The Time US Customs Found Nitroglycerine on My Cell Phone

I love Americans and I love visiting the US. The people are friendly, talkative and (mostly) clever, and they love Australians, so why shouldn’t I love them back?! There’s just one problem- and that’s that American airline companies and airport security don’t love me. At all.

I once boarded a Delta flight in Europe that was flying to Portland, Oregon, where I was living at the time, via Vancouver Canada. They only had automated check-in available, so I swiped my passport in the machine, selected my flight, and out popped a boarding pass for Margaret Oliver.

Now forgive me if you’ve read this website before, but that’s not my name. For one thing, I don’t even have the required reproductive organs to have a name like that, because I’m a man. My name is Matt. Looking down the row of check-in machines, I spotted an elderly lady looking confused. Sure enough, her name was Margaret and she had my boarding pass. How on earth something like that is possible I don’t know, and I thought “Oh boy- I bet this gets interesting later”.

It did. When I arrived in Vancouver, and went to the US part of the airport, where you can effectively take “domestic” flights to the USA, the immigration official scanned my passport and my boarding card and looked at me quizzically. “Did you ever have a name ‘Justin'”? he asked. Bummer. “Margaret” would have been easier to dismiss.
“No,” I replied, and told him the story of the strange check-in experience.
“Are you travelling with anyone called Justin?”
“No, it’s just me. My name is Matthew. It says right there on my boarding pass and my passport.”
“Well your boarding pass is scanning up with a different name.”
“Well I don’t know why that is.”
“Could you come with me please?” and despite my protestations, he led me into the door behind security that you never want to end up in. It’s a door for bad men.

Confiscated Toothpaste airport security check
“Sir… step this way, please”

Inside waiting around were a few guys that looked as though they could be international criminals. The badass looking security man behind the counter again asked me if I knew anyone called Justin. Again, I told him the story.
“Could you take a seat please,” he motioned for me to sit next to the bad men.
“I’ve got a flight to Portland leaving in half an hour,” I said.
“Take a seat please sir,” was the stony rejoinder. One of the bad men looked at me funny.

Now I would almost say that these fellas took pleasure in knowing that they were going to make me miss my flight and mess my day up. I don’t know what they were doing behind that security counter, but it sure as hell didn’t look like they were doing anything about my situation. The guy that had spoken to me even left work for the day. “So long Bob!” said his colleague, slapping him on the back. “Watch that traffic!”
“Wait!” I said. “What about my flight that I’m about to miss?”
“Oh,” said Bob. “This guy will look after you.”
“Is your name Justin?” asked the new guy.
“NO,” I said emphatically for the tenth time, “I know nobody called Justin. I’m travelling alone. Either your machines or Delta’s machines have screwed up.”
“Ok, you’re free to go.”

Wow. I couldn’t believe it. I ran down an empty corridor towards my gate. It was right on the departure time- could they still have waited? Running towards me was a rotund security guard. “Are you Matthew Edwards?” he asked, out of breath. He’d apparently been running some distance.
“Yes?” I said warily.
“Well hey! The plane’s waitin’ for you! Come on!” he said with a friendly smile.

“Hi! We were worried about you!” said the friendly purser as I got on the small Turboprop. All the passengers even seemed happy to see me. Then I remembered how friendly Americans are normally. It’s some members of the airport community that’re the problem. I mean I understand they’ve got an important job to do. But do they have to be such jerks about it?

A case in point is the time that US customs found nitroglycerine on my cell phone.

First some background. I was living in Delaware (where? teehee), making solar cells in a lab at the Uni of Delaware. And now I was taking a trip to Brazil with two surfboards on United Airlines, flying out of Philadelphia.

“Oh, you gon’ pay for dat,” said the unfriendly guy at check in, pointing to my surfboard bag.
“I’m usually allowed to check it for free,” I said hopefully.
“Aw hell no,” said the guy with malice shaking his head. “You gon’ pay for dat.”
I resisted the urge to ask if he was spanked a lot as a child, and another unfriendly woman with enormous breasts proceeded to look inside the bag and charge me excess baggage of $200. That’s $100 PER SURFBOARD, despite the fact they were both packed neatly in the same bag with fins removed and the second board didn’t take up any extra space. Never have I been charged so much to go on a surf trip. I could have bought a second-hand board in Brazil for that price! I resisted the urge to tell her that her breasts took up more space than my surfboards.

But it didn’t end there. I’d booked a ticket to Rio de Janeiro via Houston and São Paulo. As it turned out my GF was in São Paulo unexpectedly and she wanted me to get off there instead of Rio. I explained this to the unfriendly check in people.

“You need to buy a whole new ticket,” the woman with the bountiful bosom explained. “That’s a total of $2,500. Would you like me to go ahead and process that for you?”
“No, are you kidding?” I said. “There must be a way, all I want to do is unload my bag in São Paulo and get off the plane. Why should I have to pay for that? Can’t you put in a call to your manager and ask if I can just pay a change fee?”
“I can call the UNITED number for you, that’s all I can do,” she said.

So then I was on the phone with a computer. “Please say your reservation code,” it said.
“ADH7394,” I said in my Australian acccent.
“Did you say- QXY3421?” asked the computer in a nasally American accent.
“Shit! No!” I yelled, and this went on for another 20 minutes, until- about to miss my flight- I gave up and boarded the flight.

