Inconsistency and the TSA

Since the beginning of January, I have been on eight flights. I have flown out of Boston’s Logan Airport, Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, and San Francisco’s International Airport. I have taken enough Snapchats of the flags in Terminal C at O’Hare to last until the next year.

Having traveled through these three airports multiple times a year, I’ve dealt with a variety of TSA officers. Some have been quite kind, almost like a grandma. Some looked like they wished I’d just stayed home that day, because how dare I inconvenience them by showing up for my flight. Some were happy to answer my questions about policies, while others addressed me as “ma’am”, their tone of voice making it very clear they were internally groaning and rolling their eyes.

But let’s forget the officers for the moment. Let’s focus on the national policies for flying on an airplane, or first, for making it through security. A quick look at the TSA website’s list of prohibited items shows me some obvious ones that should be banned in carry-ons: we’re talking meat cleavers, BB guns, throwing stars, et cetera. Regarding liquids, you’re allowed to have up to 3.4 ounces in your carry-on. Said liquids must be placed in a one-quart plastic bag which should then be placed in a plastic bin while going through screening. However, the website does not clarify what constitutes as a liquid.

These policies are supposed to be enacted throughout the country. Airports should be identical with what they do or do not allow in carry-on bags. In my time flying this year, however, I’ve experienced various versions of these rules. When I was leaving from Chicago once, my bag was sent back through the scanner after an office removed my water bottle. The bottle had less than an ounce of liquid inside. While flying out of Logan International Airport, my sealed bottle of juice was confiscated. (I do recognize it was a long shot getting that one through security, even though it was sealed and I would have had no opportunity to tamper with the contents.) In April, while flying back to Boston out of O’Hare, my carry-on suitcase was searched. Inside, I had toothpaste, moisturizer, and face-wash, all of which were more than 3.4 ounces. I had flown into Chicago from Boston; no one at Logan had searched my suitcase, even though it contained the exact same contents.

While I understand that restricting the amount of liquids that make it through security is reasonable, I disagree with how the policy is practiced. I have consistently been flying with liquids in my carry-ons for almost a year. This includes the ones I mentioned earlier, as well as lotion, sunscreen, and hand sanitizer. Not until April had an officer searched my suitcase because something had alerted them on the screen. What had me so irritated was the fact that I was being stopped for the same things that had managed to make it through Logan. I hadn’t known until that point that toothpaste qualified as a liquid. I had been led to believe that a liquid was more like shampoo, or perfume, which is actually a liquid.

One question I have is why the limit for liquids is 3.4 ounces. What’s wrong with 3.5 ounces? At the moment, the amount seems arbitrary to me, but only because I don’t understand it. Only recently did a friend inform me that liquid bombs are actually a big threat and something people do make. I’d like to know more about how those work. Can you make them out of toothpaste? Will they still explode if they’re placed in your checked bag instead of your carry-on?

I completely understand that it was my fault my suitcase was searched in April. I knowingly packed liquids in my carry-on. However, I wouldn’t have packed liquids if the TSA consistently did their job. Being able to carry liquids through security at other airports has effectively showed me that I can carry liquids through any airport in the country. I don’t really have an issue with the policy; I don’t fully understand it, but I appreciate that the TSA is trying to prevent liquid explosives from making it onto planes. My issue is the fact that the TSA is not consistent in every airport, basically making it more dangerous to fly; who knows when the next liquid bomb is going to make it into a plane cabin because a TSA officer didn’t follow the rule?

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