Apparently, you should never say the words opt out when going through TSA security.
ATLANTA, Georgia- “Terminus” was the original name of Atlanta. It was a rather pragmatic way of nomenclating what the place was: a place where multiple transportation routes met up and came to an end. It was a place to move on to other places. Today, not much is different: Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson airport is the busiest in the world. That said, I was expecting my transfer on to another flight to go smoothly, as though I was entering into a historic transport hub that knew what it was doing.
It didn’t go like that.
As I approached the security line I noticed that the airport was still using backscatter screening devices. I thought they had been removed from all airports in the country already, but I guess that wasn’t the case. Why are backscatter machines so controversial? They can cause cancer. They are banned in most of the world.
So when my pregnant wife, my young daughter, and I approached the front of the security line I told the lady running it that we wanted to opt out of going through the backscatter machine. This is a standard request, and one of the rights that air passengers supposedly have in the USA.
The older black woman looked and us with disdain and shot back, “Who is we?” Her snark caught me off guard almost as much as the fact that she apparently didn’t get that “we” meant myself and the two people standing next to me looking at her.
“We have three opt outs out here!” she yelled into her walkie talkie like a cashier calling out an order to the cooks at a burger joint.
“It is going to be a looooonnnngggg time,” she informed us with a snarky smile and told us to stand there and wait.
She then directed a row of people go through metal detector instead of the backscatter machine — apparently for no other reason than to rub it in.
“Can we just go through the metal detector too?” I asked. “That’s all we want to do.”
“I can’t let you go through that now because you opted out,” she responded with a sick smile.
“But you let them through.”
“I had to let them go through to make room for you because you opted out.”
That made no sense at all. I asked her to explain.
“As soon as you say opt out there is nothing we can do. You can’t go back.”
What the f’ck? I’ve been traveling for over 15 years and I’ve “opted out” dozens of times. Where was she pulling this from? A Joseph Heller novel?
“I told you we opted out because I have a child and my wife is eight months pregnant,” I tried to explain. “They cant go through the backscatter machine. We just want to go through the metal detector.”
“I cant let you do that. You said opt out.”
“I was simply trying to tell you that they can’t go through . . .”
“Then you shouldn’t have said opt out. Now it is going to be a while.”
“We opted out of that one,” I responded point to the backscatter machine. “We just want to go through the metal detector.”
“Once you sat opt out I have to call it in and then there is nothing I can do. You have to wait.”
“Listen, you didn’t seem to notice that my wife was pregnant so I . . .”
“We have a problem out here,” she yelled into her walkie talkie.
“Can we talk to your manager?”
“We have a problem out here I need some one out here quick.”
“My wife is pregnant and we have a child. They can’t go through the backscatter machine.”
“I know they can’t,” she retorted. “They automatically can’t go through there.”
“I just wanted to inform you of that.”
“Then you shouldn’t have said opt out.”
“Isn’t that what you’re supposed to say?”
“No you don’t say opt out,” she scolded. “You don’t have to say anything. They don’t have to go through.”
“But you were sending them through,” I protested, as the situation descended into the surreal.
“Then you shouldn’t have said opt out then. Now it is going to be a while,” she reiterated, my protestations going nowhere.
“If I am not supposed to say opt out then you should have instructions somewhere to tell people who don’t want to go through the backscatter machine what they should say instead. Maybe there should be a sign out front telling people that under no circumstances should they say opt out.”
“We can’t do that. There is no sign.”
“I know there is no sign that’s why, wait, what?”
I gave up talking to her and just stood there with no idea how long it was going to take.
Eventually, the manager showed up, took one look at my wife’s bulging pregnant belly and our child and sent us through the metal detector.
But the first lady followed us down the line, repeating her same lecture over and over. When we finally had all of our bags and jackets and shoes through the x-ray machine and reassembled and started walking away I looked back one last time. The old black lady was at the edge of the security area.
“Next time don’t say opt out!”
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