Given how stressed we all get with air travel these days, it’s easier than ever for travelers — even well-mannered ones — to do or say something that lands them in hot water at the airport. But sometimes a mishap or a meltdown can boil over into a potential or actual federal offense. So it’s a good idea to know where the lines are drawn.
I almost learned that lesson the hard way.
Are you from ACME?
Not long after 9/11, I got darn close to triggering an evacuation at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA).
I’m still a bit embarrassed, but here’s what happened: Distracted while doing some pre-security shopping, I left my rolling suitcase behind. A few stores later, I realized something was missing. That’s when witnesses saw me jump up, spin around mid-air and race away with my legs whirring like the Roadrunner in a Looney Tunes episode.
I screeched to a stop in front of a police officer who was seconds away from calling in a federal agency and its bomb-sniffing dogs. The officer informed me that only my cartoon-like dash down the hallway stood between me and “really bad trouble.”
My Roadrunner imitation no doubt landed me on a “wacky-traveler bloopers” reel, but at least I didn’t land in jail.
Where you misbehave matters
A few seconds really saved me at DCA. But airport police and security officials tell me that sometimes rear ends get saved by a few feet. Or a few yards. That’s because where a traveler “misbehaves” at an airport can make a difference between a stern lecture and a night in the pokey.
Get abusive or argumentative with an airline ticket agent out in the lobby and an airport police officer may take you aside and try to calm you down, said Paul Mason, the police chief at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport (STL) and president of the Airport Law Enforcement Agencies Network (ALEAN). “People get themselves into situations because the airport experience puts them in a stressful situation. Maybe they’re someone who doesn’t fly a lot and being at the airport makes them stressed and frustrated. That’s when we get called in.”
Mason said the same thing might happen if you get into a shouting match with your travel partner or a stranger in the baggage claim area or in an airport bar. Or, he says, if you act suspicious or act out at a security checkpoint. “Someone [travelers] may think they’ve divested themselves of metal but then they set off the machines and have to go through a second screening. They may get caustic with a screener and say things that are inappropriate. Airport law enforcement also responds to those incidents.”
What well-mannered travelers need to keep in mind is that, in general, the stakes skyrocket once you get to and through the security checkpoints. According to TSA spokesperson Lara Uselding, if you become uncooperative, argumentative or physically threatening at the checkpoint, you shouldn't be surprised if a TSA worker calls over a supervisor, who may then call in airport law enforcement. And don’t be surprised (but go ahead and get alarmed) if the airport police call in the FBI. If that happens, it’s very possible the phrase “federal violation” may enter the conversation.
“You have to recognize that your actions and the items you’re carrying are taken very seriously when you’re transitioning from the non-sterile area of the airport to the sterile, secure side of an airport,” said Greg Alter, a spokesperson for the Federal Air Marshal Service.
Where else can you go wrong?
We’ve probably all seen travelers who make their way calmly through the security checkpoint only to lose their temper at the gate, where they take out their frustrations on a gate agent. “Events can turn really sour at that point,” said Lydia Kellogg, of the Public Safety and Security for Airports Council International-North America. “This is now the area where the airline may determine that the individual is unfit to fly and may summon a law enforcement officer to be on hand and detain the individual if they become a threat.”
And of course, once you get on the plane and the doors close, manners really matter. “In most cases,” said FAA's Alter, “once a U.S. air carrier's aircraft door is closed, it is deemed to be in-flight and is subject to ‘special aircraft jurisdiction’ of the United States.” Alter says that means criminal offenses that occur on the plane — pretty much any actions that prevent airline crew members from doing their jobs — will get a traveler turned over to U.S. authorities with jurisdiction over federal offenses.
That’s sounds like “really bad trouble” for sure.
Advice from the experts
Of course, none of this is to say that the folks who work for airlines, airports, or local, state or federal law enforcement agencies always get it right. But as Lt. Rob Settembre with the airport police bureau at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport pointed out, “Good manners are good manners. Going to an airport can be like going to a wedding or out to nightclub. You need to use common sense and common courtesy when you’re dealing with people and treat them like you’d like to be treated.”
To that, Alan Black, director of public safety at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, added, “Traveling is stressful and can bring things out in us that wouldn’t happen in ‘normal’ situations.” Black advises travelers to “remember that your trip begins at the airport,” where “if it can happen it probably will. So you have to mentally prepare yourself to roll with unforeseen circumstance and things that are outside your control.”
And in a special note of caution, Black added, “Be sure to maintain awareness of your luggage so it doesn’t become something we have to go check.”
Do you think Black has a copy of that “wacky traveler bloopers” reel?
Harriet Baskas writes msnbc.com's popular weekly column, The Well-Mannered Traveler. She is the author of the , a contributor to National Public Radio and a columnist for USATODAY.com.