The Brancatelli File



January 31, 2002 -- If you're looking to cancel a business trip, then the current security-screening process is a convenient and extremely persuasive excuse.

On any given day, for any particular flight, the security regimen at U.S. airports is every awful adjective you can think of: annoying, inconsistent, infuriating, time-consuming, onerous, ineffective, intrusive, demeaning, demoralizing, get the idea.

But if you have to travel, there's only one way to deal with security now. Grin, bear it, survive and take every damned precaution and use every damned shortcut you can devise.

The following suggestions, along with the first tranche of security strategies we discussed in October, may seem niggling. They are surely, in some cases, personally distasteful. After all, who wants to change how we dress or what we wear just to accommodate some arbitrary, and, probably, ineffective regulations?

But this, as Hyman Roth said in one of the Godfather movies, is the business we have chosen. And if we don't want our security screenings to last as long as a Godfather movie, we better know this stuff.

SHOE SMARTS    The legacy of Richard Reid, the American Airlines shoe bomber, is a new regimen of random shoe checks at the security checkpoint. Be smart: Wear slip-on shoes whenever your fly. You don't want to be hopping around, struggling with laces, while your $5,000 laptop computer goes sliding through the X-ray machine and down the belt. Anecdotally, travelers wearing shoes with chunky soles and heels report they are getting checked more frequently than the flyers shod in thin-soled dress shoes. That may be because security screeners seem convinced that it is easier to hide plastic explosives in fat, rubber-soled shoes.

TIME FOR PLASTIC    Travelers long ago figured out that wearing metal jewelry and clunky Rolex-type watches will set off the alarm at security. But now that the machines have been set to their ultra-sensitive settings, even watches with minimal bits of metal--casing, crowns and strap buckles, for example--are ringing the bells. The solution? Buy a cheap, plastic Swatch-type watch to wear while flying.

METAL MANIA    Travel with a trench coat? Better ditch it because the metal grommets on the belt now set off the alarms at security checkpoints. So will the metallic buttons on your favorite blazer, the metal zipper on your jacket, your metal belt buckles, and hair clips, bobby pins and metallic baubles of any kind. Even undergarments are ringing bells: Many women report their under-wire bras and socks with metallic threads have set off the alarms. Unless you want to spend endless minutes getting wanded, edit your wardrobe carefully and weed out any garments with metal before you fly. A Nixonian suggestion: Consider buying a respectable, Republican cloth coat with plastic buttons.

BAG IT ALL    Even the most fastidious traveler has pockets bulging with metal: coins and money clips; keys and key chains; pens and mechanical pencils; metal-framed glasses; metal tins of mint and even chewing gum with metallic wrappers. Not to mention the wireless phones, pagers and all the other pocket-sized gadgets we keep close to our hearts. You can shave precious minutes off your stop at the security checkpoint with a zip-lock sandwich bag. Rather than throw the detritus of daily life into those plastic containers one item at a time, stuff it all in a zip-lock bag before you go through security. Then just toss the bag in the container, go through the screening and grab the bag when it comes through the X-ray machine.

THE MEDICINE SHOW    Got one of those fancy pillboxes to store your medication? Or one of those day-by-day pill dispensers? Don't bring them on the road. Keep all medicines--over-the-counter drugs as well as prescriptions--in their original bottles. If you must travel with special paraphernalia--needles, EpiPens, etc.--check in advance with your airline and carry a readable doctor's note explaining your medical condition. Then expect to receive extra scrutiny anyway.

EXAMINE YOUR BAGS AGAIN    Business travelers have more pieces of luggage than we know what to do with. And, sometimes, we don't use a particular piece for weeks or months at a time. The problem: Bags we haven't used since before September 11 may be inadvertently hiding contraband. I've heard from dozens of travelers who've been pulled aside by security because a bag they pulled out of the closet was laden with stray cuticle scissors or a Swiss Army Knife. The moral of the tale: Carefully examine any bag you haven't used since September 11 before you pack it. Check the linings, the pockets, and all the nooks and crannies. You'd be surprised at what you'll find. And better you than a humorless security screener.

LIGHTEN YOUR LOAD    Ever since September 11, business travelers have been off-loading anything they can logically live without. But now even more drastic measures may be in order. Consider shipping your luggage rather than checking it or carrying it on. For example, you can ship with the overnight-delivery companies. Both FedEx and UPS allow you to estimate shipping costs based on weight, destination and delivery speed. Or, you can use a specialty luggage-delivery service such as SportsExpress.

HOTEL AS HOME    If you travel frequently to the same destination and you can use the same hotel on each visit, then there is another way to lighten your load: Ask you hotel to store your clothes. Many better hotels, especially the deluxe properties, already have established programs to clean and store a traveler's wardrobe between visits. But you can negotiate with virtually any property to provide the same service.

DON'T RUSH TO BOARD    Being first in line to board isn't necessarily a benefit anymore. It seems that "random" checks at the boarding gate are often not particularly random at the head of the line. First come, first searched, in fact. So, aim to be, say, third on line to board.

STERILITY AND STUPIDITY    Immediately after September 11, most business travelers were smart enough to move the newly deemed contraband items (scissors, corkscrews, Swiss Army Knives, Leatherman tools) out of their carry-on bags and into their checked luggage. Not good enough anymore. Some airlines are now making entire terminals "sterile"--Delta's Terminal 3 at New York/Kennedy, for example-and they are X-raying all bags before you enter the building. Of course, no airline has been gracious enough to tell you which terminals they deem sterile. So, unless you want luggage you're planning to check tossed for the contraband you moved out of your carry-on bag, gather these materials in one place. Put them in a zip-lock bag. If you're confronted with a sterile terminal, take the bag out of your luggage and hand it to the security screeners. They'll get it to the check-in counter for you, where you can put it back into the bag you're going to check. Stupid? Of course, but who said any of this security stuff makes any sense.

This column originally appeared at

Copyright 1993-2004 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.