Saturday, June 4, 2011

The joy of avoiding the airport

I recently took a cruise that departed out of the Port of Baltimore, which meant I didn't have to board an airplane to have a wonderful vacation with my family. I just want to note here some observations about security on that trip.

Boarding the boat

To my surprise, there were metal detectors and x-ray machines for carry-on luggage at the Port's terminal building. The agents working at this checkpoint were Port of Baltimore employees, according to the logo on their uniforms. This makes them employees of the state of Maryland (via Maryland's Port Administration). Their bravado was similar to TSA agents in some ways, but less so in others (which I explain below). Since this is a state agency, and states are always short on money while the ports are never doing as well as they need to, I'd be surprised if naked scanners showed up anytime soon. Such a move would be most likely if the federal government started mandating scanners and/or providing grants to buy scanners.

I'd also like to contrast this with the "good old days" of cruising. First, I recall when my parents went on a cruise in the 90's (from Philadelphia) that we (my grandmother and siblings and I) walked with my parents right up next to the ship. (If you're reading this, Mom and Dad, do you remember what the boarding process and security were like?) My husband and his parents have been on cruises in Europe (one just weeks after 9/11/01). Of course, there weren't metal detectors at the ports - just at the airports getting to and from Europe. There are also photos of a cruise they took leaving from San Diego when my husband was a baby. Before the cruise left port, there was a champagne toast where family friends came on board and toasted "bon voyage" to his family! Yes - times have changed, and not for the better. (Do any readers know when this practice stopped?)

Back to my trip...
While we were waiting in the rather long line, snaking our way to the metal detectors, there was a general air of excitement and joy (this was not the beginning of a stressful trip, but, rather, a minor inconvenience minutes away from a stress-free cruise). For us, and probably for many others, this was a momentous occasion. It was a family trip with three generations that we had been looking forward to for months; it was also my baby daughter's first cruise of what her grandparents hope to be many more. So, while in this long line, my father-in-law requested that we all pose around the baby's stroller for a photo. He took the picture and we immediately heard agents yelling "No cameras!" Soon after, an announcement was made that camera and cell-phone use was not allowed at the checkpoint.

These are obviously stupid rules whose primary purpose is to have control over the mundanes having the gall to travel through the port. I say this for the reasons given above: everybody in line was looking forward to this vacation. If anyone was taking pictures, it was to mark the occasion. If anyone was on a cell phone, I can think of many reasons why this would be a good time to do so: not least of which is that we were waiting in a slow-moving line with nothing else to do!

We packed some food in our carry-ons and, in that bag, I also threw in various food-related items for my daughter: a couple of bowls with lids, some baby spoons, a bib, a sippy cup (full of milk), and a small paring knife with a plastic cover. While I was throwing in various things, for some reason it also occurred to me that a waiter's friend would be handy. (I have a minor obsession with not wanting to be unprepared.) When I packed this bag, I did not anticipate that there would be any security to get on the boat.

My mother-in-law got stuck with the bag of food, while I was busy dealing with the baby and stroller and laptop and... This was only slightly easier than a standard pre-scanner airport in that we didn't have to take off our shoes! Of course, there is no 3-oz limitation on liquid, so the milk was not an issue. However, the knife and corkscrew were. According to my in-laws - and this is where the Port Authority employees are less arrogant than TSA employees (and probably less "trained" to be bullies) - the carry-on scanner operator told the screener that there was some sort of metal object in the bag that needed to be checked out. The screener opened the bag and saw the knife but thought it was plastic, so she let it go. But the operator insisted that there was something else in there. Turns out the corkscrew was at the bottom of the bag and the screener was uncomfortable with handling our food, so she poked around meekly and, having not found anything, gave the bag the okay.

Not surprisingly, the port checkpoint was the low point of the entire trip. I did see some US Customs agents milling about in the terminal after we passed through security. However, they did not seem to be doing anything except, well, milling about.

I would not have put the knife in the carry-on if I had known that there would be luggage scanners. (Note to cruise line operators: give your passengers a heads up on this.) We did use the knife repeatedly on the trip, and I will certainly bring it again if I am traveling with a baby. It is much quicker and easier to cut food small enough for a baby with a sharp knife than with a butter knife, which was generally what we had access to on the ship (when in port, we sometimes only had access to a plastic knife). On the other hand, the waiter's friend was utterly useless and I will not be bringing that along in the future.

