Saturday, 23 April 2016

How to avoid setting off scanners at the airport

Last weekend a few of us took to the skies and went to set up an "installation" at Frankfurt. As I was "technical support" my work was done by Tuesday morning, so I flew home alone.

Feeling rather pleased with myself, for know that an airport in Germany is the "flughafen" and that the main train station was the "hauptbanhoff" I felt pretty confident in getting to the airport without any problems. And so it turned out. So problem-free was my return to the airport that I had nearly four hours to kill.

So a couple of hours in, and after reading the papers (I still had Sunday's tomes with me to get through) I opened up the laptop, got a brew and a sticky bun and - thanks to the free wifi - set about a little web development.

After a couple of hours, the battery in the laptop gave up, so I got out the back-up and carried out cranking out some php and javascript on the little notebook.

Unlike British airports, where you go through security and then hang around in duty free, trying to avoid that cloying sickly stench from the perfume counters, at Frankfurt, each departure gate has it's own dedicated security entrance. So it's only once your flight has been assigned a gate, can you pass through security.

So, with just an hour 'til lift-off, the gate opened, and I threw the notebook into my bag and dashed off to get through security. That's where things started to go wrong!

Firstly, I set off the body scanner.
Normally, I do this anyway. At Liverpool, Heathrow and Gatwick, minus shoes, belt, glasses and with empty pockets, I always set the scanner off. To this day, I still don't know why. A quick pat-down and everything is ok. So setting the body-scanner off at Frankfurt didn't worry me.

Except this time, there was a genuine reason.
But it took two goes to find out why - a couple of loose atmega328 surface mount chips had snagged in the lining of a pocket and it took a while to even realise that they were there.

Obviously, this didn't go down too well with the German Authorities. But, having explained that we'd just been at a conference, making and installing a custom electronics-based installation, they seemed to accept this as a reasonable excuse for carrying loose electronics components!

So, once through the scanner, I asked if I could have my rucksack.
It had been held back, as it had set off the heat detector.
A quick rummage through my dirty clothes and they found the offending notebook - still warm from being used just a few minutes earlier. Another, innocent, reason for setting off the detectors!

So I got my notebook back and the rucksack was passed through the scanner again.
And it failed the checks again. After asking if the bottle of water I was carrying could go through security (it couldn't) I'd left the bottle behind. But forgot to take out my toothpaste. And, as we all know by now, fluids on aeroplanes - however viscous - are frowned upon, especially if you say you're not carrying any.

A third check, a third, innocent excuse.
By now, I was starting to look like a hapless first-time traveller.
What started out as a humorous distraction was becoming a bit of an irritation. Unfortunately, the girl on the security desk was starting to think so too.

So I got my bag back, and my notebook, and left my toothpaste at the counter. Some loose electronic parts, undeclared fluids and something glowing white hot on the heat-sensor didn't appear suspicious at all... I put all my stuff back in my pockets, and casually asked if I could also have the laptop back, that they'd taken out of my bag.

And that's when things took a slightly darker turn.
As the girl on the security desk said "this one is not so funny".
With no further explanation, she said that "for this one, I need the police".
And went and got the police.

Not the friendly bobby in a slightly-too-tall hat with a silver knob on the top like we have "back home". This was the German Airport Security police. And not even the friendly-looking airport police with discreet holster guns. She went at got the federal police. Like the army-branch of the police (I'm still not exactly sure how different police forces work in Europe, but apparently there are different "grades" of police - and these were the big, scary, police)  And they wear body armour. And carry machine guns!

(note to self: real machine guns look surprisingly plastic-y in real life, more like a video games controller than an actual killing device!)

When two of these guys turned up, one pushed me in the chest telling me "you don't move" while the other, even more threatening-looking one (note the position of the leading finger in the image, almost on the trigger - this is how they hold their guns) barked something incomprehensible in German. I tried to talk to them via the girl on the security desk (whose English was excellent, but - now that she didn't want to be associated with me - had suddenly become less conversational, and her tone was more similar to the barking instructions coming from the police).

I desperately tried to think why they might confiscate my laptop. I'd been using it almost solidly for the last 36 hours - coding everything for the installation during the day, getting a bite to eat, then coding into the early hours of the morning. It hadn't left my sight (except during mealtimes and sleeping) for the entire time I was in Germany. I knew there was nothing wrong with it. And yet....

