They were getting impatient and rather concerned. “What’s going on?” one of them asked.

“Don’t get me started. It’s ridiculous,” I said to my friend, shaking my head.

As if I had just uttered the word “bomb” or “terrorist,” Patel aborted the pad-down as soon as he heard what I said. “Sir, you have now distracted my search with your talking,” he lied. “You have made it impossible for me to complete my procedure,” he lied some more. “And now I need you to step over to the private room.” That last bit was true.

“That’s right, the private room,” Dolton grinned. “That sounds like a good idea!” Her grin now turned into a laugh, and she began to snort like a common swine.

Ah, the private room! I had heard about it before. In the United States before an airport security officer conducts a full body pad-down, he or she will recite a scripted warning the way a cop does the Miranda rights. The warning goes like this: I am about to give you a pad-down. You have the right to request the procedure be conducted in a private room and you have the right to have the pat-down witnessed by a person of your choice.

No one knows what goes on in the private room. No one wants to know. Its name conjures up images of the Turkish prison in the movie Midnight Express or Room 101, the torture chamber in George Orwell’s 1984. If the sound of it doesn’t intimidate you, the delay of a potentially lengthy procedure should. The fact that Patel was already done searching me but still chose to escalate the situation suggests only one thing: the private room is routine punishment at Heathrow for passengers who talk too much.

The 80s movie that destroyed Turkey's tourism industry

At that precise moment I had two options: I either back down and apologize to the officer and get on with my journey, or violate the first rule of traveling – and the first rule of life in general – by picking a fight with a stranger who can make my life hell. Any sensible man would have chosen the first option. But I wasn’t a sensible man at that moment. I was caught in it. My flight wasn’t scheduled to leave for another 90 minutes and I was ready to play ball.

“Sure, let’s all go to private room," I said. "What little power you have, you abuse it the first chance you get.” There was venom in my voice.

“Would you like to say that louder so that my supervisor could hear you?”

“As a matter of fact, I would like to speak to your supervisor.”

Patel muttered something into his walkie-talkie. Within seconds, a disheveled 50-year-old woman in an oversized blazer appeared.

“Wait here, let me speak to her first.” Patel began whispering to the supervisor like a school-boy reporting to his headmistress. I couldn’t make out what he was saying, but I could guess as much.

“What seems to be the issue here?” the supervisor asked me with the same tone as Anne Robinson’s in The Weakest Link. I explained the situation and suggested once again that I walk though the machine without the belt.

“I don’t care what you think, sir,” the Supervisor barked. “My colleague believes the only way to satisfy his search is to perform it privately and that’s what he will do.”

Anne Robinson, the feared game show hostess

I had to be fairly naïve to think that speaking to the supervisor would change anything. This wasn’t the Ritz Carlton after all. That’s why Patel wanted me to speak to his boss in the first place: they were all in cahoots!

By then all my friends had all gone though security and were standing next to me trying to understand what was happening. I asked one of them to follow me to the private room as a witness. I knew my rights.

The room was not far, just a few steps away. The walls were painted grey for effects and there were no windows. There was a desk, a chair and a spare x-ray machine that wasn’t plugged in. Patel closed the door behind him, locked it, and asked me to drop the pants. I proceeded to take my jeans off, but then he stopped me and said, “No, no, just lower them to your ankles.”

I did. He took a step closer to me and visually inspected the waistband of my undershorts. Then he said, “Alright, thank you.”

That’s it? Are you serious? That’s the best you’ve got?

My anger and frustration were quickly forgotten, replaced by disappointment and bewilderment. I was disappointed because the private room showdown was thoroughly anti-climactic. I take more clothes off at the Zara fitting room! I was bewildered because I couldn't figure out what's in it for Patel. I didn’t feel the least humiliated if humiliation was what he was after. He, on the other hand, had to stare down another dude in his underwear. The punishment was as much for me as it was for him.

“Go and find another job, pal,” I said to Patel as my friend and I walked out of the room. My snide comment was unnecessary, almost childish. But by then there was nothing more he could do to me. There were no more bullets in his gun. He would return to the x-ray machines and harass the next unruly passenger. And I would rejoin my friends and get back on our journey to Hong Kong.