On the boat

Are you kidding? The passengers on the boat are actually paying customers and the staff are rewarded with nice tips for good service, so the service is exceptional and none of the cruise employees are ever rude. One waiter did ask me where I got the knife from and then told me that they weren't allowed on the ship.

However, there is nothing in any of the pre-cruise material about knives being contraband, and had I put the knife in our checked luggage, no one would be the wiser. I felt guilty for about a day, and then I realized that I had zero ill-intentions for bringing the knife, and it was one of the most useful things I packed for my daughter.

At port

To re-board the boat, someone from the port would be checking passports (paper copies were acceptable). To get onto the boat, you had to show your electronic cruise pass - a credit card type thing that was linked to a photo of the bearer of the card - and there would once-again be metal detectors. However, they were operated by the cruise employees. This is how sensible, customer-oriented security works.

At an airport, a child must be removed from the stroller, their shoes and jacket removed if they are wearing any, and the stroller folded up and put on the conveyer belt of the luggage scanner. If the child can walk (1+ year-olds), then they must walk through the metal detector all by themselves (this is a problem for many children who are rightly shy and want to stay with Mommy/Daddy - especially in a crowded, noisy, airport). This is in addition to putting all of your bags on the luggage scanner belt, taking off your own shoes and jacket, taking out your laptop, taking off your belt, watch, and jewelry, and notifying the agent that you have milk for the baby that is in excess of 3 oz and is not in a ziploc bag. After you walk through the detector, you have to put everything back together then go get the milk tested. I did this once by myself, and I don't know how parents who are traveling alone with one kid, let alone more than one, stay sane doing this every time they travel.

So what happens when the cruise-line wants to make sure that the ship is secure? They ask you to put all of your stuff on the scanner's conveyer belt, as well as all of the bags that you have strapped to the stroller. Of course, you need to remove your belt, etc..., but not your shoes. (We didn't have jackets on or laptops, so I don't know what the policy is here.) The employees are polite, as usual. Then, they give the stroller a brief search and wheel it - with the baby - around the metal detector. You walk through the metal detector and you take control of the stroller, get your bags back and that's it! If you purchased alcohol at the destination, you are instructed by the screener to please take it around the corner to the bartender who will check it for you. This was interesting, since the no alcohol policy is to protect their own profits, but - since you are the customer - you are not led or followed over to the bartender and your alcohol is not confiscated by the screener. If you don't take the alcohol over to the bartender, then you are breaking the contract you have with the cruiseline. This fits in very well with my worldview: most people are honest and can be trusted to do the right thing when perverse incentives are not in place.

Returning to the US

It took a little while to get off the boat, but the cruiseline coordinates the people with the luggage and there is an option to carry your own bags off if you're in a rush. We had to go through US Customs. In our case, it was quick and easy. My in-laws got asked about whether they had Cubans (probably because my father-in-law is a cigar smoker and, I expect, smelled like he's cigar smoker), while we did not, and nothing was searched. Our bags were already there when we got through and that was that! (See UPDATE below.)

In conclusion...

All in all, this was way better than flying in terms of the hassle and rights violations. I realize that a hijacked cruise ship has less negative externalities than a hijacked airplane, and that the former is a much less likely target based on history, unless you're off the coast of Somalia. Nonetheless, let's remember that airline hijackings are also very rare historically and that - whether it's a ship or a plane - the owners of the vessel and the vast majority of the passengers do not want the vessel to be hijacked and have an interest in preventing such an event.

Real security does not require that my privacy is violated. To confirm my identity, the ship compared me to a photograph they took of me when I first boarded in Baltimore. Sleeping babies don't need to be awakened and forced to walk through a metal detector. Parents don't have to heft a stroller onto a waist-high belt while simultaneously carrying a shoeless baby. Could a really, really, really determined terrorist get through this and do harm? Of course! But such a terrorist could also get through TSA security or find another target that was even easier. Most people aren't terrorists. Every passenger on the ship that I met was a regular person enjoying a vacation.

UPDATE: I almost forgot that the morning that we debarked, some sort of agents (Customs? DEA? ATF?) boarded the boat with dogs and did a run-through before anything or anyone was allowed off. They moved very fast and were not at all friendly. They did not check private rooms unless the door was open and the dog wanted to go in (most doors were open as people were packing up and meeting up with travel companions).