Thursday, April 08, 2004

Notification of Baggage Inspection
Travelling to and in the United States is getting increasingly hazardous and inconvenient. When I went to the States I could go non-stop from Oslo to Newark. Back I did no longer have that option, as SAS has discontinued the non-stop flight. (Particularly annoying just as they are about to install broadband wireless access in all their long-haul airplanes.) Why? With the new security regulations, they can no longer afford to maintain this marginal flight. An American airline is supposed to take over from June. I have mixed feelings about that. There is something very reassuring about being surrounded by staff who understand what I say when I babble in my own language, like if I develop high fever or have a stroke or something similar.

Going back I went over Reykjavik with Icelandair. That's fine. No free booze or soft drinks though. Yes, I missed SAS on that account, but I liked to make the trip in two relatively short laps. The most annoying event of the trip was not discovered until I came home.

When I opened the suitcase, I noted it wasn't really properly closed. I thought I had closed it, but you know, nobody's perfect. Then I opened the suitcase, and it wasn't packed as I remembered it. I thought I had just forgotten what was where - until there was an item I could not find at all. For some reason a little plastic pump, the kind you would use to inflate a blow-up toy or a mattress, was missing. It was not really valuable, but it belonged with my new blue rubber ball, the one I bought in order to do my exercizes.

The mystery was solved when I dug further into the suitcase. The "Transport Security Administration" had left a "Notification of Baggage Inspection". Apparently Section 110(b) of the Aviation and Transportation Security Act of 2001, 49 U.S.C. ? 44901(c)-(e) permits the Transport Security Administration to open my luggage for inspection. Apparently it also permits them to break the locks, if I have locked the suitcase, and I can't complain if they do. According to the young lady on the phone, I should have been warned not to lock the suitcase before I checked it in.

They hadn't ruined the locks, probably Samson has provided the TSA with a master key. But they have shaken my confidence in who has access to my luggage. When I check in my luggage, I and everybody else have to answer all those questions, you know. "Did you pack this yourself, did you bring gifts from anybody, have anybody but you had access to your luggage, are you carrying any of these items." Normally I am able to answer those questions quite confidently. No more. One of the reasons for my confidence is that I send my luggage through locked. I have been convinced that it would take enough of an effort to break into it that it would be too risky to randomly drop a bomb, a bag of drugs or a box full of some biological weapon into my suitcase.

And now the American regulations permits the security guards to break into my suitcase, ruining the locks if they have to, and thus make sure I have to either get a new suitcase or be at the mercy of any curious longfingered luggage handlers between there and Volda. The missing pump is inconvenient, yes, and I am looking everywhere for a pump that will let me inflate that ball. The missing confidence I now have in the security for my luggage on airplanes is a huge change in my approach to travelling.

Every new little thing adds up: The need for a new passport just for USA, the increasing lines before the security check in, the aggression at immigrations and customs, the new rules for visiting faculty, the loss of areas where passengers and their friends can linger together (terminal 7, JFK, has no bar outside the security check in. That's enough to make me go for Newark next time, if possible - I like spending those last hours with my NYC connection, getting slightly buzzed to bolster the unpleasantness of the trip ahead), all this adds to the already considerable discomfort of crossing long distances.

I am feeling robbed of my rights, even if that is just the right to spend an hour or two happily drinking with someone rather than doing my drinking alone, at the other side of a glass barrier. This will not make me stop travelling - well, not yet anyway. But it is enough to make me feel apprehensive, uncomfortable and unhappy - and to consider carrying nothing but hand-luggage next time. Well, at least I have a pair of hiking-boots in New York already.

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