Pockets empty, shoes and sweaters off, laptop in the bucket, no liquids — passing through airport security in the United States has become almost as routine as untying and tying your shoes — which is usually the extent of any hardship at U.S. security checkpoints.
Although we may know what airport security rules to expect in the U.S., it can be a whole different ballgame in Europe. On a return trip from Germany on Labor Day weekend, a full plane of passengers on US Airways flight 707 from Munich to Philadelphia found out the hard way — and six times over — that bumrushing security on U.S.-bound trans-Atlantic flights is a fool's game, and you'd best leave it be.
I count myself in that number. Granted, I was trying to board US Airways' Munich-Philadelphia direct flight, which departs late some 65 percent of the time, and we were a day away from a major terrorist arrest in the northern German town of Frankfurt. But after some inquiry I learned that my experience was not exceptional, if not quite the norm. It was an object lesson in how security abroad, particularly in Europe, can be considerably more stringent than in the U.S. — home to Homeland Security and the Transportation Security Administration, and what many natives assume is the birthplace of airport security. It turns out that Europe has been at this much longer than the United States and often takes it much more seriously, and you will definitely notice the differences.
Give yourself time — you'll need it
Six years from the establishment of the TSA in November 2001, many U.S. travelers now push the limits of the recommended two-hour allowance to get to their gates. Sure, we were on our best behavior for a few years, but particularly this past hellish summer at the airport, it was almost expected that someone would try somehow to cut lines all the way through the airport "because my plane leaves in 20 minutes." These days, folks once again arrive at the airport 60 minutes before their flight, and then make it everyone else's problem on the way to the gate.
Had you tried this in Munich last Monday morning, you might still be in Munich today. At check-in for my 12:30 p.m. flight, I got in one of two lines of nine people each at 10:20 a.m. The process included a pre-check-in security shakedown at the entrance to the check-in lines run by two people with laptops without a mouse — they were fingerpadding their way through an entire airplane check-in as six gate agents waited behind them. Talk about a bottleneck.
Once the majority of us got through the bottleneck, four of the six bag check agents disappeared, so now there were once again two people checking all of us in. I completed check-in at 11:32 a.m. It took US Airways over an hour to check in 18 people!
Why? Well, it's US Airways' Munich flight for one, but this is not necessarily unusual when flying an American airline in some overseas airports. Whereas US Airways' Philadelphia hub has relatively abundant check-in kiosks and counters, Munich has five or six counters, only two or three of which may be open when you're trying to check in. The lesson: Don't assume that because your airline is a giant at home you'll find the same abundance of services abroad.
Secure times six
Subsequently I passed through security, which was fairly straightforward, with a few significant differences. These go to the heart of the reason you need to prepare differently overseas.
- The main security gates functioned more like a customs inspection; instead of the swarm of people loading bags onto conveyor belts, we were asked to stand behind a line and approach one at a time only after given permission.
- A security agent then explained how each bag should be put on the conveyor, making for some slow going.
- I was instructed not to remove my boots or belt, and the metal detector was triggered when I walked through.
- Of course, the clasps on the boots and belt were the culprit; the agent asked me to remove them and sent them through the X-ray machine alone, and then subjected the boots to a full explosives test.
- I was given a brusque wand inspection that would have prompted outcries for lawsuits in our litigious country; you wouldn't need a massage after this.
- Subsequently, my laptop and camera bag were thoroughly rifled by two inspectors, including an explosives test. This took another three or four minutes.
If that seems fairly normal if just a bit aggressive, hang on; a couple hundred meters on was another boarding pass checkpoint. That's four checkpoints so far. Finally, just before the gates, was yet another stop — a full-blown boarding pass and security checkpoint, complete with yet another X-ray machine, conveyor belt, patdown, boots inspection, laptop bag rifling including turning on the cameras and taking photos — that is, the same thing that makes up pretty much the entire U.S. security experience, but here for the second time in one morning!
Hold on, we're not there yet. Propped up in the middle of the gate seating area was another checkpoint where they were checking boarding passes and passports. You'd think that by this time this would all be sorted, but somehow there were extensive issues at this checkpoint as well. I'd been through so much that morning already that I didn't care to hang around to find out what was going on; no idea what this was about.
