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[whitespace] Bottle Opener
Photograph by Paul Myers

Bottle Up And Go: This long, pointed bottle opener is a lousy souvenir of Silicon Valley, but could it make an effective weapon?

Skirting Security

Anything could be used as a weapon--even that bottle opener the guy in the next seat bought at the airport gift shop

By Allie Gottlieb

NO, YOU may not carry your sword, meat cleaver, bullwhip, spear gun, cattle prod or Kubotans (scary metal weapons) onto a plane with you these days. It's also advisable to leave that plastic comb and matchbook collection behind when you head through the airport security checkpoint to avoid the likely and painful confiscation process. These days, cups of coffee are suspect.

Once past the X-ray machine, and the explosives-detection systems, however, all bets are off at the terminal souvenir shops, where tacky overpriced objects coupled with a little creativity can serve just as well as the prohibited wrench or other large tool for all your onboard terrorism needs. And no fussing with security!

I'll Buy That

Jay Shotwell, a Palo Alto resident who says he flies about 20 times a year for his Santa Clara-based communications job, tested out this buy-before-you-fly theory on June 5.

"I was going down to see a client in Los Angeles," says Shotwell, 52. "I thought I would bring them something that would represent San Jose."

Shotwell checked out DFS Galleria, a shop in Mineta San Jose International Airport's Terminal A, for a gift that would symbolize Silicon Valley's capital. That's where he found her: a sexy 6-inch metal woman in a bikini, with a bottle opener mouth above her head and crossed legs that come just short of forming a sharp edge. She was emblazoned "San Jose" in romantic-mood-inducing cursive writing.

"I thought, this is probably one of the most disgusting things that could represent the city," Shotwell says. It was on sale, marked down from $8 to $3, so he bought it. "Holding it," he recalls speculating about it at the time, "I'm sure I could hurt someone with that."

Surprised that the shop could sell such a long, metal, daggerlike object to people about to board planes--given the intensity of airport security since Sept. 11's attacks--Shotwell questioned the store clerk. "It's OK," he says she told him. "Now you have it, and you can get on the plane."

The Big Loophole

In January, San Jose Airport asked the federal government for $12.2 million to pay for stepped-up security. "Our security costs have risen over 100 percent, while passenger activity has fallen over 20 percent," Ralph Tonseth, aviation director, said in a Jan. 24 press release announcing the funding plea. The federal government gave the airport about $1 million.

Also, in November 2001, the federal government set out to replace baggage screeners who lack citizenship with U.S. citizens, a move planned for every airport but five test sites, including San Francisco. (In San Jose, that means that 75 percent of the screener staff could end up seeing pink slips sometime before the federal government's Nov. 18, 2002, deadline.)

With all the scrambling for millions of dollars and trustworthy people to handle heightened security and plummeting consumer faith/profits, the airport powers that be apparently didn't notice right away that they were supplying some of the very items they were outlawing.

"The irony was pointed out, and then the TSA [Transportation Security Administration] started correcting it," says Sergeant R. Keith Miller, an officer with the San Jose Police Department's Airport Division.

Airport security officials eventually discovered that shops in the terminals sold scissors, he adds. Miller didn't say how long it took for officials to figure that out. Now, airport stores aren't allowed to sell scissors, tools or anything with a sharp edge.

But passengers can still find metal bottle openers at DFS, "the world's largest travel retailer," which sucked in $1 billion in sales last year, according to Hoover's, a Texas-based company that publishes information about businesses. At least, as of June 28, the store employees at San Jose's DFS said they still have plenty of the souvenir bikini-lady bottle openers for sale.

Not Sharp Enough

"This particular item is not a part of the prohibited items as set forth by the Transportation Security Administration," airport communications manager Steve Luckenbach explains in a bureaucratic dialect, after examining the souvenir and discussing it with his colleagues.

He refers to a list of 66 things that the federal government specifically forbids from passing through airport security checkpoints. That list includes the obvious (knives, revolvers, dynamite) and the not so obvious (toy weapons, toy transformer robots, because they turn into fake guns). Attempts to defy the list of banned carry-on items could cost a sneak up to $1,100 per violation.

But after looking at it long and hard, various San Jose Airport security and baggage screeners disagree on whether the San Jose bikini-lady bottle opener poses a threat. According to Globe Security and ticket representatives at Terminal A's Southwest Airlines counter, unlike a box cutter, she isn't dangerous enough to be confiscated. The curbside security workers and baggage checkers I showed it to, on the other hand, say the souvenir could be used as a weapon and should be packed in checked luggage.

"It depends," they say, on the individual checkpoint security worker and what he or she deems worthy of confiscating.

Miller showed me two heavy plastic buckets filled with objects that security agents had seized from ticketed passengers at the airport checkpoints. Miller says the loot, which was gathered over the weekend, is headed for the scrap melting pot.

My brief inspection of the buckets, and conversations with Sgt. Miller, revealed that scissors, Swiss Army knives and metal forks were the items most popular with the seizure squad. Matchbooks and lighters made the buckets as well, as a person can take only one of each on a plane.

There were also screwdrivers, a wrench ("I don't fully understand that one," Miller said, pointing out the wrench's small and slender stature. Eyeballing it, I guessed it was about 4 inches long), an expensive-looking wooden rolling pin, nail files, cuticle scissors, one bendable plastic comb and a hair pick.

"Anything can be used as a weapon," Miller says, when asked which, if any, of the bucketed objects he personally wouldn't consider dangerous.

In May, the TSA updated its list of permissible carry-on items. It's now OK to bring nail files, pets (on some airlines), umbrellas, syringes and the necessary equipment for taking insulin (really good news if you're a diabetic!).

Choose Your Weapon

"Early on, there was a lot of confusion," Miller recalls. After last year's attacks, but before the federal government started taking charge of airport security in February, one person would let a squirt gun on board, while another wouldn't, he says.

Now, toy guns are uniformly prohibited, and each airline employs a ground security coordinator on every shift who is in charge of applying federal security measures. Regular airline employees take turns acting as the ground security coordinator for two or three hours at a time; during these stints, they report to and are paid by the federal TSA.

Despite these recent changes and Miller's assurance that security is becoming more consistent than it was before and immediately after Sept. 11, he says airport officials still get to use their judgment.

"They don't have discretion," he says, "they have subjectivity."

This subjectivity explains the differing opinions on whether Shotwell's souvenir would have made it through security had he not bought it inside the terminal.

Ultimately, though, it doesn't matter how strict or careful the screeners are when passengers can purchase questionable objects once they are beyond the checkpoint. Frequent flyer Shotwell's common sense tells him this is a problem.

"I think this is a gross error," Shotwell says, "that you could go through security, and you could pick up something like this, and you have a weapon."

To contact Allie Gottlieb: [email protected]

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From the July 4-10, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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