Airline Security: Why I Am Considering Not Flying Anymore

A recent trip through airline security turned into a post-modern nightmare as the author confronted unfounded accusations from security personnel.
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A few weeks ago, I was on my way to the Northern Lights Festival Boréal in Sudbury, Ontario in Canada. My travel was booked in two different airlines and usually airlines transfer bags. While checking in, in Knoxville, I learned there are new rules. The originating airline will not transfer bags to the next airline if they are not an airline in their alliance. That meant that I would have to pick up my bag in Toronto then find my way, with all of my bags (I carried on my saxophone and a computer bag), from one terminal to another. This meant finding the train, boarding and riding the train, checking in with a different airline and returning through security again for my connecting flight to Sudbury. I decided I would have a good attitude about it and sing my way through the process—not aloud of course—I was lucky in that my connection gave me enough time.

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I am often taken aside for random testing at security. I am read sometimes as Native, frequently Hispanic, or otherwise somehow different. My tattooed hand marks me. I carry musical instruments. When I rechecked into security in Toronto my hands were swabbed. I set off the alarm. I tested positive for explosives. I was taken aside for a pat down and my bags set aside to be searched. I kept singing in my mind and smiled at the pat down official. Because I set an intention to be calm no matter what I had to go through to check in all over again. When my bags came through the machine I assumed I was done. I picked up my stuff and left security.

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This happened once before last December in New Orleans. I was immediately surrounded by TSA officials and police. I grabbed for my phone and dialed my husband just as the TSA agent who discovered what she said was evidence of explosives on my water bottle, warned me not to touch my belongings or my phone. She eyed me suspiciously the whole time. I kept my husband on speaker as a swarm of uniformed male agents took out books and papers and read through them. They asked me where I had been, what I had been doing. I kept my phone on so my husband would know where to look for me, if something happened, if I disappeared. My rights were being violated. We lose them every time we go through security.

After the agents went off to the side to confer, the only non-white TSA agent came over and told me that glycerin, found in hand lotions, can set off the machine. They let me go. The lead agent came over to me about 10 minutes later, with folders from my bag he had taken to his office to read. He dropped them in my lap.

In Toronto, I sat near my gate and breathed away the fear. I understand what it must start to feel like to be wrongly accused of a violation by a government. It is terrifying to think you could be taken away and locked up for something you didn’t do, never see your family again, or even lose your life. It happens every day in many places in the world. One day you are a relatively ordinary citizen and in a moment, you are a prisoner of a false accusation. I looked through my bags for my boarding pass and realized I didn’t have it. It was then I heard my name called over the airport intercom with a message to return to security. I figured I had left my boarding pass there. I returned immediately, though I had a bad feeling.

At the top of the stairs was a circle of police and Canada’s version of TSA agents. I heard, “that’s her.” Someone said, “we need to go through your bags.” An officious young woman looked fiercely at me, her eyes bent in accusation. She appeared to be in charge. She ordered me to go back through security again. I looked over and saw they had my computer opened up. Because I have TSA Precheck in the States I am not used to taking my computer out of my bag. I had left it at security. I went back through security, through the pat down, and didn’t sing in my mind this time. The agents took my bags and went through them. Another woman began filling out a form called a “Red Alert Report.” I was questioned by the male agents who had greeted me at the top of the stairs. I was asked my address of residence, phone number, my occupation, where I was from, etc. I asked, “Why are you doing all this again?” The boss responded, “You were told to stay here until we were finished with our procedures and you ran.”

That’s not so, I told her. There was no agent around when my bags came through the machine. No one told me to wait. I heard one of the agents ask if the FBI had been called yet. I realized that the young female boss was in trouble for failing to correctly implement procedures. She was trying to save herself and said that I ran from security. After questioning, they let me go.

I wish I were faster with comebacks, and have analyzed this procedure over and over, to see what I could have done better. Not wear hand lotion? I had just washed my hands with soap from their dispensers before being swabbed by their agents. I should have told them that if I were running why would I have returned when I heard the announcement? Anything I said could have been twisted. I would rather have pulled out my horn and played them a song, made jokes, or told them their political boundaries were false, as this whole hemisphere is one body, is Indian country. A word, the wrong color or language, or a saxophone, and anyone could be banned from travel. I considered filing a report, but didn’t want retaliation.

I would prefer trains, but my last experience left me stranded outside Flagstaff for hours because the track had to be repaired. I drive when I can. I have even thought of learning to fly and getting my own plane, but some years back I decided I was either going to learn saxophone or taking up flying lessons. I chose to fly on a horn. I will just have to keep singing in my mind, no matter what happens.

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I enjoyed performing at the music festival and had a good time meeting many Natives from Ontario who came for the Native night of the festival. When I checked in with the airline agent in Sudbury the next day, she checked my bag all the way through to Knoxville, something the U.S. agent wouldn’t do. I went through security with no problems at all.

The last time I went through an airport with no security was in Aitutaki in the Cook Islands about 10 years ago. Everyone and their families gathered at the departing point. Someone was singing. I remembered earlier days in the Albuquerque Airport, when we just walked through and got on the planes, with no security machines, invasive pat downs, or body imaging.

The reality is that my life is about making connections with peoples around the world, particularly Indigenous Peoples, and synthesizing what I hear and learn through my Mvskoke cultural roots, by speaking, writing, and singing what emerges. It is about service, for all of us. And it is likely that security will get worse given the political situation in this country and others. A relative suggested that make myself invisible, or be chatty and outgoing to grease the journey through security. It’s hard to be invisible with a saxophone on your back, and chatty for me would be impossible! For now, I will have to continue to fly to make connections. I make sure my family knows my itinerary. I don’t wear hand lotion. And I am writing a song to sing (in my imagination) as I walk through security to protect me. It will be funny.

Joy Harjo is a member of the Mvskoke Nation. Her most recent collection of poetry is Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings. She has written a memoir Crazy Brave, children’s books and is at work on a new album of music and a play that will restore southeastern natives to the origin story of blues and jazz.