Security overload at the airport

Travellers often have to contend with meaningless confiscation by airport security staff.

The other day, airport security officials confiscated a small pair of nail scissors from my handbag. Now, these scissors were tiny.

Minuscule, in fact. While other passengers were walking through security screens with a kilo of drugs stuffed in their underwear, or the broken down components of an automatic rifle stashed in the carry-on luggage, or millions of dollars in illicit funds strapped to their chest, this particular security man was giving me grief over a tiny instrument with blades that were barely 3cm long.

I mean to say, I can't imagine for one minute that I could storm an airplane cockpit and take control of the aircraft by brandishing these scissors in the vicinity of a pilot's jugular vein.

However, what caused me even further confusion that day was the fact that the nail scissors were in a cosmetics bag that also contained a long, metal nail file. Now this instrument could cause a lot of damage, but the security personnel didn't seem to think so. With one correctly placed thrust, I could stab the file into someone's ear, not to the extent that I would kill them but enough to have them following my every command.

Someone, somewhere, obviously feels that a pair of teeny scissors pose more of a threat than a dagger-like instrument.

This meaningless confiscation reminded me of an incident at a Paris airport, when I was returning to Penang from Scotland last year, after having attended my mother's funeral less than a few short hours before.

When I checked in at Edinburgh airport, I had two cans of haggis (the national dish of Scotland, which is made from the liver, heart and lungs of sheep, chopped and mixed with oatmeal and seasoning) in my carry-on luggage. The ground staff looked at the cans, ascertained that they were safe to be carried onboard and waved me on my way.

However, when I was clearing security while in transit at Paris Charles de Gaulle airport, a security official confiscated the tins. "Potentially dangerous," he said in his heavily accented English.

Well, this was simply too much for me to bear on a day when I'd been trying so hard to hold it together, and I burst into tears. I was soon sobbing hysterically and the airport staff didn't know what to do with me.

"It's only food," said one official.

"No, it's not, it's my mother," I said, between sobs.

Now, haggis does not remind me of my mother, though she did eat it once a week. But on that day, I felt, somewhat irrationally, that they were taking away some of my few precious links to my homeland. When I tried to explain to them about my mother, I cried even harder and louder.

Eventually, a female officer, who had come over to see what all the commotion was about, asked her colleague to let me take my haggis onto the aircraft.

But he wasn't having any of it. Between my tears, I could see him grinding his heels into the floor, all the more determined not to give in to me.

I'm not sure what he thought I was going to do with that haggis. Once on board, I suppose I might have produced a can opener from a body cavity, opened the contraband, made my way to the cockpit and smeared the stuff all over the pilot's eyes, thereby causing the aircraft to crash.

An hour later, as a more composed version of myself was seated in the aircraft, all passengers were instructed to turn off their handphones and other electronic devices in preparation for take-off. At this stage, I'd had it with officialdom, and scoffed at the request.

It's an urban myth that mobile telephones interfere with an airplane's navigation devices, in the same way that a signal from your phone can't cause a petrol pump to explode.

Consider the following scenario, if you will: One minute you're pumping your unleaded petrol into your favourite Proton while talking to the Missus about your dinner plans, and the next, kaboom!

This won't happen. Neither will an airplane that is taking off or landing, even with everyone onboard chattering on their phones, lose control and crash into a terminal building.

If you can't be trusted to travel with a tiny pair of scissors or a tin of minced sheep offal, do you think for one moment that airlines will allow delinquent passengers (and there are some on every flight) to flout the rules about switching their phones off?

Nah! They would confiscate all phones and release them after the plane had landed, if they were that concerned.

But can you imagine the torture of having to sit on an airplane with a few hundred passengers talking all the time, for 12 hours or more?

It would be enough to make you remove that nail file and stick it into your own ear.