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Security and Sudafed

Dear Transportation Security Administration,

I understand that your job is very important.  Why, back in 2002 I even wrote a whimsical little essay in the New York Times Magazine defending the new post-9/11 regulations for airport security.  Of course, that was before things got really baroque—before the personal-care-products industry had persuaded you to confiscate everyone’s toothpaste, aftershave, body lotion, moisturizer, shampoo, conditioner, hand cream, and saline solution.  But on the whole, I’m in favor of everything that prevents crazy people from blowing up airplanes.  So did I complain when you went through my checked bags in 2004 as I was coming back from San Francisco?  No.  And that was the time you left a zipper open—the zipper to the very pocket in which I had stashed all my keys.  I decided that one was my own dang fault for not wanting to sit through a five-hour flight with my keys in my pocket, so I just went ahead and got new keys, even though the electronic key to the Passat was well over a hundred bucks.

Nor did I complain last year when you searched my checked bag, went through my toiletries kit, and opened my electric razor, strewing thousands of tiny facial hairs all over everything else in the kit, from my Vanceril inhaler to my toothpaste.  You know how sometimes there’s a teeny bit of toothpaste right around the cap?  Well, it turns out that that little white spot of fugitive, extratubal toothpaste is a lot easier to see when it’s covered with minuscule beard shavings.  But, again, I didn’t complain.  I am a patriotic American, and I know full well that if you can’t open my electric razor and spill its contents into my toiletries kit, the terrorists will have won.  So I didn’t trouble you the first time it happened—or the second.

Even now, I don’t flinch every time I see that piece of paper that tells me you’ve selected my checked bag to be opened and searched.  Usually, you put things back in good order.  But this time I really think you’ve gone too far. 

I checked one small bag on my recent journey from Harrisburg to Omaha.  I did so not only because I wanted to bring shaving cream and aftershave and a Fusion razor in place of the electric one (see above), but also because my son, Jamie, has a nasty runny nose and needed to travel with Triaminic and Sudafed.  And again, I understand that you need to go through my toiletries bag for national security purposes.  Freedom isn’t free.

But when we arrived in Omaha and I unpacked, I found that the plastic zip-lock bag into which Janet had carefully placed Jamie’s meds (and into which I had re-placed them after giving him a dose of the Sudafed prior to checking in for our flight) was very messy.  Apparently, a member of your staff had gone through my toiletries kit, opened the medicine bag, and even opened the Sudafed itself, replacing the child-proof cap in a strangely haphazard manner that allowed a couple of teaspoons of Children’s Sudafed to spill into the bag.  Thankfully, this employee of yours then sealed the plastic zip-lock bag properly, or I would have had an entire toiletries kit soggy with Sudafed, and no Sudafed.

Amazingly enough, on the way back from Omaha to Harrisburg, another of your employees (I’m really hoping it wasn’t the same one) did it all again, opening my checked bag, my toiletries bag, my plastic zip-lock medicine bag, and the Sudafed bottle, replacing the cap badly yet again, leaving me once more with a plastic bag with a sticky purple liquid lining.  And much less Sudafed.  Oh, and that piece of paper informing me that my bag had been opened and inspected in the interests of safety.

So hey, hey, TSA, what’s going on with your staff these days?  Are some of them addicted to Children’s Sudafed?  Is someone poaching travelers’ Children’s Sudafed supplies and boiling ‘em up into Children’s Crystal Meth?  Or do they simply have nagging cold symptoms for which they need a bracing hit of my son’s over-the-counter medicine?

Like I say, I’m not given to idle complaints.  I don’t even mind cleaning up messes in my toiletries kit.  But, you know, Jamie really did need that Sudafed.  You should probably apologize to him for spilling so much of it.  And if you ever feel like replacing the bottle, that would be a nice gesture too.  In the meantime, I’ll send a version of this letter to your Got Feedback? page, referencing both the Harrisburg and Omaha airports.  Thanks for your attention.


Posted by on 11/17 at 08:36 AM
  1. It’s always nice to wake up the morning, summon up one’s RSS feed, and find a new Béřübé post waiting.

    That is, hands down, the most Kafkaesque Children’s Sudafed tale I have ever heard.

    Mmm, stray whiskers.

    Posted by Orange  on  11/17  at  09:57 AM
  2. Join the One Bag cult:


    You’ve never known such peace.  Join us, don’t be afraid.

    Posted by  on  11/17  at  10:04 AM
  3. As usual with anything started by the Bush administration, this is a matter for Philip K. Dick.  Perhaps, as in The Penultimate Truth, the upper class of society is discouraging travel with scare stories in order to appropriate the lower classes’ labor.  Except that so far they’ve only gotten our sweet, sweet Sudafed.

