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Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Fun At The Airport

Much in the spirit of the LP Goddess post that preceded this one: Today, I got to hang out at the airport. I'm writing a piece for the Planet's Urban Explorer issue (look for it the first week of March, kiddies) about going backstage at Tampa International. This morning I met with the public Information officer at TIA, and then got a full tour of the facility save the control tower, to which I was denied entry by the FAA on the grounds that a writer in Sarasota had already requested to visit the tower at Sarasota's airport, and they couldn't have two of us going into two different towers in two different cities on two different days, because, well … because they just weren't comfortable with it. Seriously. That was their reasoning. It just seemed funny to the woman I spoke with. Dealing with the FAA is like trying to convince your parents to give you a cookie right before bed.

I did, however, get to see what is behind the wall at the baggage claim. (Domina, you would have loved it!) I toured the area where the baggage screening goes down, pretty much all done by automated machine. The system is a lot like the system that sorts the mail, except instead of moving letters around, the belts are sorting bags from the terminal/curbside through the screening machines and out to the airsides. The machines screen all the bags first. If they detect anything, they send the images to a computer screen in a room somewhere else in the airport where a screener checks the X-ray and decides whether to send the bag along or have it opened and inspected by a TSA screener. While I was there all they got was metal jammed in the soles of shoes and one piece of luggage loaded with nothing but fresh Florida oranges. It's all pretty amazing really, and at a cost of only $134 million, what a steal!

In also saw the airport command center (cool wall of monitors) and the police station. You know those stories of travelers who get caught with a little extra something-something in their bags? You know, like maybe some some pot in a toiletries bag, or a kilo of uncut china white mixed in with the tube socks. I got to hang out in the jail cells and the interrogation rooms those people are taken to. As I announced while trying to snap a picture of the pink (!) jail cell, while holding an assult rifle with a laser scope, and again while watching a cop demonstrate the Tazer, I ain't getting in trouble at the airport. That's for damn sure.

As an aside, my favorite part of talking to the airport folks was their complete discomfort speaking about anything having to do with terrorism, bombings or plane crashes while showing off all kinds of things meant only to deal with terrorism, bombings or plane crashes. I was told things like, "So, this is the control room. In the event of … well, nothing ever happens, you know. But in the event that, oh, ha ha, you know, maybe, … and this is highly unlikely, but say someone was in the terminal with a machine gun — not that that ever happens! — Good lord, no. But, if someone, [cough] did get into the terminal [cough, cough] with a machine gun- er, a knife. I like knife better. Yeah, like if that woman [points at screen playing feed from a terminal camera showing an old lady walking] had a knife and we sent officers to get that knife, we would monitor that from this terminal right over here." At one point, a nice young cop gave up entirely trying to explain why a fully wired conference room was necessary, until one of the other people pointed out it was used during a hurricane last year. At this the cop became relieved. Attack by terrorists, unspeakable. Attacks by God, no biggie.

And who can argue with that?