08 February 2012

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

49 comments:

  1. I concur that Heathrow is the most awkward so-called int'l airport. Their x-ray scanners (and their staff) do not function the same across all terminals. Try other airports like Gatwick next time if you cannot avoid visiting London.

    Did you travel by CX or BA by the way? LH or EK may be a better option even for a stop-over.

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  2. Did I miss the punch line? Or my mind is twisted. One look at the waistband of your undies and Patel backdown. Now tell us what brand it is!!! It could be an amulet for granting safe passage through airport security from now on. Hahaha...

    ;P

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  3. Most people really just walk it off...this is one of the privileges of being a popular blogger - you have your channel to get your dissatisfaction off your chest

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  4. Javier, I will give Gatwick a try. But I doubt it is any better. I think bad service is systemic in the UK.

    Jason

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  5. Phil, I am saving that pair as my "lucky underwear."

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  6. Joe,

    You made a good point. At the time I was thinking "what the hell, at least I can write about it afterwards." My blog is a great source of comfort in life!

    Jason

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  7. Too bad the officer didn't believe the latest statistic which proved Hong Kong people enjoyed some overall advantages when comparing the size of their private part with normal and healthy white Brits. Its a pity you couldn't play a show hand game that brought him further embarrassment.

    Stephen

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  8. What statistics, Stephen? I never heard of it.

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  9. I doubt if they dare to put everything and every justification down into writing!

    Patrick

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  10. Patrick, they can justify ANYTHING in the name of national security. I suppose that's one of the many reasons why we hate Al Qaeda!

    Jason

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  11. Dear Jason,

    Just finished your article in 2 minutes (in my pretending to work in a crazy day but desperate for relief at the same time. I had difficulty in choking back my laughter at the office. My colleagues would be astounded to see this lawyer who's been rushing through deals crazily lately roaring in her room !!!

    Irrespective of how invasive the whole thing is (my friend and her spouse, both barristers in HK, had a similar bad experience in the USA. That was horrendous - tell you more later). I would have kicked Patel had she done that to me, but somehow I couldn't stop laughing. I'll send you my more "organized" comments later. Bet you know what to expect as you know I am a bit of a rebel myself and I fight back (that's an understatement) in cases whenever my privacy (physical or intellectual or emotional) is being invaded.

    Christine : >

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  12. Considering how ridiculous the whole thing was, I think your self-control was admirable. I can tell you were livid -- justifiably -- when you wrote this. Security theater protects no one and only serves to degrade the average traveller. (And there are flights from Zurich to HK on Swiss.) :)

    Marshall

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  13. Actually, this kind of BS is a big part of why I have not returned to the US since I left 7 years ago.

    Marshall

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  14. I feel bad for you.. we should all avoid that stinky airport... crammed with rude, stupid and arrogant people.

    Brandon

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  15. Marshall,

    I have misgivings about going to the U.S. every year too. U.S. customs can be incredibly rude. Though for some reason I can handle American rudeness. I am willing to shrug it off because many of them are underpaid and overworked. For some reasons when an Englishman does it I find it so much more offensive. I don't know why.

    Jason

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  16. Brandon, I don't think these people are arrogant. Arrogance requires the person to feel superior to others. I really don't think that's how they feel... they can't possibly.

    Jason

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  17. i say they are arrogant because of the way they handled the whole thing... like when you said about the supervisor thing “I don’t care what you think” bit, that attitude will just never be displayed in the same setting in HK and most of asia, at least the woman should try to explain why things needed to be done...

    Brandon

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  18. Heathrow is vile. We had a similar albeit less intrusive run-in with their ground security staff at Xmas. Long story short - they forced us to open half of the baby food we we transporting in our hand luggage for our 1 year old (thereby causing it to go off). They were incapable of pointing us to any advance warnings sent to passengers transiting in London or at any empowering legislation granting them such draconian rights as all our food was under the 100ml limit for liquids. My wife like you (kudos to you both) challenged their authority and questioned their intelligence (another shared trait...). The response was an immediate threat of being kicked out of the airport at which stage we dropped the matter and complied with their ridiculous demands. Fortunately we had enough spare baby food otherwise we would have been in big trouble (baby running out of food on long haul flight not good for us or any of the other 200 passengers onboard). I consoled myself by thinking we got off lightly as the poor bloke next to us was having his personal effects inspected by a customs officer who, despite being politely asked, refused to wear gloves and then got aggressive and started threatening arrest, etc. Absolute joke although in my mind demonstrates knock on effects of flawed foreign policies...