    Posted by  on  11/17  at  10:20 AM
  4. Given your status as a certified Dangeral Professor with funny accent thingies in his surname, I am not surprised that security personnel leave no over-the-counter medicine unspilled. How safe would it be to allow you to fly all over the country without being thoroughly harassed?

    Posted by  on  11/17  at  10:50 AM
  5. I’d have said it was your own damned fault for shaving, but then you explained about the Sudafed. Or the pseudophedrine. But then we’re not allowed to have pseudophredrine any more, so it’s pseudopseudophedrine, else someone would sue the pseudophedrine maker. I bet TSA would tell you it was your own damned fault for not finding chewable or dissolving Sudafed, but I think there’s a conspiracy to take away all of the easily-absorbable pseudopseudophedrine from pharmacy shelves. Cheney’s responsible.

    My advice? Sue the feds.

    Posted by Sherman Dorn  on  11/17  at  11:06 AM
  6. Yes, it is clearly the Name and the Profession. You might as well call yourself Ali Mustafa Muhammad, environmental activist.

    Captcha: pressure, as in pressure points…

    Posted by  on  11/17  at  11:09 AM
  7. A thousand small indignities.

    Recently I traveled with an expired driver’s license (oops!).  On the outward bound trip, the cheerful TSA license-checker person said “Hey, your license is expired, you better replace it soon, but don’t worry, our policy is that it’s still good for a year from the expiration date” and cheerfully waved me through. 

    Then on the return, the Northwest checkin counter person said “Hey, your license is expired, I’ll make sure you get through TSA all right.” Then she scribbled something on my boarding pass.  A few minutes later I discovered that what the Northwest employee did was to write the code on the boarding pass that selects you for special screening. 

    I really didn’t mind the special screening; I had plenty of time.  But the lie from the Northwest employee still grates.

    Posted by  on  11/17  at  11:42 AM
  8. Ah, Children’s Crystal Meth. Such memories. I used to love the wild-cherry flavor.

    Posted by  on  11/17  at  12:31 PM
  9. Fardels, I do travel light.  Really, really light.  After 2004’s amazing string of four consecutive late-baggage arrivals (about which I blogged at the time), I stopped using a garment bag and began packing even my nicest suits in a small carry-on.  (They don’t emerge any more wrinkled than they did from the garment bag.)

    I have to travel a bit heavier with Jamie, though.  On the plus side, he’s so much better at going through security than he was even three years ago, and in Harrisburg last month he even waited patiently for me after putting on his shoes while I fumbled for my dang boarding pass.

    Sherman, you’re right that it’s my fault for shaving.  But as for the solid Sudafed—Jamie won’t take it.  He’s scared of pills.  Though we did manage to convince him to take an ibuprofen the other week—a breakthrough of sorts.

    Posted by Michael  on  11/17  at  01:16 PM
  10. Perhaps they were concerned about this:
    Sudafed Bomb Threat, Student blames cold medicine for bomb threats.

    For some reason the only Internet trace of this Pennsylvania incident is on a University of Nebraska website. Discovering the network is left as an exercise for the reader.

    Posted by  on  11/17  at  01:36 PM
  11. I wonder if the pressure change in the baggage compartment is enough to displace the lid on the medicine?  I’ve had bags of chips explode even in the main cabin.

    Posted by Pinko Punko  on  11/17  at  01:36 PM
  12. I wondered about that too, Pinko, after discovering the mess the first time around.  Also, Jamie found to his distress that the Pilot Precise V5 pens he and I like to use tend to leak at 30,000 feet.  But the lid on the Triaminic was just fine both times—and, even weirder, someone had placed the 30 ml plastic cup on top of the badly-secured lid of the Sudafed.  Pressure change alone wouldn’t do that, I don’t think.

    Posted by Michael  on  11/17  at  02:08 PM
  13. Under the “dog bites man” theory, I see no reason for this post. Is it news to learn that TSA employees are unable to operate a childproof cap?

    Posted by Dr. Drang  on  11/17  at  02:12 PM
  14. Wait, I thought only good Conservative Real Americans(tm) “allowed” kids with Down’s Syndrome to be born.  If people traveling with their DS kids can be suspected of anything other than aspirations to high public office and down-home small town goodness, well gosh darn it, I just don’t know what to think anymore!

    It’s not the Sudafed bottle that turned over - it’s the world turned upside down.


    Posted by  on  11/17  at  02:19 PM
  15. They have opened our children’s benadryl and left it open more than once.  Nothing else is left open so it isn’t the pressure.  One time it was closed, but a lot was gone.....  Threw that one out too.

