Global Entry and the Scourge of Saline

I’m on the road again, spending some time in Europe. I’m writing this from Lisbon, where am I awaiting the arrival of Alex Finger (OGP) so we can go out and get dinner.

Getting here, however, was a bit of an adventure, for at least part of the trip.

For the best fare I was routed through JFK. In fact, I had a 4 hour layover at JFK, which isn’t always pleasant. However, the times I’ve flown through that airport with short connections have been the only times my luggage was delayed, so I guess I shouldn’t complain.

What it did allow me to do was have enough time to schedule the interview portion of my Global Entry application process. If you haven’t heard of it, Global Entry is an awesome program run by the US Customs department to allow frequent travelers to bypass some of the more tedious portions of immigration and customs.

You pay $100 and fill out an application. Once your application is approved, you have to schedule an in-person interview at a major airport. My home airport, RDU, is not yet part of the program but I hope one day it will be. The interview was pleasant and short, and it was mainly for the purpose of gathering a nice collection of my fingerprints.

Here’s how it works:

Instead of standing in line to get through immigration and customs, you walk up to a Global Entry kiosk and scan your passport. You will then be asked to place your fingers on another scanner. If everything matches what the system expects, you answer a few onscreen questions and you get a little ticket that lets you bypass both the immigration line and customs (assuming, of course, you have nothing to declare).

It’s valid for five years. If you travel out of the country more than once or twice a year, I think it’s worth it.

The hope is that this program will be extended to cover TSA screenings as well. I can only hope that it will help alleviate some of the insanity currently involved in that aspect of air travel.

(on a side note, I’d like to point out that the backscatter machines at both RDU and JFK were off when I went through. Good for me, but you have to wonder where all that money went for such a “critical” need).

Once my interview was over, I killed some time watching Buffy (man, Season 2 ends on a bummer) and then boarded the nearly empty plane.

Now American Airlines flies into Terminal 3 at Heathrow, and I almost always change to Terminal 5 for my continental connection on British Airways. Turns out that the Portugal BA flight leaves from Terminal 3, so I had to take the bus back.

So here I am, back at Terminal 3, not in the best mood, and going through security. I’ve got my routine down pat: laptop out, “3-1-1” bag out, jacket and belt off, all electronics in my briefcase, etc.

One of the agents looks at my liquids and notices that I have a four ounce bottle in there. It’s a special no-additive, no-preservative saline solution that I need since I am older and my eyes are very sensitive to the preservatives in normal saline. I can only buy it from my eye doctor, and it doesn’t come in any smaller size. Because I am putting the liquid in my eye, it has to be extremely sterile, so it wouldn’t do to move it to another bottle.

He points out that my bottle is over the 100ml limit. Now, as I mentioned, I travel a lot, but I’ve never had a problem with this particular issue. I travel to places like Dubai, Damascus, Bangkok – places where terrorism is a much higher threat than in the US or the UK and they never have a problem with my saline, and most of the time they don’t even mention it.

So I explain, calmly and rationally, that I have very sensitive eyes and I can’t use normal saline. I have to buy this from the doctor directly, etc. etc.

He points out, again, that it is over the limit. I said, again and calmly, that I realize this, but I have no other option and no one else has complained in over 200,000 miles of flying with said bottle. He mutters under his breath that “they all say that” and I so wanted to scream “Yes! You caught us! The worldwide conspiracy of saline smugglers!”

I am taken over to the “supervisor” – a rather homely, overweight woman who I couldn’t help but imagine was the one the teacher called on in school to take names when she left the room. Note that I don’t usually stoop to pointing out physical imperfections in people (because God knows I got a lot of them), but in this case I feel it is necessary to fully paint the picture of what I was dealing with. Let me also point out that during this entire process she never saw fit to rise from her chair.

I repeated my litany about the saline to her, seriously expecting to be let through.

No such luck.

She explains to me that I can go to the pharmacy, buy an empty 100ml bottle, come back through security and transfer the contents. I point out the flaw in that plan is that it must be completely sterile or the whole process is pointless. I would have done it, like I do with my shampoo, etc., except for this issue. She says that is my only option.

So I ask that if the extra 18ml of salt water makes it dangerous for me to fly, can I pour out an amount of salt water to her satisfaction that I won’t be endangering my life or the lives of my fellow passengers? She says, no, the bottle has to be less than 100ml.

Wanting to see how far I can take this, I then ask for clarification: you are telling me that it is not the amount of liquid or even the type of liquid but the size of the bottle? She says “yes”. With the most puzzled expression I can muster I point out that the size of the bottle, unless the bottle itself were made of explosive, should have no bearing on safety.

Her reply is that larger bottles can be used for “mixing”? Ahah! I point out that if I needed a bottle to mix my explosive I could simply buy some water in the terminal and pour it out. With her last defense now destroyed in the crushing grip of reason, she’ll have no option but to let me through with my saline.

Didn’t happen. I left without my bottle.

What really bothers me about this whole situation is that these are the people who are our first line of defense against terrorists. Yet they are so consumed with minutiae such as bottle sizes that they wouldn’t be able to catch a terrorist short of having one walk up wearing an “I’m A Terrorist” t-shirt and carrying a 118ml bottle of liquid. We need them to be able to think on their own and make their own judgement calls, but with people like this woman in a position of power that is very, very unlikely.

Plus, this crack team totally missed the Burt’s Bees hand cream and chapstick I stuck in the pocket on the side of my bag, and the more than four ounces of gel that I have in the humidifier for my guitar. But, by God, the world is a safer place because my saline bottle didn’t make it through.

This saddens me, because the Brits used to be extremely sane about airport security.

I went to Boots and bought some saline that I hope doesn’t ruin my eyes, and David is coming in a week to help me teach the OpenNMS course and he can bring me another bottle of the stuff I need.

And I can only assume, in some subterranean vault of Her Majesty’s Secret Service, lies my 4oz bottle of salt water – safely unable to wreck the havoc on society that such liquid has been known to cause.

It’s crap like this that really makes me want to stop flying.

2 thoughts on “Global Entry and the Scourge of Saline

  1. I could have sworn that you were allowed to bring large bottles of saline solution through security. I remember reading an article a while back where Bruce Schneier talked about how, at the time, they didn’t really check to see that it was actually saline and you could sneak all sorts of liquids in that way. Maybe that was just in the US or times have changed. I totally agree about not wanting to fly. I’m so sick of the arbitrary rules and enforcement.

    1. I sent my story to Patrick Smith, the guy who writes the “Ask the Pilot” column for Salon. He said the Brits are just insane. I have never had problems with saline in the US (or anywhere outside of the UK).

      To make things even more pleasant, I use a peroxide-based solution to clean my contacts. Turns out the bottle of saline I bought in the UK is very similar to that bottle, so this morning I poured a bunch of peroxide into my right eye. Needless to say, I’m wearing my glasses today. (sigh)

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