Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Jetset: "Airport Security, Chinese Style"

The long lines, impatient staff and pointless procedures at an American airport security checkpoint these days may lead to the unthinkable: appreciation for the Chinese system. The drill: laptop out, jacket and shoes off, liquids and gels confiscated. And after all that – with numerous ID/boarding pass checks thrown in – the alarm still goes off after you walk through the finely tuned metal detector, triggering a brisk pat-down. Fortunately even the Americans have never enforced the now-discarded “one carry-on only” policy that the British did for a while at London’s Heathrow airport.

The process here tends to be a lot more straightforward. I have usually been able to whisk through security checks at Chinese airports without having to expose embarrassing holes on my socks or bidding farewell to my Listerine mouthwash. Technically there is a one-liter limit on the amount of liquids you can bring onboard, but security personnel tend to be very lenient on your toiletries for domestic flights. They also allow you to keep non-alcoholic beverages as long as you take a sip. Alcohol remains a no-no – though you wonder if the ban actually is aiming to help boost sales of the Moutai inside security.

Incidentally, have you noticed how polite airport security personnel in China have become lately? Whether manning security checkpoints or behind immigration counters, many of them greet you with a smile and speak to you in a nice tone. Talk about getting into the Olympic spirit! At the Beijing airport, you can even rate the immigration officers’ performance with the press of a button (though I would think carefully about casting a “bad” vote).

Before you throw the “safety before convenience” argument at me, let me point you to a widely circulated recent column in the New York Times titled “The Airport Security Follies.” Penned by a seasoned pilot/author, the article has struck a chord with countless frequent fliers thanks to its superb dissection on the absurdities of many security measures. For example, most experts agree the possibility of someone concocting a liquid bomb with hair gels in a lavatory is near-zero. The bottom line: “Air crimes need to be stopped at the planning stages. By the time a terrorist gets to the airport, chances are it’s too late.”

Some passengers have already responded to what they see as unreasonable regulations with extreme actions. A man almost died from alcohol poisoning after chugging a liter of vodka (yes, the whole bottle) at a German airport security check last December, instead of handing it over to comply with carry-on rules.

My assessment on the Chinese airport security checkpoints is a sober one, however, and I am not alone in giving the system an approving nod. A Shanghai-based correspondent for the US magazine The Atlantic has enthusiastically described to his American readers the airport experience in China as “low-stress.” Now I wouldn’t go that far – has he not tried to board a flight here? Steven Jiang

This article was originally published on page 34 of the March 2008 issue of That's Beijing magazine.

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