Monday, January 18, 2016

Double-speak: When "surrendered" means "stolen"

A friend writes:
I was flying from SBA [Santa Barbara airport] to SFO [San Francisco airport].  I only had carry on since I was just going away for 2 nights to a friend's.  I absentmindedly packed my full size (5.2oz) Tom's toothpaste instead of a smaller tube because I had run out of the small tubes and I didn't think the 3oz liquid rule applied to toothpaste any longer.  
I have TSA pre-check, but - for some reason I haven't quite cleared up - United isn't recognizing me as that so my boarding pass didn't have it noted that way and I had to go through the song and dance of taking my shoes off, and going through the scanner. At SBA they require you to remove your liquids from your suitcase when putting luggage through the x-ray no matter who you are.  As a side note, if I had gone to the ticket counter to insist on Pre-check on my boarding pass (because SBA is so small) the only change would be that I could leave my shoes on and I would go through the old school metal detector.   
After I passed through the full body scanner and was waiting for my luggage and bags to come through they pulled my bag of toiletries aside and said the toothpaste violated the 3 oz rule.  I right away said, "Since when is toothpaste liquid? And, by the way, I've gotten that size tube through in the past."  (I may have fibbed there; not quite sure to be honest.)  They then said I could check my luggage if I like.  At this point who wants to get dressed again to then go downstairs, check in a bag (which is going to add 30 minutes to my trip by waiting for it on a carousel in SFO), then come back up to then just get undressed again and go through security again?  In hindsight I should have said OK, then just went back to my car to put my toothpaste in and still done carry-on.  But, I get so annoyed I can't think straight.  
So, after refusing and saying no, the TSA agent advised that I was surrendering my toothpaste.  That is when I lost my cool.  Hell no! I'm not surrendering anything.  I then accused her of stealing my toothpaste and she said, again: no, she was not; that I was surrendering.  I then decided to school her on the difference of surrendering (doing something voluntarily in my book at that point) vs the TSA taking my toothpaste without me agreeing to it (stealing).  I then grabbed my stuff in a huff and went over to a bench to put everything back on and back together.  Then to the bar to have a stiff drink.  
I just want to pause here and look at a couple things.

First, this traveler is a frequent flier, for both weekend leisure trips such as this and international business trips. She has a pretty good idea about several details of flying, such as how exactly Pre-Check changes the security process at her local airport. Yet, she mixed up a "rule" about toothpaste (actually, I have no more idea than she did if this is a rule or not.) This is a completely normal behavior of an innocent person. We all have many things to keep track of that we feel are important, and we are imperfect, so some things fall by the wayside.

This is where the bureaucratic aspect of something like the TSA is stupid. It is incapable of human interactions that recognize the difference between an innocent imperfection and a malicious intention. And this is why tinkering around the edges of TSA's protocols or practices will never be even close to satisfactory.

Second, I want to get into the negative emotions and actions that got triggered in this traveler. Traveling is stressful for many people (I don't know whether it is for her): You are trying to remember all the things to bring with you, get to your destination on time, consider how you will get back, and plan some of the things to do when you arrive. Throw in some arbitrary rules and an interactions with an inhuman bureaucracy, and you're going to get passengers who lean more towards irritable than calm. As my friend put it:
In reality I wish I didn't see red the minute my stuff gets flagged in the airport and could calmly be creative about it.  It is such a small airport that of course I had time to put everything back on.  Go back to my car, then go to the counter to get the pre-check boarding pass so that I could have escaped having to take my shoes off.  There isn't a separate pre-check line b/c the airport is too small to staff an additional line of agents for it.  And I wouldn't have had to buy a new tube of toothpaste when I got home Sunday.  Such a waste of perfectly good product.  But, I am obstinate to make a point and am willing to cut off my nose to spite my face.
She knows - perhaps even in the moment - that this is not the easiest path. But she is already stressed or irritated or whatever, so the rational, calm path is not clear to her until after she has had time to calm down and think it over. Again, this is a really normal human behavior. On the internet, people are so quick to judge another situation, but humans are emotional creatures and we can't all have the ideal rationality that comes with measured thought in a calm setting.

Yet, kudos! Sometimes a little angst and stubbornness can help flesh out a real issue. Is this traveler "surrendering" her toothpaste as the TSA claims? She packed it believing that it was not against the rules - an innocent mistake. She put it in her toiletries bag, which she then pulled out of her luggage and placed in the x-ray carry-on scanner. That is, she followed all of the other protocols and wasn't trying to smuggle the toothpaste through. She also, certainly, did not pack her toothpaste in order to hand it over to the TSA. She wanted to bring it with her to San Francisco so she could use it. How would a customer-service oriented interaction proceed at this point? I find it unlikely that toothpaste would be stolen from passengers for being in a tube stamped "5.2 oz."

And she was right: This was theft.


P.S. Remember that the TSA is not actually weighing and measuring anything. If there is 1 oz of toothpaste in a 3 oz tube, it is legal. If there is 1 oz of toothpaste in a 5.2 oz tube, it is contraband to be confiscated.