    Of course that doesn’t compare with the stolen kids DVDs (long trips with a kid do require checked bags).  Or that gosh darn funny time the screener opened my father’s medications (and as a person with someone else’s major organ, he has a lot) and managed to spill them all over the floor.  We all had to stand and watch as he was berated for wanting to carry them on (which he has to do) and we weren’t even allowed to help pick anything up as they were “doing a search.”

    I look forward to more fun along these lines in the near future.

    Posted by  on  11/17  at  02:24 PM
  16. Under the “dog bites man” theory, I see no reason for this post. Is it news to learn that TSA employees are unable to operate a childproof cap?

    Well, Dr. Drang, this isn’t a news blog.  It’s a—um, I’m not sure what kind of blog it is.  Besides, some “dog bites man” essays are pretty damn good.

    Posted by Michael  on  11/17  at  02:35 PM
  17. I don’t know what this country is coming to.  I usually travel with a big old bowl of banana pudding in my luggage, and last time I flew I arrived at my destination to discover that all the nilla wafers had disappeared from my pudding, including the crumbs!

    It was suggested to me that they might have dissolved, but I know better.  Oh yes.

    Posted by  on  11/17  at  03:03 PM
  18. Michael,

    For our children, who were reluctant to take pills as well, we would pulverize them and put them in applesauce. This of course creates the obvious issue of getting both the applesauce and the pill grinder through airport security but may be of use to you on the home front.


    Posted by  on  11/17  at  03:30 PM
  19. Well, if the TSA is eating thepuppethead’s Nilla wafers, Elliot, I don’t see how I can sneak a bowl of yummy applesauce through security.

    Posted by Michael  on  11/17  at  04:27 PM
  20. JP is onto something.  My first thought was that you’re clearly running a meth lab in Nebraska, and just trying to throw the authorities off the scent.

    Posted by  on  11/17  at  07:37 PM
  21. Michael, this post is an excellent example of a new literary genre: the anecdotal airline complaint letter! Coincidentally, I’m in the middle of reading Jonathan Miles’ letter-novel, Dear American Airlines--so far, as amusing as your post (though more focused on vodka and regret and less on electric shavers and sudafed).

    [Richard Russo reviews it at http://www.nytimes.com/2008/06/01/books/review/Russo-t.html?ref=books]

    Posted by  on  11/17  at  07:58 PM
  22. You can only be relieved the agent was not one Pythias Brown.  That said, it may just be a simple case of some poor old sod needing the alcohol rush to get through his next shift, plus the slightly upper effects of the faux crank. 

    As i travel extensively i have learned a few necessary steps to avoid the persistent assaults by our national security forces.  I pack shoes in plastic bags, and make sure i wear only shoes that have been used on carpets in homes and offices. I do this because i have been super-screened more than once for wearing shoes that i have worn on stages where we use pyrotechnics (thus setting off all their sniffers).  I now place all my vitamins and medications in clear baggies, in clear baggies, in clear baggies.  At least when they go through those, i can tell quickly enough to avoid any messes.  I have special net bags for various pointy metal objects, and idiot proof pouches for my liquids so that even the laziest, least-educated among them can minimize the mess they make. 

    It is a sad commentary, that i also ship a great deal of material using overnight FedEx and UPS, just to avoid the airport hassles these days. Captcha is “further” as in the bus that made travel so easy and fun back in the day.

    Posted by  on  11/17  at  08:10 PM
  23. I have a mantra that I use when going through airport security lines:  I utter (quietly) the phrase, “humiliation ritual.” Keeps me centered, but not grounded.

    Posted by  on  11/17  at  09:53 PM
  24. Yes, I too have succumbed to the tempting ads in the UPS stores: Flying? We’ll ship your bags. Cheaper and safer.

    Posted by The Ridger  on  11/17  at  10:51 PM
  25. It is a sad state of affairs when our children’s medicines and our dessert items aren’t safe and snug and secure in our portmanteaus! 


    In either case, I demand satisfaction.  I demand the right to an attorney, even! 

    You know, if this is the work of a rogue agent it ought to be pretty easy to find the person.  All we have to do is find the one with the bright purple lips and the pudding stained jumper!

    Posted by  on  11/18  at  12:20 AM
  26. I carry all dubious liquids in my backpack that come under the 3 oz limit. I clip all the bags together so I can quickly take them out and throw them in the basket for screening.
    Clothes get checked on.
    This means, of course, that my suitcase always gets rummaged through anyway. But usually there’s nothing in it that careless people can ruin.

    Posted by Hattie  on  11/18  at  01:13 AM
  27. Applesauce is often an item at “salad bars” (hint hint)


    Posted by  on  11/18  at  03:45 AM
  28. For our children, who were reluctant to take pills as well, we would pulverize them and put them in applesauce.

    A little harsh, don’t you think? I suspect simply giving them a direct order would work as well.