*                      *                    *

This is a true story. It happened after my ski trip in Chamonix, France, during the Chinese New Year holidays. What I did was rash and stupid. I should have dropped the matter when I still had the chance to, but instead I went against my judgment and let my disdain for authority get the better of me. I scoffed at Alec Baldwin when he got thrown off the plane for being, well, a smart aleck with the flight attendant who made him turn off his phone. Like Baldwin I could have ended up missing my flight altogether. And for what? Smart people don’t take uncalculated risks. Neither Baldwin nor I is very smart.

Smart Alec should have kept his month shut

I don’t know why I did what I did. Was I defending civil liberties when they were trampled on in the name of national security? Or was I standing up against rules and policies that defy common sense, when most passengers would take it lying down to avoid getting into trouble? What I do know is that from now on I will avoid Heathrow like a plague. 

My incident at Terminal 3 has confirmed every horror story I have heard about the universally hated airport: passengers losing their baggage, flights cancelled at the first sign of snow, security staff confiscating alcohol still in a duty free bag. If Heathrow is symptomatic of what’s wrong with Britain, and if Britain is representative of the rest of Europe, then I am seriously worried about the global economy. The European debt crisis might just be as horrendous and hopeless as the airport itself. 

To those of you who plan on going to the London Olympics this August, I wish you good luck.

* The names in this article have been altered.

A last century's power clinging on

Popular Posts

“As I See It” has moved to www.jasonyng.com/as-i-see-it

As I See It has a new look and a new home!! Please bookmark www.jasonyng.com/as-i-see-it for the latest articles and a better reading experience. Legacy articles will continue to be available on this page. Thank you for your support since 2008. www.jasonyng.com/as-i-see-it

From Street to Chic, Hong Kong’s many-colored food scene 由大排檔到高檔: 香港的多元飲食文化

Known around the world as a foodie’s paradise, Hong Kong has a bounty of restaurants to satisfy every craving. Whether you are hungry for a lobster roll, Tandoori chicken or Spanish tapas, the Fragrant Harbour is certain to spoil you for choice. The numbers are staggering. Openrice, the city’s leading food directory, has more than 25,000 listings—that’s one eatery for every 300 people and one of the highest restaurants-per-capita in the world. The number of Michelin -starred restaurants reached a high of 64 in 2015, a remarkable feat for a city that’s only a little over half the size of London. Amber and Otto e Mezzo occupied two of the five top spots in Asia according to The World’s Best Restaurants , serving up exquisite French and Italian fares that tantalise even the pickiest of taste buds. Dai pai dong is ever wallet-friendly While world class international cuisine is there for the taking, it is the local food scene in Hong Kong that steals the hearts of residents a

The Moonscape of Sexual Equality - Part 1 走在崎嶇的路上-上卷

There are things about America that boggle the mind: gun violence , healthcare costs and Donald Trump. But once in a while – not often, just once in a while – the country gets something so right and displays such courage that it reminds the rest of the world what an amazing place it truly is. What happened three days ago at the nation’s capital is shaping up to be one of those instances. From White to Rainbow Last Friday, the Supreme Court of the United States handed down a 5-to-4 decision on same-sex marriage, the most important gay rights ruling in the country’s history. In Obergefell v. Hodges , Justice Kennedy wrote, “It would misunderstand [gay and lesbian couples] to say that they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find fulfillment for themselves… They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.”  With those simple words, Justice Kennedy made ma

The City that Doesn’t Read 不看書的城市

The Hong Kong Book Fair is the city’s biggest literary event, drawing millions of visitors every July. The operative word in the preceding sentence is “visitors,” for many of them aren’t exactly readers. A good number show up to tsau yit lau (湊熱鬧) or literally, to go where the noise is. In recent years, the week-long event has taken on a theme park atmosphere. It is where bargain hunters fill up empty suitcases with discounted books, where young entrepreneurs wait all night for autographed copies only to resell them on eBay, and where barely legal – and barely dressed – teenage models promote their latest photo albums. And why not? Hong Kongers love a carnival. How many people visit a Chinese New Year flower market to actually buy flowers? Hong Kong Book Fair 2015 If books are nourishment for the soul, then the soul of our city must have gone on a diet. In Hong Kong, not enough of us read and we don’t read enough. That makes us an “aliterate” people: able to read bu

