How I Practically Shut Down Sky Harbor Airport

By Jill E. Wolforth


This week I’ve got a real whopper for you. Last month I had the opportunity to travel with our son, Garrett, to Surprise, AZ where he was invited to participate in a Kansas City Royals workout in front of all their scouts, as a lead up to the season and ultimately the 2015 Amateur Draft.

It was a 2-day event with Saturday evening consisting of presentations by the various staff members from both scouting and player development, followed by some Q&A. Sunday morning was the workout. It was a very well organized event and a really great experience for the players.

We made our travel plays to ensure that we had plenty of time for Garrett to complete the workout, clean up and get to the airport. The workout actually got over a little earlier than we anticipated so we got back to Phoenix Sky Harbor a couple hours early. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise because what took place shortly after our arrival was a “You had to see it to believe it” experience.

Garrett & I checked in our bags and headed to security. It’s not unusual at Sky Harbor to have long security lines. On this day, there was NO line. Sweet! We walked right up to the security person, showed our boarding passes and ID and moved right through to the screening.

If you don’t fly frequently, there’s a special process called “Pre-check” that some travelers get allowing them to not have to remove computers from their bag or take off their shoes, belts etc. It speeds up the process of getting through screening. On this day, Garrett had “pre-check”. I, on the other hand, did not. So I went through my normal routine of taking my computer out of my bag, putting it in its own bin, removing my shoes, jacket and belt and putting them in another bin and finally putting my purse in one as well.

Garrett passed through first and when his backpack went through they said they needed to check his bag. Upon checking it, they said he needed to remove his computer. Remember, he was “pre-check”. They said they didn’t have a “pre-check” lane today.

It would have been nice to know and it just so happened that the same issue arose with the gentleman in front of Garrett. So, it’s not that anyone was told this at the beginning. Anyway, a small hiccup, but in hindsight a sure sign of poor management.

My bags followed Garrett’s. When my purse came through they pulled it out and asked the normal “Who does this belong to?” to which I raised my hand. It wasn’t the first time my purse had been stopped. When this occurs, they collect all your belongings and pull you over to a side table with one of their testing machines. After confirming to the gal there was nothing sharp or dangerous in my purse, I informed her that the issue was probably the bag of quarters in the bottom (you know, the quarters for baseball laundry. I forgot to take them out after summer travel ball was over). She searched my purse, found the quarters, then did the routine swab and ran it through the machine. Upon doing so, an alarm went off. Well, that’s the first time that had ever.

She had to call over her supervisor. He informed her that protocol required they must now check all my bags (although they already passed through the x-ray) and then run them all through the x-ray again. Ok, no big deal. We had plenty of time.

The TSA gal swabs my computer bag, runs it through a second machine and that alarm goes off. (A side note for reference, when the alarm on one of the scanning machines goes off, it apparently locks down that machine for a period of time while it reboots. Keep that information in your memory bank.) The supervisor once again comes out and this time says, “Just keep going” with the checking of my electronics which included two computers, an IPad and power cords.

She swabs my first computer, goes to a THIRD machine, and guess what, that alarm goes off. Up until this point, I’m intrigued by the process. We’re not in a rush and I’m a bit curious on how our government handles security at the airport. Now, I’m losing my interest quite quickly. All this while Garrett is waiting out on a bench and I’m not sure if he’s embarrassed, upset or angry, but it was definitely one based on his expression. When the supervisor shows up again, I say “Are you sure it’s not the person handling my stuff?” He didn’t seem to like that question.

They continued to swab my items, one by one, and in all I set off 6 or 7 alarms. I think there were only 7 machines. A couple things to remember, there is no “pre-check” so EVERYONE had to go through the regular scanning, removing computers, etc to get through security which has slowed thing down. Add to that I have shut down all but one of the machines so anyone that had to have their bags swabbed and checked now could not. This brought getting through security to a screeching halt. I heard one of the supervisors say through the intercom “Okay everyone, stay calm” to which I wanted to laugh.

He then came to me and said “We’ve had to call over the federal officer in charge of firearms to check out your things and he’s in the other terminal. It shouldn’t be too long”

He did inform me that the good news was the swab they took of “me” DIDN’T set off the alarm. Well, yeehaw. Yes, that was sarcasm.

Garrett said he heard one TSA person on the phone at one point saying, “She’s getting a little irritated.” You think?!

When the officer arrived, he read all the prints outs, looked through my things, pulled me over and said, “I’m going to let you go as I don’t see anything. Your items showed readings of gun powder and some other elements we view as dangerous but I don’t see anything. I’m not sure what to tell you other then clean everything with a gentle cleaning agent”. I don’t know about you but that’s a heck of an answer for what just took place.

The entire ordeal was right at an hour. I can only imagine what the security line looked like at that point.

So, here’s my big lesson – processes are good, systems are good but make sure you are constantly evaluating them. Something was wrong that day, whether it was the equipment, handling by personnel or something else.

The reason I truly believe this is that I personally have had nothing else like that occur in all the traveling I’ve done including overseas where many time security is even tighter. In addition, while I was “patiently” waiting I witnessed another man who was stopped, set off 4 alarms (mine had started to reboot). I asked him about it and he said he was a frequent traveler also and had never had anything like this happen. His situation started with a positive swab from his boots. He was “pre-check” so, he wore them through the screen. They showed up positive on the screen, were then swabbed and set off the alarm. Again, this tells me something was off. As a result, they ended up with a big mess, angry people, stressed staff and nonoperational equipment.

My question to you… is there a place in your systems or protocols, whether that be in business or baseball training that you’ve created an inefficient or ineffective process? First, do you know and second, if so, are you doing something about it or simple putting your head in the sand and ignoring it.

I did say to the original TSA gal that was checking my things, “Well, this is going to make great content for my next blog.” In hindsight perhaps, the moral of the story is, don’t carry bags of quarters in your purse.

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