    Posted by Chris Clarke  on  11/18  at  05:09 AM
  29. Trial by apple sauce replaced trial by combat in 1645, so it’s not harsh.

    Posted by  on  11/18  at  06:18 AM
  30. I can’t believe we have a comment by Chris Clarke followed by a comment that begins with the word “trial.” Didn’t you all get enough of this two years ago?

    But mmmmmmm . . . trial by applesauce.  I’ll bring the cinnamon.

    Posted by Michael  on  11/18  at  08:51 AM
  31. ’Pilot’ pens not working in aeroplanes? Surely a referral to the Dep’t of Irony is in order.

    Posted by s'dog  on  11/18  at  12:40 PM
  32. Chris, We should form a little company..."Thread Killers LTD”. I’ll do the setup and you come in for the kill. Just need to figure out the revenue model.


    Posted by  on  11/18  at  02:53 PM
  33. Oh, I think they’d pay you good money over at Pandagon for some timely and judicious thread-killing.

    Posted by  on  11/18  at  03:23 PM
  34. Oh, I think they’d pay you good money over at Pandagon for some timely and judicious thread-killing

    I’m not sure whether I think that idea is bizarre or super, man.

    (Though the timing couldn’t be better,as I just put up a lugubrious post about You Know Who.)

    Posted by Chris Clarke  on  11/18  at  03:45 PM
  35. My preteen years in Alaska were marked by several yearly battles with viral congestion and post-nasal drip, which would often progress to a full-blown case of strep throat.

    I still remember that first doctor’s visit which finally yielded a prescription for pseudoephedrine, at about age 12: it was a bloody miracle drug, and those recurrent bouts with more severe secondary infections were history from then on.

    To this day, straight pseudoephedrine is my one and only drug of choice for any sniffly conditions-- those “mutli-symptom” cold remedies are over-formulated snake oil.  Too bad that the meth-heads have ruined it for us all here in Oregon.

    I recently returned from Africa via Amsterdam and was kicking myself for not remembering to pick up several years’ supply of Sudafed in transit… but given Michael’s account here, that may have been for the best. 

    Do the airline screening crews have some sort of electrochemical pseudoephedrine detectors?

    Posted by  on  11/18  at  05:32 PM
  36. Chris,

    Just let me know when and where to post some seemingly innocuous comment that you will grammatically shred and divert to a completely different topic. But let’s make sure we get the money up front.


    Posted by  on  11/18  at  05:54 PM
  37. Turns out you should have put the sudafed into a hollowed-out Swiss Army Knife.

    Posted by  on  11/18  at  06:46 PM
  38. Michael, I can’t speak to the medicine issue, but don’t put your keys in your checked luggage!  What if it’s lost?  Put them in a pocket of a carry-on.  (In my case the same one into which I hastily empty the change from my pockets when I suddenly remember while standing in the security line that I have to get that off my person too.) If the TSA winds up hand-searching your carry-on, at least you can be there watching as they do it.

    Posted by  on  11/19  at  04:25 AM
  39. I have to admit, LAX security is one place where I take shameless advantage of agents’ assumptions/fears about my son’s “special needs”.  We pack a cooler bag in his carry-on full of his necessities, including formulas and medicines (not just prescription seizure meds, but liquid tylenol, probably even sudafed sometimes).  Truth is, if it looks sufficiently medical, and they see a different-looking kid in a wheelchair, they’ll let pretty much anything through.  (It helps to pull my best “don’t you add one more hassle to my day” face--thus taking advantage of their assumptions about harried mothers, too.)

    Posted by Penny  on  11/19  at  10:52 AM
  40. Recently I traveled with an expired driver’s license (oops!).  On the outward bound trip, the cheerful TSA license-checker person said “Hey, your license is expired, you better replace it soon, but don’t worry, our policy is that it’s still good for a year from the expiration date”

    Tests have shown that most Americans retain their identity for at least 18 months after their driving licenses expire - after that, however, their identities change rapidly and randomly. In the most high-profile recent example, Gov. Janet Napolitano of Arizona spent three months being Dennis Rodman.

    Posted by  on  11/25  at  10:53 AM
  41. Trial by apple sauce replaced trial by combat in 1645, so it’s not harsh.

    Posted by rock  on  07/29  at  01:44 PM
  42. Yes, I too have succumbed to the tempting ads in the UPS stores: Flying? We’ll ship your bags. Cheaper and safer.

    Posted by Dizi izle  on  09/11  at  02:11 PM
  43. Michael, I can’t speak to the medicine issue, but on’t put your keys in your check wow Tests have shown that most Americans retain their identity for at least 18 months after their driving

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  50. one (see above), but also because my son, Jamie, has a nasty runny nose and needed to travel with Triaminic and Sudafed.  And again, I understand that

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