Returning from Las Vegas yesterday I encountered a Transportation Security Administration issue in the security line at the Las Vegas airport. While in Vegas, I purchased two lighters — one for my sis and one for my brother. As I was under the impression that TSA now allows people to bring lighters on airplanes, I packed the lighters in my carry on. I did not read the fine print about carrying lighters on airplanes. In fact, I’m not even sure where to find the fine print.
Now, I’ve traveled quite a bit, even internationally. When I was returning from London a few years ago, it was during the time when no lighters were allowed in any luggage. I found a cool lighter for my brother at one of the markets in London, so I stuck it in my dirty clothes bag. When the agent at Heathrow went through my checked luggage, he looked at the garbage bag and said, “Dirty clothes?” I nodded, and he couldn’t move away from that bag fast enough. That’s how my brother got a lighter from London.
When TSA started requiring passengers to separate all liquids and gels that would be carried onto planes into a quart-sized zipper bag, I was traveling to Houston, and I obeyed the rule. Actually, I didn’t have quart-sized bags, so I used a gallon bag. Omaha’s airport made me cram my stuff into one of their quart-sized bags, but Houston’s airport didn’t seem to notice the gallon-size bag when I returned. On a later trip, I forgot to separate the makeup I carry in my purse, though, and no one at any airport said a word. So I stopped separating such items, and I’ve never had a problem. Keep in mind that I frequently catch connecting flights in Chicago, and I go outside to smoke between flights, which means I have to go through security at O’Hare, too. So at least three airports in a single round trip have let things slip through security. And I’m just one passenger. TSA is terribly inconsistent — and not just from airport to airport. TSA is inconsistent from agent to agent.
So when the inspection agent in Las Vegas flagged my carry-on bag for hand inspection, I was sure it was because of my stun gun. I’d never traveled with it before, and I was practically sweating thinking that the agent was going to pull my cute pink stun gun from my purse and take it away from me. The bag inspector took me to a semi-private area and grabbed my carry-on bag, not my purse, and said the scanner picked up a lighter. I told her I’m sure it did; I’m a smoker, but I thought lighters were OK. She said the problem is torch-style lighters, not regular lighters.
She went through my carry on and pulled out the lighters I’d gotten for my brother and sister. She lit them. They were torch-style lighters. She said I couldn’t take them on the plane. Now, I know that you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar, so I was very polite and sweet and told her they were souvenirs for my brother and sister, and I promised not to light them on the plane. She said she couldn’t let me take them on the plane. I could either surrender them to her or go to the mail booth and mail them home. So I asked where the mail booth was. She pointed outside the security area and said, “Over there.”
“So if I mail them I have to go through security again?”
At this point I became angry (this was all happening at 6 a.m., and I am not a morning person). “Oh, for fuck’s sake,” I said, and stormed off toward the mail booth. Each lighter was $10 and I wasn’t just going to throw away $20 so this TSA agent could get a couple of free lighters. The agent called after me, “All of our policies are available …” I didn’t hear the rest of it. I was just pissed off.
So I went to the mail booth and discovered that it costs $19.95 to mail one lighter, and each lighter must be mailed separately. Seriously. It was going to cost me $40 to mail two lighters home. What a crock of shit.
At this point, I decided to go to the ladies room and toss the lighters in the bottom of my purse. There was so much junk in the bottom of my purse after three days in Vegas, I figured two lighters would never stand out. I imagined the scanning agent would become tired of trying to figure out what each item in the bottom of my purse was and would give up. When I pulled out the lighters, I remembered that they were refillable. So I took a pen tip and let all the butane out of the lighters, then threw them in the bottom of my purse. I could refill them at home. I figured if TSA busted me again, I would play innocent and tell them that I emptied the lighters so they’re not a hazard and see where that got me.
So I once again joined the security line, a little nervous this time and searching for the agent I’d told off earlier. I definitely didn’t want to run into her again. She wasn’t going to cut me any slack.
As my bag and purse were scanning, I saw one agent point out something to another and whisper, “Torch lighter.”
Fuck, I thought, I’m busted again. But I was ready with my excuse. They called for a bag inspection, and eventually a tall man came over to the line. They pointed to a bag. It wasn’t mine! It belonged to the poor older woman in front of me. My bags went through just fine this time.
And that’s what I mean about inconsistency. I still had two torch lighters in my carry-on luggage, although they were empty. However, after I got through security, I realized that I had another torch lighter — an old junky one — in the front pocket of my purse that had fuel in it and no one ever flagged it.
And how about my stun gun? Faithful readers know I don’t leave home without it, and I had it in my purse when I left Omaha and when I left Las Vegas. But it looks like a mobile phone, so TSA thought nothing of it. Now, I can do a lot more damage with my stun gun than with a torch lighter, but apparently TSA hasn’t thought of that.
I felt sorry for the lady in front of me who’d gotten pulled out of line for a bag inspection. I noticed that the Las Vegas TSA staff flags an enormous number of torch lighters. I’ll bet those inspectors have lighters like crazy. They probably give them to their family members for Christmas. Because you know those lighters aren’t going into the trash. The agents are keeping them. And when the nice ones cost $10 or more — well, you can see where I’m going with this.
Furthermore, souvenir shops in Las Vegas all sell torch lighters, but not one of them had a notice near the lighters stating that you can’t take them on airplanes. I think it’s only fair that they should post that.
The big issue of this story is TSA’s inconsistency, though. TSA’s little rules only keep the honest people honest. If someone really wants to sneak something on a plane, it’s definitely possible. The government wants airplane passengers to feel safe flying, so it implements all these policies and regulations. But anyone who thinks those are keeping them safer is just fooling himself.
Frankly, I think all passengers should fly with stun guns. Perhaps some of the tragedies of 9/11 could have been prevented if a few passengers had stunned those terrorists.