Trust me, taking my suncream on board is no threat.
Going through airport security changed for ever after the terror attacks but some rules are wearing thin.
Thorough: security at airports remains tight — and a test of patience for even the most seasoned traveller.
I have taken off shoes, coat, sunglasses, watch, sweater, belt and earrings. I’m now removing the tissues from my short pockets. Tissues take a long time with me: there are scrunched-up tissues about my person constantly. The tissues are causing such concern among the security personnel that I am now being patted down. Then the female guard makes me stick my hands behind my ears and put my tongue out. She is checking for piercings but I become aware that I now seem faintly abusive. It’s not a good look.
There are only two scenarios that could explain the above. Visiting rights at a maximum security jail. Or a sunny holiday flight to somewhere really threatening, such as La Rochelle.
It is, of course, the latter.
On my way to Oslo last year, my perfectly packed carry-on case squeaked as it went through the machine. After a 40-minute wait, I was told explosive traces had been found on the handle. Could I explain it? I couldn’t. I did try. But I ran out of things to say because explosives and me are not natural companions. I do not even allow my children Nerf guns.
They ran another check on the bag. Explosive traces again. They upended the entire thing, laying out Tampax and knickers and — even more excruciating, a copy of Fifty Shades — with an artful tenderness that bordered on irony. I went into a zen-like calm. It was the day after Andrew Mitchell had lost his rag with that policeman at the Downing Street gates and I knew that I couldn’t afford to get stroppy.
The lady in charge was lovely. “Almost everything counts as explosives these days,” she chuckled. “Gardening tools, hand cream”. I nodded sympathetically but inside I was screaming: “HAND CREAM?” If hand cream is setting off the explosives detector, perhaps the machine is not ideally suited to its task. Both it and I were in danger of becoming a little oversensitive.
The double explosive test kicked in an automatic airport security alert. Sure enough, within minutes I was escorted through the building by armed officers from Special Branch. They took my name, scribbled down details and oddly apologised, even though they were just scrupulously doing their job.
The Special Branch female officer asked me the purpose of travel. I told her leisure — a half marathon. She was from the North, as I am: “Why aren’t you doing the Great North Run?” she asked, affronted. “Your colleague Sophie did.” She looked at me more suspiciously than at any time during the explosives debacle. It was my turn to apologise. “Too hilly,” I mumbled. And I promised to consider it next year if she let me on to the plane before I missed it.
I seem to spend an awful lot of time in airport security. I don’t mean I’m a jetsetter: I mean I literally spend a long time in the security bit. Perhaps it is my obsession with always travelling with only hand luggage. Perhaps I am just unlucky. But increasingly, I think I am just normal.
And that’s what worries me most. Because every time I see some poor mother made to drink her own breast milk or some dad being told to throw away the last centimetre of his screaming toddler’s medicine because it comes in a 125ml bottle, every time I look at the Warhol-like mountain of Nivea and water bottles and the near nudity and the endless queues, I can’t help wondering if we’re really getting this whole war on terror thing right.
And I know, because I have been told by a friend, that I risk sounding — what was the lovely phrase? — “a bit of a twat” when I moan about something so fundamental. So for the record, this is not a complaint about the folk at UK Border Agency, who are encumbered by more and more regulations each time a foiled plot hits the headlines.
It is not even a complaint about the millions BAA must be raking in through this status quo, where people re-buy the shampoo they have just been made to throw away (often in a bottle too large for them to bring back into the country a week later).
It is a reflection — during some of my 40-minute stints by the X-ray machine — on how many of the rituals we now intone before every flight are really justified and effective. The ban on liquids, for example, was introduced following the foiled 2006 airline bomb plot. It was policing genius that worked out how a Lucozade bottle could be subtly turned from refreshing energiser into a peroxide-based death trap. I am not joking when I say that discovery was phenomenal.
The trouble is, terrorists adapt and iterate, as we do. The smart ones are smart. This month reports suggest that the latest designer bomb can be surgically placed inside the body. Don’t tell me that’s going to be foiled by making me throw away the Colgate. Or the “spray-on bomb” that is aerosoled on to a wet T-shirt and detonates when dry. To a terrorist, large drink bottles are probably soooo 2006 — the zeitgeist equivalent of Larry and Sergei using a typewriter.
In truth, some of the measures from the 2006 plot have now been tacitly abandoned by some countries. I’m always surprised to see how much more relaxed America — yes America, with its pit-bull immigration officers — is about its carry-on system.
So I just want someone to explain to me whether we are clinging to these measures out of superstition, or whether we are happy to keep adding and adding. And more importantly, whether we are in danger of missing the next trick because we are dwelling on the last. Because I remain to be convinced that the achievements of our security services are down to — whisper it quietly — making everyone throw away their suncream.