    JR

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  19. Thanks for sharing your harrowing story, JR. Looks like even babies are not spared from the terror. I don't understand how something so ostensibly wrong can go unaddressed for so long. Airport staff and customs officers give visitors their first impression about a country. London spends millions and millions trying to craft an image of diversity, tolerance and modernity, and it only takes one bad apple at Heathrow to ruin it all. It really is a shame.

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  20. Imagine you are working at a essentially uk government owned institution, facing these sorts of insanity on a daily basis. LOL!

    VT

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  21. Yes, VT, I felt both anger and sympathy toward the staff.

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  22. Same real story as in the movie My Name is Khan ...... Feel bad

    Terry

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  23. I don't think the incident was race-related, Terry, at least I hope not. It appears that Heathrow staff is universally abusive, even to their own kind.

    Jason

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  24. http://www.shortnews.com/start.cfm?id=47598

    Stephen

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  25. I was lucky that I did not have this kind of experience at Heathrow. THey just spent lots of time examining my MP3 player and from their conversation I knew that they did not what it was. I thought it was funny but I did not say anything to avoid any troubles.

    Maybe they thought you were challenging their authority and that's why they reacted like this to save face. Anyway, just try to stay calm next time. You never know what will happen in those private rooms (especially when there's no one with you)and don't let your loved ones worry about you. Though I think you had guts. hahahaha!!!

    Lily

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  26. National security again. I think Britons are just too obsessed with the term national security to the extent that they are abusing it. Whenever there is something they want to do so much, they turn to "national security". See how the hands of the judges are tied when the officials claim their decisions are made out of concern of national security. But I didn't know even a security underling has the power to abuse it to such extent. This is sad.

    Austin

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  27. One of the many reasons I am glad to be Scottish and therefore rarely have to fly through Heathrow. I have been wished a Happy Birthday by Passport Control and even a Welcome Home from security as I walked through security last year. However my first trip home was blighted by the rottweiler in a hi-visibilty jacket, 10 times too big for her when she stated at the top of her voice - 'Jackie, hen, we need to check this lot thoroughly, there's a few dodgy ones here!' every English speaking passenger reacted with a collective gasp!

    Happy travels

    Lisa

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  28. Thanks, Lily. My friends were indeed quite worried but then again they know me - I get feisty with unreasonable people. :-)

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  29. Indeed, Austin, the thought that the country is counting on people like Patel and Dolton to protect them is really scary. During my scuffle with them, national security was probably the last night on their minds. All they cared about was how to teach this mouthy guy a lesson.

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  30. Haha, Lisa. I can always count on your colorful stories! :-)

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  31. I disagree that it was a "rash and stupid" decision since you have a great story to tell now haha :) I love it! You've got some guts!

    Tiffany

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  32. ..and to continue in your line of thinking that ground staff are ambassadors of their host nation, London are hosting the olympics later this year... could turn into one big PR fiasco!

    JR

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  33. Good job standing up to the nonsense brought about by silly security theatre!! Last week a US airport (forgot which) was crippled by a couple of crackpot homeopathic devices mistaken as pipe bombs. How embarrassing! Justice is always poetic.

    K

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  34. It was La Guardia. I heard about it too!

    Jason

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  35. The gentleman in the picture who is being groped is not you, is it? Thought you wrote that you were in jeans, and to be honest, I am surprised that they would allow anyone to take pics of the searcher and the "searchee" under those circumstances.

    If that is really you, you have my heartfelt sympathy. That is REALLY invasive !!! Had the people at Sydney Kingsford-Smith Airport searched me like that before I would have kicked them (in the area that is best left to your imagination) !!! They never did though the gantry or whatever has beeped no end of times as I sauntered through with coins and keys and belt buckles and whatnot in my pocket!

    Christine

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  36. Haha, the x-ray machine ALWAYS went off as I walked through the gantry when I travelled to and from Sydney before. In fact, I can’t quite recall the number of times when it didn’t!!!

