An unwanted airport security experience

My turn

Posted: Wednesday, May 30, 2001

As a professional photographer, I often travel through Juneau's International Airport.

Having just returned from photographing a large group of school kids in Valdez, I must report a problem concerning the behavior of Juneau security personnel.

Before my trip, in an attempt to avoid difficulty, I went to the airport two hours before the scheduled flight and requested a private inspection for my camera. The entire reason for private inspection was to prevent any long delays for other passengers and not to damage my unique gear. Also, when going through the regular security check at the Juneau airport, the screening attendants often inspect your items with their backs toward you. You cannot see what they are doing.

Given the frequently crowded and stressful conditions that exist at airports today, arriving early and asking for a private inspection can certainly be a way to ease a long day of travel.

I was led to the "police station" in the terminal. This quiet and secure area is where private issues should be resolved.

A uniformed guard then told me to put the camera case on the edge of a table, unlock it and stand back so a screening attendant could search through my equipment.

I immediately protested this action because my very rare and fragile panoramic camera is nearly 100 years old and needs special handling. After all, the idea of a private inspection is to work with security personnel so unusual problems can be resolved.

I am always willing to show every nut, bolt, screw and tiniest detail of the apparatus to inspectors, but any incorrect handling could cause the camera to malfunction later. I don't want to find myself in front of a thousand people and not have the camera work.

Right away, the security guard became huffy and rude while saying only they were to touch the camera during the inspection. I could not even remove the camera from the case and open it for him. He threatened to call the Juneau police if I continued to argue his methods.

I refused to let the guard pull my camera from the case by the original handle. I told him that most of the remaining antique panoramic cameras have broken or missing handles because the old leather is too fragile to use. I felt that I should properly open the camera. Having carried this exact equipment through many U.S. and foreign airport security checks, I have never been told that I couldn't personally handle my equipment during a private inspection. The guard didn't even try to be patient and listen to what I was saying. He simply picked up the phone and called for the police.

Then the screening attendant returned with his supervisor. That supervisor and I had the exact same arguments the last time I requested a private inspection. But now he was on his lunch hour and wanted to finish eating. However, remembering the camera, he stated that he would work with me in doing the inspection. From then on life was somewhat easier. I handled the camera. I opened it every way he wanted. Meanwhile, the first guard called the Juneau police station to cancel his request for backup. It was still a very tense time.

OK, I got through this time, but what would have happened if the supervisor weren't at the airport having lunch? The Juneau airport authorities are way out of line. I left the inspection feeling like I had been treated as a hardened criminal. My day was ruined.

On the other hand, I found the Anchorage airport guards to be very polite, not rushed and willing to listen. I told them after the conventional X-ray exam that if they needed to see inside we might need a private inspection to protect the camera.

"Not needed," they said.

They have a special machine for processing fragile items in which a small towel is rubbed over the case of the object. They can tell if dangerous material is or has ever been inside the case without even opening it. The same type of machine is at the Juneau airport.

After the Anchorage inspection, I volunteered to show one of the guards my unique camera as he expressed a curiosity about it. He was very happy that I was willing to take a few minutes and show him how it works.

I am under the impression that airport personnel are trained to be courteous.

Why can't our local officials be this way?

Ronald Klein is a photographer who has lived in Juneau for many years.

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