Brexit Lessons for Hong Kong 脫歐的教訓

It was an otherwise beautiful, balmy Friday in Hong Kong, if it weren’t for the cross-Channel divorce that put the world under a dark cloud of fright and disbelief. Asia was the first to be hit by the Brexit shock wave. BBC News declared victory for the Leave vote at roughly 11:45am Hong Kong time – hours before London opened – and sent regional stock markets into a tailspin. The shares of HSBC and Standard Chartered Bank, both listed on the Hong Kong Exchange, plunged 6.5 and 9.5 per cent, respectively... It ended in divorce ________________________ This article appeared in the 29 June 2016 print edition of the South China Morning Post . Read the rest of it on SCMP.com as " After Brexit, Hong Kong voters should take a careful look at what our own localist parties are really selling localist politics ." As published in the print edition of the South China Morning Post

The Beam in Our Eye 眼中的梁木

With 59 confirmed deaths and over 500 wounded, the Las Vegas mass shooting is the deadliest one in modern American history. Places like Columbine, Aurora, Newtown, Sandy Hook, Orlando—and now Sin City—are forever associated with carnage and death tolls.  They don't get it Not a week goes by in America without a horrific gun attack in a shopping mall, a school or a movie theatre.People outside the U.S. can’t fathom why the world’s wealthiest country can be in such denial over a simple fact: more guns means more gun-related deaths. But they don’t get it, don’t now? Instead, they tell us foreigners to stay out of the debate because we don’t understand what the Second Amendment means to the Land of the Free. So the anomaly continues: each time a shooting rampage shocks the nation, citizens respond with prayers and tributes for a while, but their lawmakers do nothing to change gun laws. And we—the foreigners—shake our heads in disbelief and wonder how many more innocen

A Farewell to Arms 永别了,武器

America is a bizarre country. To be an American — or to live in America — is to accept a few things that defy common sense. For starters, pizza is considered a “vegetable” under federal law. Two tablespoons of tomato paste on the dough is enough to make the pie healthy enough to be served at every public school cafeteria. Speaking of health, emergency rooms across the country routinely turn down trauma patients who fail to produce proof of health insurance. Facing skyrocketing healthcare costs , the uninsured are left for dead and the insured are worried sick about rising deductibles and annual premiums. Not bizarre enough? Here's another good one: gun shootings have become so commonplace that the evening news no longer reports them unless they are deemed a “shooting rampage.” And each time after a massacre, gun enthusiasts line up outside Wal-Mart to stock up on assault weapons for fear of tougher gun laws. That’s right, in America you can buy a military-style semi-automatic rifl

Dining Out... - Part 1 出街食-上卷

The Michelin Guide published its first Hong Kong/Macau edition in 2009. Since then, the little red book has sparked spirited debate and sometimes even nationalistic rumblings among citizens. Hong Kongers balk at the idea of a bunch of foreigners judging our food, when most of the undercover inspectors sent by the guide can’t tell a fish maw from a fish belly or know the first thing about dun (燉), mun (焖), zing (蒸), pou (泡) and zoek (灼) – to name but a few ways a Chinese chef may cook his ingredients with steam. For many of us, it seems far wiser to spend the HK$200 (that’s how much the guide costs) on a couple of hairy crabs currently in season than on a restaurant directory published by a tire manufacturer. The launch Food is a tricky business. It confounds even the most sophisticated of cultures and peoples. The English and the Germans, for instance, excel in everything else except for the one thing that matters most. Young nations like America, Australia and Canada..

The Art of Profanity 粗口藝術

We react to life’s little vicissitudes – nicking the car door, dropping the phone on a concrete pavement or losing hours of work to a computer crash – with a curse word or two. If some brute walks by and knocks the coffee right out of our hand, the appropriate response is: What the fuck?  Swearing is one of those things that we do everyday and nearly everywhere. But like breaking wind and picking our nose, profanity is only bad when someone else does it. Most of us are too squeamish or sanctimonious to own up to it. Rarely in the human experience has something so universally shared been so vehemently condemned and denied. Turning society into a nanny state Profanity exists in every culture. Curse words are the first vocabulary we learn in a foreign language and the only one we remember years later. The linguistic phenomenon can be traced as far back as Ancient Egypt and Babylon. Literary giants like William Shakespeare, James Joyce and George Bernard Shaw were known to u