    As for belt buckles, in all these years when I was travelling, I was always donning jeans with belt plus metal buckles. Some larger than the others, of course, but never has any alarm been triggered by ANY belt buckles on me! (As a cheeky aside, maybe the Heathrow gantry was specially designed to go off on the passing of a belt buckle so they can get passengers to take their belts off in public? This is outrageous!) Good question, that Terminal 5 didn’t give you the problem when you sauntered through that days ago on your return trip back, is it a problem with the gantry at Terminal 3 only and not with you or your gear instead? Maybe you should have challenged Patel with that question and see what answer you get. It’s probably, “if you don’t like it, you don’t have to traverse this Terminal of this airport…”

    What Patel did when he was searching you was more than sexual assault, it was serious trespass to the person of the worst kind! I would never have put up with it, and it was NOT perfectly acceptable just because you were at Heathrow. Nor would it be at any other airport in the world. The folks at Sydney Kingsfor-Smith Airport certainly didn’t grope me even though when they had to manually search me. Or maybe I was just far too unattractive to be groped… If what they did to you was what you show in the picture (surely they wouldn’t have allowed your pals to take a picture of what they were doing to you?) that was invasive beyond imagination.

    If what they did was really their procedure, ask them for the rule book (this is what we lawyers were taught to do, right? And how we interpret the rules.) Patel’s comment made it, they are driving people away from their country. So it is not just a matter of their bad economy, there is more to it, I now know.

    [To be cont'd]

    Christine

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  37. I would have used stronger words on snapping back, had I dared to, when I was so intimidated. Not to mention fearing what they would do to me too (I used to fly alone most of the time). Unwise or un-strategic as it might have been in the circumstances, good on you for your courage and your sound sense of reasoning. I like the way you describe Dolton weaseling her way back into the conversation, I can just imagine her creeping up.

    Not to mention it reminds me of the rhyme I learnt as a kid, “Pop! Goes the weasel!” Those two fellas certainly went POP, huh ?” Bet they have never had any passengers who dare to challenge their “authority” in that way. If Patel could be so easily distracted with your “talking”, no wonder so many of them over there are lining up for the dole! It was more than ridiculous, it was plain abuse of power. Had that occurred in the PRC and news gotten out, the whole world would be screaming as with the recent Professor Kung’s incident and on the political limelight. But just because that took place in England. Does it mean royal prerogative still prevail or what?

    The private room. I have to say you were lucky with the “private room” incident. Maybe that was because it happened on different continents, or maybe because what my friends went through were not the private room at all. The title certainly conjures up the worst, and it certainly would have been had it been in the PRC. My friend and her husband, both top barristers in Hong Kong, went to Canada once a few years back. They were in the lake areas and were driving to watch the Niagara Falls, when they read somewhere they would get a better view from the Rainbow Bridge end (you know the terrain better than I do, right? I can’t recall all the geographical details) and so they drove over to the Raimbow Bridge end or across the bridge or something. Not sure whether they got a chance to marvel at the breathtaking view, coz’ they were stopped and asked by the security people to show their passports. They were informed that by going across the bridge or something they have gone across the national boundary and were on USA soil. Now normal homo sapiens would not think about carrying their passports on their bodies with them all the time, though they may be travelling overseas. They were able to produce that or any identification so they were arrested and taken back to the police station or security posts for questioning.

    [To be cont'd]

    Christine

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  38. On being asked what career they were in my friend replied that she is a barrister (sound reply, I’d say) only that apparently the interrogator has never heard that term before. The interrogator’s Dolton informed her that “Oh?! That just says she is an attorney and i.e., she is liable to lie to get her way out of here…” My friend was furious as that comment was totally “gratuitous”, so to speak, and she certainly knew her rights. My friend and her husband were being interrogated for hours (time is money when you were on a hard-earned holiday too) and later they got thrown into a room with numerous other travelers (mostly from Europe) in the same boat (Okay, okay, anti-climax here, it is not a PRIVATE room). They were all asking to be released or some were asking for their passport back and I couldn’t even remember what time it was when they finally got released, only after they got their names entered (“engraved” maybe a better word, no idea when she can clear her name) onto the list of people for identification whenever they travel into or past the States again. She might have to be identified and questioned and searched every time if she goes to the States! She had to go to the States for some treatment on her eye around mid-September last year and I can imagine her anxieties having to trample on the soil of a country which has done that to her, during such a sensitive 911 period !

    The name “private room” is certainly intimidating. On top of trespass and sexual assault, how about a case of false imprisonment? If the students at HKU can take that when they were in the staircase of the building during the PRC official’s visit how much stronger is your case, man ?!