So that's three security checks and three flight papers checks, all routine on US Airways' flight 707 from Munich. And finally, there was the gate itself — where my boarding pass was finally taken by the gate agent and I was allowed to walk down the gangway onto the completely full plane.
So by the time I made it onto the plane, I had passed through seven checkpoints:
- US Airways passenger profile shakedown
- US Airways baggage check and boarding pass issuance
- Munich airport general security checkpoint
- Random boarding pass checkpoint
- Full-strength pre-gate security and boarding pass checkpoint
- Inscrutable boarding pass checkpoint
- Gate boarding pass handover
Try doing all that in 60 minutes.
Something else to anticipate, which may have both a procedural and cultural cause: Inquiries at the security checkpoint may be more pointed and/or personal than most Americans are used to. You'll want to be listening and to answer straight. Some examples I overheard while in line:
Did you pack your bags yourself? At what time? Where were you when you packed them? What hotel did you stay in? Why were you here only three days? Where did you visit? Where is your family? Do you have a weapon with you?
This is more like the series of questions you encounter at customs, not at check-in. It's certainly nothing like the standard mumble and grumble routine typical of a U.S. airport.
Expect at least two security checkpoints
While my Munich experience may have been extreme, you can routinely expect to encounter two security checkpoints when flying home from Europe. This is due to the fact that many airports do security checks for international flights at the individual gates. Thus, you pass through one checkpoint to enter into the broader gate areas, then another to enter your specific gate area. If you are connecting through another European city, expect to encounter at least one security point at each airport. You may not have to pass a final gate check when flying from one European airport to another, but ultimately you will when you board your flight back to the U.S.
Note also that the European Union has pretty much banned bringing drinks on planes. Shortly after the second security checkpoint, but before the final "do over," I bought a bottle of water at a duty-free shop. The counter person said, "You'll have to finish that before boarding the plane."
Huh? In the U.S., it's pretty much accepted that anything you buy on the gate side of security is OK to take on the plane; this is not always so in Europe. With a second security checkpoint, you're not getting that half-finished bottle of water onto the plane. So when I got to the next X-ray machine, I downed the water and tossed it in the bins marked "containers here." At least it was all pretty clear.
Tips to take away
- Give yourself plenty of time. This seems like tired advice, but in this case you'll not want to take it lightly. Think about it — what if you had to go through security twice at every U.S. airport? I arrived 2 hours and 15 minutes before my flight, and stopped only to buy some water, but I spent only about 10 minutes at the gate before boarding. The "standard" two hours may be enough, but just barely.
- Don't assume that a U.S. airline will have abundant staff at international airports. They may have far less resources and staff than at domestic airports where they do a lot more business.
- Check ahead, whether online or with your airline, that your reservation is in good stead. You won't want any confusion when you arrive at the airport.
- Have your papers ready. Those folks who were rummaging around for boarding passes and passports not only slowed themselves down, but also seemed to invite greater scrutiny — and attracted whole groups of staff people while they sorted things out as the process came to a standstill.
- Don't be surprised by very pointed questions. Try to answer them as directly and honestly as possible.
- Expect at least two security checkpoints, and behave accordingly until you are about to board your plane. This may mean leaving your change, keys and the like in your carry-on bag for the duration of your time in the airport, so you won't have to empty your pockets all over again. Also, you'll want to avoid arriving at checkpoints loaded up with food and drink, because you may have to discard them.
- For more, see Know Before You Go: Airport Security Q&A. (Note that I did find the EU pages linked on page two not to be entirely consistent with my airport experience; you'll want to err on the conservative side.)
Your millstone may vary
All that said, my slog though the Munich airport was mostly run-of-the-mill drudgery, and not anything that could ruin a trip. I don't want to imply that flying in Europe is a major hassle — my experience was conjured by a perfect storm of a perpetually late and understaffed US Airways flight during a high security alert in a tightly controlled airport. However, you will clearly not want to arrive at the airport late hoping to cajole, cut and parachute your way onto your trans-Atlantic flight. If you're smart, you'll sacrifice the last hour of your trip to make sure you're not stuck at the airport — on the wrong side of the conveyor belt.
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