Friday, November 18, 2011

Tales of Airport Security

In December of 2004, returning from my only visit to Antarctica, I was about to fly from the Patagonian city of Río Gallegos to Buenos Aires, three hours to the north.  Boarding pass in hand, I headed to security at this relatively small airport only to find nobody to check my documents and nobody manning the X-ray machine. At the gate, there was nobody to collect my pass and, until I climbed aboard the Aerolíneas Argentinas jet, nobody even to ask. Fortunately, the flight went on with no further glitches – perhaps a nostalgic reminder of commercial aviation’s gentility in the days before the Miami-Havana hijackings of the 1960s.
Argentine airline security has apparently improved since then; in fact, it appears to be better, and more efficient, than in the United States. According to the Buenos Aires Herald, security at the capital’s Aeropuerto Internacional Ministro Pistarini (pictured above) apprehended Houston resident Steven Lee Burditt about to board a Continental Airlines flight back to Texas - with a loaded Colt .380 and two clips of ammunition in his carry-on baggage.

Burditt claims that he had forgotten the weapon in a secret compartment before boarding his southbound flight from Houston. If he's telling the truth, that means the so-called Transportation Security Administration flat out missed it when they scanned his bag at George Bush Intercontinental Airport. According to a Houston news source, Burditt is no longer in custody, but must remain in Argentina while a judge investigates the case.
In reality, the Southern Cone countries manage to have effective airport security without indulging in the TSA’s heavy-handed ineptitude. Once, as I boarded a flight at Puerto Montt's Aeropuerto El Tepual (pictured above), Chilean security detected a Swiss Army knife in my carry-on and, instead of confiscation and a stern lecture, LanChile simply told me I could recover the item in question at their baggage counter at my destination of Coyhaique. Did I mention that this was in pre-9/11 days? Even then, Chilean oversight was better, but more reasonably administered.

The Falkland Islands, perhaps, display the extremes in security. Their Mount Pleasant International Airport (pictured above) is also a military base, built after Britain defeated Argentina in the 1982 South Atlantic War; security is ineffably polite, but extremely strict. On the other hand, at Stanley Airport (pictured below), the Falkland Islands Government Air Service (FIGAS) will check nothing other than your weight – because the pilot has to seat the passengers for the best possible balance in their ten-seater Britten-Norman Islander aircraft.

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