    Actually you were far less sensible than I thought, man, though I respect you for what you did. I might have taken the safer option to apologize to the mean b****** no matter how much I wanted to reason and fight with him. I would certainly have asked to see his supervisor, on that maybe we are equally naïve. People say corruption infiltrates the whole system from the top to the bottom or the other way round and I guess abuse of power is none the different?! If those heading an authority are weak what can you expect from those underneath them? Weak leaders breed weak disciples. Still, anyone in their right mind would have respected the English authorities or Scotland Yard (whatever it was called), until then. You description of Patel is graphic, petty tell-tale school-boy lying before the authorities because he has bashed someone up first! And so is what was being said by the Supervisor. It was to satisfy “his” search, not the country’s search nor in the true name of the national security of England?! And it was pretty good observation on your part, that you’d notice that the x-ray machine was not plugged in in the private room. Patel is probably worried that your taking off your jeans would detonate a bomb or landmine in the airstrip or something.

    [To be cont'd]

    Christine

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  39. I roared at your reaction. You sounded SO dismayed! Surely you wouldn’t want him to flagellate you or something especially then you won’t be able to fly back to HK asap? As for the comparison with Zara, only you would think of that at that moment. At least that would be truly private in the Zara fitting room unless you ask someone to help you out like ladies trying on their lingerie, and you still got Patel and the others as audience in the private room. Again, surely you wouldn’t want to show your under-garments in public? As you said, let’s not make it sound as if Patel took any pleasure in oggling you in your under-garments (He might, you never knew). Thank goodness that as far as I know, there is no “private room” in the Sydney airport – not that I have tested the waters.

    Good on you for that prompt reconciliation with Patel, whether we are sorry for him or not. Finding another job, what is there for him to do given the situation in England and in Europe and even in Hong Kong? Bet he would have belted and bolted quicker than you imagine if he could.

    As for disdain for authority, I harbor the same (you know it). But I watch my step more carefully depending on the situation. I might have taken it out at Heathrow, but I certainly would have thought twice had it been the 北京首都機場. Being smart aside, apart from not being a smart alec (pun on Alec Baldwin intended) you weren’t very wise nor strategic. You were defending civil liberties and you had every right to, and I respect you for that. But there are different ways and occasions for doing so. Save it for a worthwhile cause that’ll do justice to the circumstances and truly help others, like those in the French Revolution or closer to home, those that you described in the Sun Yat-sen article “Still Work to be Done”. You are far too young and gifted to die yet. Think of what a loss it would be to your friends and fans alike had you been, say, thrown into Reading Gaol (is it still standing?). Funny that you should mention the London Olympics. I almost find myself asking, is it still going ahead in these economic times? Will there be any spectators or sponsors at all?

    [To be cont'd]

    Christine

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  40. Jason,

    As an additional aside, my friend did tell me that all the European travellers in the not-to-private room did vow to her that they will never ever visit the States again ! Sad to know (and learn) what these misunderstanding could lead to.

    Christine

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  41. I also stand up to ridiculous rules and power abusing people. But immigration officers in foreign countries are the last group of people that I would dare to confront because they can easily give me a real hard time or even refuse my entry without good reason. You have guts, mister!

    KT

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  42. Hiya Jason! Interesting article. I love London but Heathrow... is such a let-down! I'm sorry you had to go through that farce. You had guts standing up to those security guys - they could have made things nasty for you, maybe make you miss your flight. I would generally just keep my head down and avoid unpleasantness in order to get where I want to be, i.e. on the plane!

    That said, much as this ridiculous abuse of authority and invasion of privacy irks me, we ultimately have the likes of Al-Q to blame... They're the ones who ruined the joy of travelling for everyone else. After all, if it weren't for the infamous 'shoe bomber' we wouldn't all be standing around barefoot at Heathrow...

    Andromeda

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  43. Christine,

    You mentioned your friends' horror stories with U.S. customs. Like I said to Marshall, U.S. customs and airport security can be incredibly rude as well. But for some reason I can handle American rudeness. There's something about the English that their rudeness really gets to me. Perhaps it's the accent. Or perhaps it's the fact that they used to run Hong Kong. I don't know.

    Jason

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  44. KT/Andromeda,

    I am not sure if it was so much guts as imprudence. If I were to do it all over again, I'm not sure if I would do the same. But that's what I did and now that I have written about it, I am glad I did!

    Jason

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  45. just wondering... why didnt you fly with swiss international airlines? i believe that they do fly directly from zurich to hong kong, though you do have to fly from geneva to zurich first.

    this is to give you a second option, instead of going through london :)

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    Heathrow Taxis

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  47. how the airport authorities behaving...very bad

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  48. What a nasty thing done by airport authority
    MinicabLondon

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