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.
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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.
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.
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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.”
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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.
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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.
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