The laptop was wiped over, across the screen and keyboard, and the swab placed into a machine. A red light came on. The girl on the desk informed me that I had been singled out for an explosives test. And I'd failed. I didn't feel, at this point - with machine guns trained on me - that I should maybe point out that I was the least explosive person I knew and that the problem had, in fact, been with my laptop.

Then it came to me - a few weeks earlier, Jake at BuildBrighton had smashed open the old laptop battery; the replacement battery, currently in the laptop, causing a potential bomb-scare at Frankfurt airport, had obviously come from a dodgy manufacturer in China, from where I'd bought it on eBay. I tried to explain this to the guards, and as I went to remove the battery from the laptop, was told - rather more firmly this time - that I was not to move, and to touch nothing!

A few phone calls later - initially to "London" (I didn't hear who, but I distinctly heard them say "London") and I was taken away from the main counter, and into a little area around the corner - out of sight of everybody else. It was only really at this point, that something like panic started to set in.

I had my passport taken and every page copied.
Forms with "something something alerte" in block capitals on the top were filled in. My bank card details were taken. I was asked where the laptop was bought, and PC World in Hove were called. This lead to another phone call to somewhere else - who then advised the guards to phone Hewlett Packard (the manufacturers of the laptop). Following this, a call was made to "something something consulate". I was starting to really worry.

While all this was going on, the girl from the security desk took the battery out of the laptop, and took another swab from the screen and keyboard of the now open laptop (minus the potentially explosive battery). The swab went into the little machine and.... mirp, failed.

Once again I was asked where I'd been, what I'd been doing, both before and during my time in Germany. The laptop failed the "explosives test" for a third time. It was only now that I started to realise just how dodgy things looked - some loose electronics components in my pocket, a bag showing up hot in the heat scanner and failing to declare the presence of fluids in my hand-luggage. To put a tin hat on the whole affair, my laptop had now failed the test for the presence of "trace explosives" not just once, but three times!

Now I've learned to love visiting Germany.
And I've learned to love Germans. Their blunt, directness can be both refreshing and funny. After finishing a meal at a restaurant (inbetween setting up the installation and going back to the hotel for yet more coding) a waitress told us one evening "you must now pay the bill and leave" once she realised we'd finished our meal. A directness that we're still not sure if it's due to culture, or a lack of nuance in translating into another language. Germans are - generally - pretty blunt, and very direct. Some people confuse this with being rude, possibly even aggressive (coupled with a language that sounds like they're shouting all the time). I'm sure they're not.

But all this means when they think you're potentially carrying explosive materials, the average German Airport Security guard, comes across as quite angry. And I don't blame them. I'd be angry too if some bastard tried to get explosives onto a 'plane I was responsible for guarding. And I'd certainly give them what-for if I caught them. Which meant, by now - and with just a few minutes until boarding - I was really starting to worry. People were just shouting and pointing guns at me, sounding more and more agitated as time went on. My flight was about to leave, and nobody knew I was in a little room away from the main waiting area. I had no idea what was being said but some pretty important-sounding people were being called.

A few more 'phone calls and another swab test. This time, and with no explanation, the light came up green. A further test also came up "clean". It seems that whatever had set the detector off was no longer present on my keyboard/screen.

So the guards turned on their heels and walked off!
The girl on the desk gave me my laptop back.
And then wished me a "good flight".

And that was that.
I'd gone from terrorist suspect #1 to "Mr Bean on holiday". And they let me get on the aeroplane.

Whether or not it's related, on returning to Heathrow, I couldn't help but notice a lot of armed police around the place. There are usually a couple of guards with guns at the airport. And maybe it's because of my experience that I was looking for them. But there were loads of armed guards around Heathrow on the afternoon I touched down.

To this day I'm not entirely sure what caused the red alert on the explosives sensor. I can appreciate that I didn't help my cause at the beginning, but trace elements of explosives?! On recounting the tale, Nick immediately suggested cinnamon.

Apparently, cinnamon (and, curiously, coriander) dust is highly volatile. It's quite possible that this is what cause the explosive sensor to flag an alert. After all, I'd been munching on a cinnamon bun (and slurping tea) just a few hours before, while using the laptop. Is it vaguely possible that traces of cinnamon were transferred onto the keyboard?

That's the only explanation I can think of. Which is why my advice when flying and to avoid setting the scanners off is

  1. Don't be a pillock and walk through the body scanner with loose electronic components in your pockets
  2. Don't carry hot electronics devices through security
  3. Stay away from cinnamon buns at the airport café!