What Part of “TSA Pre” Do You Not Understand?

Maybe it was the full moon last night.

The coming potential “historic winter storm” of January 2016 was en route to blanket the East coast with up to two feet of snow. I was just finishing up my first solo assignment with my new company, setting up an imaging and document system for a university just outside of Philadelphia. Yep, time to get out of Dodge. Or Philly, in this case. I had already consumed my requisite cheesesteak.

My flight on Southwest was at 7:35 Friday morning. As I enjoyed my final meal at Tokyo Bay at the King of Prussia food court Thursday evening, I grabbed my first opportunity to review my email messages on my phone.

Hello, this is Southwest Airlines. Your flight has been canceled.

Man, and this General Tso’s chicken was tasting so good. Well, time to hit the road and get to my hotel at the Philly airport so I can sort this out. My phone battery was fading fast, and I needed to get to a plug in. I couldn’t wait to use Southwest’s call-me-back feature, because my phone would be out of juice at that point.

Once I reached the hotel and called to get into the queue (35 minute wait) I called my wife and let her know what was going on. Cathy is wonderful at scheduling these travel arrangements, as she travelled extensively in her job for a while. She suggested looking at another airline, perhaps American, as they occupy four of the six terminals at Philadephia International Airport.

American’s queue was 37-51 minutes (amazing how they can predict these things with such pinpoint accuracy) so I was fairly certain I would be armed with Southwest’s response by the time American called back.

Hi, this is Southwest. We’re ceasing operations at Philadelphia airport at six PM Friday, all flights before that are full or cancelled, but we can get you out sometime on Sunday.

Well, that’s one option.

American had an attractive flight, reasonably priced, set to go out at 8:30 and get me back to Kansas City about 11. Running low on options, I booked it online.

Cathy called almost immediately. “Did you look at what you selected? That flight is at 8:30 PM!” Oops. See, I told you she was better at this than I was.

National had no car rentals available, denying me even the faint hope that I could drive north out of the coming blizzard to another city or even drive all the way back home.

When American called back, I was feeling pretty low. However, the agent explained that because of the weather crisis, they were waiving all of their change fees. She found a flight for me from Philly to Chicago to KC that left at 5 AM Friday morning. No extra charge. I jumped on it.

My hotel is literally at Terminal B at the Philly airport, so I could just cross the walkway and be at security. I found that the airport didn’t even open until 4 AM, so I had plenty of time to take the escalator down one level and print out my boarding passes.

TSA Pre was printed on the boarding passes.

My wife introduced me to TSA Pre when we started flying together more frequently. TSA Pre Screening allows you to walk through a simple metal detector rather than the I-see-everything X-ray cylinder, you can leave your laptop in its case, your CPAP in its bag, your shoes on, your belt in and your pants up. The belt really helps with that last bit.

As I confidently approached security, the agent said “I see you are TSA Pre. We don’t have enough staff to run two lines yet this early in the day, so you’ll have to go through the regular line. I’ll stamp you for expedited, though.”

With expedited I only had to liberate my laptop and CPAP, keeping my shoes and pants safe. That’s what I thought, until my goods were slow to come out of the X-ray belt, and a TSA worker emerged holding my CPAP machine gingerly, with a worried look on her face. Maybe people are healthier in Philly, and they’ve never seen a CPAP machine?

Then a business-like young TSA agent approached me and said, “Sir, I’m going to have to pat you down.” I know as a general practice that you make more flights if you fully cooperate with the TSA, even if they are behaving under the influence of a full moon.

I was subjected to the most intrusive pat down I have ever experienced. The shoes came off (inexplicably, the light jacket stayed on, even though I offered to remove it) and I was patted down and pressed over just about every part of my body. He examined the top edge/band of my pants inch by inch, all the way around. I guess they’ve not seen the trousers with the expandable waist before, either. After the search, he swabbed his gloves with a ticket (pre-tested to ensure it was not contaminated prior) and checked the ticket in his machine. It turns out I was not carrying anything explosive beyond the blog that was forming in my head.

I was actually bemused by the entire affair, as I knew I had plenty of time to make the flight. It was interesting watching an already short staff make the choice at four in the morning take this amount of time to make sure a polite 60-year old man with a CPAP machine and TSA Pre clearance was not a terrorist threat.

To be fair, I was flying on a one-way ticket. To be fairer, I imagine there were a LOT of people flying on one-way tickets this morning.

I wished the young man a good day and proceeded to the gate, and eventually made it back to Kansas City safely.

As I share this now, I can’t help but offer that TSA Pre might be a new oxymoron. It certainly felt that way under the full moon.

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