My "security interview" experience today


Like thousands of other I boarded an international fight this morning headed to the United States. All of us were “lucky” enough to participate in day one of the latest version of “enhanced” security screening for flights inbound from foreign countries. And if my experience is the norm I cannot help but wonder what the point of the exercise is.

A dedicated passport screening area in Barcelona for our flight to JFK
A dedicated passport screening area in Barcelona for our flight to JFK

With no checked bags and a mobile boarding pass I was able to go straight to the lounge when I arrived at Barcelona’s El Prat International Airport this morning. Eventually I made my way towards the gate where we had a dedicated passport control area. The third person to examine my passport in that line determined that I had not yet had the talk so I was ushered to a dedicated counter for questioning. After we established that I had no bags the fun began.



Please explain your trip to Barcelona.

I’m not much of a morning person and the security theatre rarely leaves me in a good mood so I’m sure my answers were short and grumpy. It also doesn’t help that I stayed in a random (but ultimately lovely) hotel I’d never heard of before booking it so when asked where I stayed I fumbled through the answer. I’m also sure my use of acronyms in describing the IATA WPS conference I was attending didn’t help.

Is New York City your final destination?

The questions about my professional life were slightly more interesting. Do I have an office or work from home and how far I live from the airport were among them. My answers were honest and vague, in part because I have no idea how far JFK is from the Chelsea neighborhood in Manhattan. Apparently “About an hour on the train” was a sufficient response as I was granted the special sticker and cleared to fly.



The agent also had a printout on the desktop with the list of SSSSelectee passengers for the flight. I probably wasn’t supposed to know how many are on the flight or who they are, but there it was during my “interrogation” process.

Maybe I’m overly cynical when it comes to the little distractions that occur in the name of security at airports. How was I supposed to know that a small Kindle eReader is now considered a tablet to be removed from carry-on bags in France last week but not in Spain this week, or that my SLR is now subject to extra screening when it hasn’t been for the prior 9 months of this year nor the prior few years. Certainly being yelled at for those “mistakes” doesn’t engender a pleasant pre-flight experience.

But if we’re depending on people not knowing the name of a hotel and how far an airport is from the city center (two things I groggily fumbled through this morning anyways) to find the bad guys I think it might be time to reconsider what the game is and how it is played.

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.

45 Comments

  1. I love the “game” and “how it is played” references. Spot on. It’s a bunch of nonsense. Assuming these were Spanish guys interrogating you, 100% chance it’s due to the DHS forcing it. That’s why they play the game, not because the Europeans see any value in this stuff. Here’s my question, and maybe this is the wrong forum for it. I’ll be flying TXL/LHR/ORD in a few weeks (changed a direct award flight on Air Berlin to a connecting one on BA/AA just in time). Does this enhanced theatre take place at originating TXL, transit LHR, or both? Just wondering where to allow the extra time after the lounge visit, and reminding myself to be calm and accurate. I’ll have some cool things to say about investigating an ancestor born in 1440 in Germany if they want a narrative report.

  2. I’m sure the stress of the interrogation took its toll and will result in a particularly hassled and snarled look on the grainy photo printout at the “Global Entry” kiosk in New York.

    Oh well, better than an “X” across it, ha ha

  3. Complain. Take off your shoes. Complain. Take out your camera. Complain. Answer a seemingly mundane question. Complain. No liquids. Complain. Complain. Complain. Most people including the author are quick to write off security procedures as ineffective. Yet the travelling public really has no idea what goes on to ensure a safe flight. So while you are going through the motions and complaining next time, think about the last time a life was lost at the hands of terrorism on a US bound flight…

    1. I’m very familiar with the stats. And also how security really works. The idea that these questions or taking off shoes are what is keeping the flying public safe is silly.

      1. You have no idea how security works. You’re just an internet keyboard hero. Enjoy your first class meal aboard your safe flight. Cheers!

        1. So why don’t you enlighten us? How does it work? Just calling other people uninformed really doesn’t add to the discussion.

        2. Indeed…a random anonymous and obfuscated comment is definitely more reliable than my long term knowledge of the industry.

    1. In France last week (before the new rules) the woman was unhappy with me and raised her voice. I’m sure language barriers contributed to it.