When I got to São Paulo, I went and spoke to one of the ground staff and explained my situation. I was surprised by his friendly response. “Hey man, no problem!” he said grinning. “I’ll get one of the guys to unload your bag!”

Yep, in Brazil, it was really that easy. He even shook my hand like I was his buddy or something. Haha, Brazilians. And I had an awesome surf trip in Brazil.

Walking down the hill toward Prainha, south of Rio
“My surfboards take up less space than your breasts, madam”

But on the way back to the US, I got myself in a further tangle. I decided that instead of flying back to Philly, I’d go and visit a friend in San Diego. Following that I was flying home to Australia. I could have just bought another ticket from Philly to San Diego, but that would’ve been super-inefficient. I thought I’d try my luck with United’s call-team.

“Instead of flying from São Paulo to Houston to Philly, I want to get off in Houston and purchase another flight to San Diego,” I explained, each second on the phone costing me a small fortune.
“Oh no,” the lady said unhelpfully, “you’ll have to purchase a whole new ticket São Paulo to Houston to do that.”
“But I just want to get out in Houston.”
“I’m sorry sir, you can’t.”
“Couldn’t I pay a change fee?”
“No sir. A new ticket will be $2,400, plus the cost of a ticket from Houston to San Diego. Would you like me to go ahead and process all that for you?”
“Let me get this straight,” I said. “I’m giving you advance notice of my intention to vacate my seat from Houston to Philly, which I have already paid for, and which you can now onsell to somebody else. And you have the hide to try and charge me $2,400 for doing that?”
“I can understand you’re upset sir,” she said impatiently, “Would you like me to go ahead and process that for you?”

I saw red. Screw United Airlines, I thought. So I kept the flight to Philly unchanged. In the US, there is a requirement to collect your bags at first point-of-entry and then re-check for your connecting flight. So when we landed at Houston, the first port-of-entry, I collected my bags and ripped the tags off them. Instead of re-checking them on United to Philly, I went to an American Airlines counter and bought a ticket on the first flight to San Diego. Then I sat in the departure hall and listed to United calling my name over the loudspeaker. Enjoy your empty seat to Philly, suckers.

Cool clouds somewhere over central Brazil
Travel- it ain’t all cloud 9. Cool clouds somewhere over central Brazil

I felt quite chuffed about this and had a great time in San Diego. But then I had to fly to Australia a few days later on, you guessed it, United. Uh-oh.

When I arrived back at San Diego airport and picked up my boarding pass to Sydney, there were letter ‘S’s all over it. S-S-S-S. Hmmm I thought, never seen that before. I wonder what ‘S’ stands for?

“You’ve been flagged as a potential security risk by the airline,” said the TSA official as I passed through security. “You need to follow me please.”

Nice play United Airlines, nice play. And the TSA guy led me to that door that you never want to go to in an airport, the door for bad men.

Inside, I was frisked vigorously and my bags searched. They took swabs of my gear and passed it through a machine to check for explosives.
“Where did you say you worked?” asked the official.
“University of Delaware, just for the past few months. I’m a solar cell researcher.”
The man frowned. “Do you do any kind of work with explosives?” he asked.
“Explosives? No.”

“Then why is there nitroglycerine on your cellphone?”

I was dumbfounded. This was even more unexpected than my Pachinko jackpot in Japan. In an incredulous instant, I wondered what else they did in that lab in Delaware. Was it possible that someone had explosive chemicals in the lab that had somehow got onto my phone? And then I remembered that solar cell labs never contain such chemicals, but they do contain other deadly chemicals such as hydrofluoric acid. I would therefore never, ever put down my personal effects anywhere in the lab in case there’d been a spill in the past- it’s just good practice.

“Your machine must be broken,” I said. “There’s no way there could be nitroglycerine on my cellphone.”

The guy eyed me like a skeptic. “Take a seat,” he motioned. There was a row of seats reserved for bad men, but this time I was the only bad guy. I was in for it, I thought. They’re going to arrest me.

45 minutes later, the official still hadn’t returned. There was only 30 minutes to go until my flight, so I asked a younger guy that was moseying about: “Excuse me, my flight is leaving in 30 minutes. Do you know when your supervisor will be returning?”
“Oh,” said the younger guy. “You’re free to go.”

Um- what? I didn’t stick around to argue, and 30 minutes later I was in the air over the Pacific, still reeling from this strange farewell from the USA. How could I have been accused me of something like that? Was their machine that inaccurate? Is it possible they were just trying to test me? To see what my reaction might have been at being accused of having explosive residue on my phone? Was that his idea of having a bit of fun or something?

Australia is a country which has always been close to the US, and I’m surprised at the treatment metered out to foreigners by those at the frontline of homeland security and airport service. I can only imagine how people from other countries get treated! I still love the US though and have been back many times without further drama. Well- mostly.

This article is dedicated to all the genuinely friendly staff members at the TSA and US airlines who are unfairly tarred by the reputation of their colleagues! Sorry guys. Peace and love to all.




Cover Art: Fragments of the Earth

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Matt Edwards

Australian solar power scientist travels the world for 15 years, takes photos, writes stuff, has toothpaste confiscated. I like adventures that involve art, history, science, music, technology and partying. Sometimes all at once...


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