Wednesday, June 13, 2007


By now, anybody who has traveled by air in the United States is familiar with the TSA (Travel Stupidity Administration) rules concerning liquids in carry-on luggage.

Intended to thwart Terroristic Chemists who might otherwise concoct a dangerous explosive mixture out of easily available household chemicals (or dangerous chemicals that look just like easily available household chemicals), the rules state that liquids intended to be carried on board aircraft must be in containers of no more than 3 ounce capacity, with those containers packed in a transparent plastic zipper bag not exceeding one quart capacity. The zipper bag must be placed separately on the X-ray conveyor belt so its contents may be easily examined.

It’s a huge pain in the ass, but, like all huge pains in the ass, the American Traveling Public has gotten used to it and thus puts up with it. We’ve all bought into the notion that all of this screening for Dangerous Contraband will keep us safe, despite the fact that the only sure route to safety is to screen passengers for suspicious background and behavior. Ah, but that would involve profiling, and so we cannot possibly deal with it.

I generally can deal with the minor inconvenience of having to carry a bag of Tiny Toiletries. If I elect to use a normal-sized deodorant stick or tube of toothpaste, I can simply check my bag. Less to schlep to the gate, anyway.

But coming back from Mexico last Saturday, SWMBO and I had a rude surprise, one that is the result of the Atlanta airport’s unique architecture.

We had had a lengthy layover in Mexico City after an early morning flight from Cancún. All of that time meant that there was ample opportunity to peruse the various duty-free shops there, offering everything from an infinite variety of Tequila to fancy perfumes and electronics to local comestibles. After extensive browsing (and dithering: what to buy?), I settled on a liter of Macallan single malt and the obligatory bottle of Kahlua. Hey - it’s cheap as hell - in Mexico, anyway - and tasty, to boot. I also scored a few bottles of salsa for inexpensive gifts and a bottle of vanilla for our friend Laura Belle, an inveterate cookie baker.

But, you may ask, how do you get the bottles past the security checkpoint? Simple: the duty-free shop delivers the goods to you right at the gate, just as you board the plane. Thus you see stupid contradictions, such as the security people tossing out an unopened can of Coca-Cola (a Forbidden Fluid) moments before you are handed a bag containing a liter of flammable Scotch whisky. Brilliant, fucking brilliant.

So: now we land in Atlanta, go through Immigration, claim our bags, and go through Customs. At any other airport, this is where we walk out of the airport and go home.

But we are not at any other airport. We are in Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, an airport with stupidity as long as its name. And we are at Terminal E, the international terminal, and we must now recheck our bags (which will be sent to South Terminal baggage claim) and ride the Underground Choo-Choo to catch up with them. OK, fine.

Well, not so fine. Just as our checked bags are disappearing down the conveyor belt, we find out that we have to pass a security inspection in order to leave Terminal E and get to the transit system. That meant - you guessed it - no liquids in containers larger than 3 ounces, etc. , etc. Which was problematic for us, with our bottles of salsa, vanilla, and two liters of Expensive Adult Beverages.

I was not about to abandon a bottle of 12-year-old Macallan Elegancia. No. Fucking. Way.

And was Elisson steamed? Yes, he was:

Elisson: Fuck fuckity frick frack fuck fuckity fuckin’ fuck!

But while I simmered and fumed, the cool-as-a-cucumber SWMBO figured out a way to git-r-done.

We emptied out my backpack gadget bag, stuffing the camera and accompanying equipment into SWMBO’s (thankfully) oversized purse. We then jammed the bottle of Scotch in there, along with whatever other small bottles would fit, wrapped the whole misshapen mess up in tape, and slapped a bunch of “Fragile” stickers on it.

Next, SWMBO saw a Delta rep about to toss out a cardboard bottle-carrier. She snagged it, and we proceeded to pack the Kahlua in there, using the plastic bags from the duty-free shop as dunnage.

We got both packages tagged and checked them through to the main terminal. I prayed silently that the bottles would survive the transit to Baggage Claim, as I did not particularly relish the thought of having to rinse good Scotch and broken glass out of my gadget bag. During the entire ride from Terminal E, visions of smashed bottles danced through my head. Oy.

As it happens, our luck held; everything arrived intact. But next time, I’ll leave enough space in the checked baggage to shove a duty-free bottle or two.

Postscriptum: I took a peek at the TSA website to see whether I had been an ignoramus. Here’s what it says:

For passengers returning to the United States from an international destination:

On nonstop flights bound for the US, duty-free liquids purchased in an international airport will be permitted through the checkpoint only if they meet U.S. requirements for the use of tamper-evident bags. Duty-free delivered to the aircraft for passenger pick-up, bought on the plane or purchased after the security checkpoint are allowed. [Duty-free purchases in Mexico City are delivered to the aircraft for passenger pick-up in tamper-evident bags.]

If you are flying to the U.S. and have a connecting flight, duty-free liquids that meet U.S. requirements will NOT be permitted through U.S. security checkpoints. If you have a connecting flight, liquid duty-free purchases must be placed in your checked baggage. Since you will be required to reclaim your checked bags prior to passing through customs inspection, you can place duty-free liquids into your bags and recheck them for your connection.

[And there’s the rub. Thanks to the unique design of the Atlanta airport, even though our flight terminated there, it is treated like a connecting flight: Liquid duty-free purchases must be placed in checked baggage before it’s rechecked for delivery from terminal E to the main terminal. Now we know...and now you know, too!]

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