Confessions of an aviation security officer

Vulgarities were hurled at Mr Hamzah Rahmat, with insults about everything including his parentage.

And all this over a set of toiletries.

Says the 35-year-old, who works at Changi Airport's Terminal 3: "The passenger said his father was in hospital and the toiletries were a gift from a friend. But the items did not comply to size requirements, so I couldn't let him take them onto the flight.

"He got angry and started to call me names like insensitive b******, and just wouldn't stop railing."

He stopped only when Mr Hamzah told him that the continued yelling could get him in trouble with the authorities.

Mr Hamzah shrugs off the incident.

It is all part and parcel of his job as an aviation security officer to ensure that carry-on luggage adheres to airline regulations, which means coaxing passengers to discard stuff they try to carry on board.

This can include oversized toiletries, bottles of water and bottles of alcohol that are not properly packaged.

One elderly passenger on transit in Singapore from Dubai was so desperate to get his five-bottle haul onto the flight that he wanted Singapore's duty-free shops to get them re-packaged.

But, explains Mr Hamzah: "Duty-free alcohol is allowed only if they are properly sealed in a bag by the shop. Passengers commonly misunderstand that the local duty-free shop can re-package goods bought from another shop overseas.

"The man told me he used his retirement money to buy the liquor, but I couldn't let it pass."

The jovial man, who has been working in this position since March 2009, now oversees about 60 officers.

The real meltdowns happen when passengers miss their flight by minutes.

"There was a woman in her 40s, bound for a flight to New York, but she was late, so she started bawling. She hurled her bag aside and began begging on her knees (to be let on the flight).

"She said her dad was on his deathbed and I sympathised with her, but there wasn't anything I could do, except advise her to book the next flight out. The plane won't put down its aerobridge for you, even if it's still parked."

But it's not all tension and horror.

There are perks, such as getting first sightings of famous celebrities.

"David Beckham, Korean pop groups, Lady Gaga... the list goes on," he says with a grin.

"To me, working in an air-conditioned environment is also a perk," adds the married father of one, who used to work in a logistics role.

To keep officers on their toes, potential threats are regularly "planted".

"Images of objects posing a threat to the flight such as guns or Swiss knives will intermittently show up on the X-ray machine, which scans the bags. When this happens, officers are supposed to hit a particular button."

The Airport Police Division (APD), which is part of the local police force, also regularly audits the officers' service standards.

"One of them usually poses as a passenger with an unauthorised item. If the officers miss this and fail to stop from entering into the boarding gate's waiting area, the supervisors, who are observing the scenario from outside, will approach within five minutes. That's when you know you're done for," he says.

Failure to pass the audits can result in a revoking of licenses and going through re-training.

But the process to keep them on their toes has been put to good use. He has stopped passengers taking real weapons on board before.

"The X-ray machine detected what turned out to be two ceremonial swords. They were 1m long and had human hair attached to them. A little spooky, I thought," he says.

After some discussion with the APD, the men were allowed to check in their swords.

Mr Hamzah, who works 12-hour shifts with a few breaks at a time, confesses he cannot do without coffee on a daily basis. It has been four years since he took up this role and he says that every day is a new experience.

And it can take the weirdest turns.

An episode he will never forget is the time his colleague patted down a woman who was dressed as a man.

"By the time he got to her boobs, he suddenly stopped and retracted his hands. His face also turned red. I was wondering why.

"We asked a female officer do the pat down instead. Thankfully, the passenger didn't complain."

Secrets of the trade

1 Working in pairs is a good strategy. This way, when you encounter a difficult customer making your blood boil, you can swop with your buddy and prevent any unprofessional blow-ups.

2 When you meet passengers from countries whose language you can't speak, hand gestures always help.

3 Eat whenever you can during the day, even if you are not hungry. Breaks are erratic and dependent on flight schedule.

Get The New Paper for more stories.