Posted by: Bob Fisher | May 8, 2009

A Security Check In Spain

In ways we probably still have not imagined, 9/11 changed the world — and the way we travel.

We were scheduled to fly from Toronto to Madrid on September 11, 2001, but of course we did not. We did however make that trip one month later.

Despite everything that had happened, it was a very successful trip.

After meandering for two weeks in the serene sierras of Andalusia, the security at the Madrid airport took us somewhat by surprise, despite everything we had heard, seen, and read.

Selected at random from the check-in line (as New York-bound passengers; our Toronto connections were irrelevant), we were quietly shepherded to a nondescript corner of the departures area and instructed to wait in a line of about 20 people before an ordinary open door through which we could see a large X-ray machine, the standard metal detection portal, and a security agent. We were told that our luggage would be pre-screened at this location and boarding passes issued.

One hour later we finally passed through the door and entered the special security area, a brightly-lit room that was divided by partitions and machinery in such a way that what was happening a few steps away was not visible. For some reason, luggage and hand luggage appeared to be going back and forth in the oversized X-ray machine. After another 20-minute wait, we were told to put our suitcases, coats, purses, and any other “surface” items we had on our persons through the machine, and to pass through the portal beside which an agent sat intensely scanning a large video monitor.

On the other side of this first line of defence, we were separated from our passports and tickets, and were now feeling the traveller’s disconcerting separation anxiety; cut off from our essential documents and the accessories that differentiated us from one another. At this point we were also scanned with hand-held metal detectors in what was definitely not a perfunctory manner. We were then instructed to proceed to our left.

The other half of the room was crowded with security personnel who outnumbered passengers about two to one. We were handed over to six very large, green-uniformed agents who were sporting various insignia, guns, communication devices, leather pouches containing handcuffs, billy clubs, sturdy leather boots, and rubber gloves.

Their demeanor was calm, impassive, but manifestly alert. Glancing back, we could see the contents of our suitcases displayed on large, high definition screens. There was a feeling of controlled detachment in the room. Another agent, who had a look of last resort about him, waited beside a conveyor belt that passed through the wall.

In front of us were four large cubicles each with a table and curtain. The curtain of one cubicle was drawn and remained so while we were in this area of the room. One by one the passengers were ushered into one of the cubicles — the curtain was left open — and we were instructed to place our suitcase ourselves on the table, to open it, and to empty it of all belongings.

My wife and I were allotted a fifth cubicle which was in fact a large vault inside which there was another vault. Both had heavy metal doors.

Before stepping into the vault I was told in Spanish to place my now X-rayed suitcase on the floor inside. My carry-on baggage, Tilley blazer, and travel belt wallet were hand searched. I was then instructed to step inside, put the suitcase on the table, and begin unpacking. The young guard assigned to me had some difficulty making me understand that I was to remove everything from the suitcase, not just the major items, so that the bag itself could be X-rayed again separately.

However, I soon had the contents of my suitcase spread on the table and the floor of the vault. Everything, including those small items that always travel with me and never leave my suitcase between trips, ended up in separate, jumbled piles. Various traveller’s potions and unguents littered the vault; my careful, strategic packing was quickly undone.

The suitcase was then taken out of the vault and X-rayed again, as was a thermal bag in which we carry our portable coffee maker, our plastic gin and tonic glasses, and our cereal bowls, the latter for the days we are able to buy milk and Muesli, thus avoiding the unnecessary $12 to $15 breakfasts. My rubber-gloved agent then handled and examined each item in a systematic and thorough fashion. Oddly, I felt no intrusiveness.

When my empty suitcase, thoroughly X-rayed, was returned to the vault, my agent instructed me to re-pack it while he watched. His eyes never left me. Unable to perform the task with the same efficiency, spatial considerations, and hand-eye coordination that I had in the morning, there was no way that everything that came out would go back in as it had. The contents seemed to have increased by about a fifth and were now a lumpy hodge podge. I guess however that I did a competent enough job because the agent then helped me zip up the now overstuffed bag. I sensed that this part of the security process was over when the agent and I were able to communicate to each other a shared irritation of having to make men’s large shoes fit impossible places.

Instructed now to leave the vault, I was passed along to the end-result agent who reunited me with my passport and ticket and those of my wife, who was now in the vault.

Feeling very much a part of the process at this point, I chatted casually with this agent and together we made a seat selection. When my wife joined us, all three of us expedited the attaching of the bar-coded strips to the luggage and sent it off on its way to the airplane.

Boarding passes in hand, we were then directed to another door, threaded our way through other passengers about to enter the cubicles, and exited again to the departures area. We then proceeded through the usual (intensified) security zone and entered the departure lounges. (A third and final passport and hand luggage check would take place at the ramp to the airplane.)

Although our particular inspection had taken us and others around us by surprise, no one appeared perturbed or even inconvenienced. There was a sense of this is how it is now, a necessary procedure, almost ordinary. Cooperation was expected and given.

In our designated departure lounge, two very noisy and obstreperous young boys were causing considerable annoyance to the other passengers. Encouraged by their father and barely tolerated by their weary mother, they whirled futuristic G.I. Joe-type action “toys” about their heads and tossed them repeatedly to the floor at which point various toy body parts became detached and scattered in various directions. Re-attaching limbs and heads to the toy torsos, the boys repeated the process over and over.

For more information, visit the United States Transportation Security Administration’s website.

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