  4. I realize this is a program effective today, pretty much worldwide on US-bound flights. However, some of it isn’t all that new, is it? The last time I flew LHR-DFW, and not this year, I had used electronic checkin and had no checked bags, so when I got to the gate they noticed I didn’t have the appropriate sticker on the back of the passport, and sent me over to another guy for an interview. He wanted to know where I had stayed in London, how long I had been there, the purpose for my visit, and really similar questions to what you got today. He didn’t ask me how far my home was from the Wichita airport, but otherwise quite similar to what is described here. And before that, a similar interview checking in to fly LHR-FRA on a U.S. passport. So some of this has been going on for a while? And now it is just much more formalized and universal mandated by DHS?

    1. Similar questions were once part of the typical routine, as were the stickers. Both became far less common a while back. They’ve come back again. This is my 11th trip from Europe to the USA this year. I’m pretty sure it is the first time I’ve dealt with the sticker/questions (I only have a couple stickers on a 2+ year old passport).

      I’m also under no delusion that my version is going to be what happens to everyone or even that it is the worst that folks will experience. But it is more than I dealt with at any point this year (including just last week). I’m willing to attribute that to the new rules as much as anything else.

  5. I’m curious to see how that will work out in the near future. As a non-rev we tend to take overnight trips to Europe with only a backpack. I’m all for enhanced security measures in an effort to keep the skies safe, but use measures that’s are effective. Effective security begins at home, meaning ground employees from the cleaners of airports to ground handlers and even air crew.

  6. Thanks for posting this! I’m headed to Madrid this weekend and was curious what my return on Monday would look like. Sounds like no big deal at all.

  7. I’m a little confused about what’s new here. I’ve had these interviews for all my inbound international flights this year except a departure out of SXM. But seemed to have been the norm for Europe.

    1. Not the norm at all for me ex-Europe this year. And this is my 11th.

      In prior years, before they mostly stopped asking the stupid questions, it would be occasionally one or two questions. This time was several more, looking for more details and more depth.

    2. Seth Miller Hmm. The questions you describe are similar to the ones I sometimes get asked leaving for the US. Maybe this is the first time you’ve had them as a US citizen? I agree they are stupid, but you’re not the person they are looking for so they are probably just struggling to think of something to ask. At CDG in June I got asked how many days vacation I get, the address of my employer and the number of times I had been to Egypt among other things. It went on for about 5 minutes. Just give me the sticker already!

  8. @AM: There are so many BS “security” measures that it’s difficult to take any of them seriously. The latest example for me on a domestic flight was a TSA agent checking IDs at the gate during boarding. I guess that’s to catch the terrorists who are clever enough to use a fake ID going through the initial security checkpoint but stupid enough to use a different one at the gate?

  9. I travel to Europe at least once per year and remember the similar dumb “security” questions they used to ask at the gate before US-bound flights. I was happy to see them mostly dispensed with in the past few years. I know you said this was day one of the new rules (not entirely sure when this happened, does “this morning” refer to today, 10/26?). My wife and I were returning to the States from our RTW trip earlier this week and flew AMS-IAD on UA on Monday 10/23. That particular day’s travel originated in IST and we weren’t able to check in online, so we did go through normal check-in at IST airport with the TK agent, who issued all the boarding passes. We went through passport control and security departing IST, as well as transit security at AMS before getting dumped into the international (non-Schengen) departure area where we spent the layover at the lounge. However, when we got to the gate, the agent checking passports said that we “somehow missed a security check” so he sent us to his colleague for The Questions. They were similarly specific and intrusive (when did we leave the US, what did we do for living, who’s watching our kids(!) etc). I get extremely grumpy when forced to undergo this ridiculous process, but I suppose we answered sufficiently to the agent’s satisfaction that we were awarded The Stickers on our passports and allowed to line up for boarding.

  10. Which airline was this at BCN? Also, how many names were on the selectee list that you were able to see?

  11. Grr. More silliness in the questions. I continue to compare the TSA questions and procedures to those of the Israelis at Tel Aviv. Perhaps I should say ‘contrast’ rather than ‘compare’. TSA questions are formulaic and of limited value and transparent to anyone who travels. The Israeli security engages several times and it’s clear they are using trained brains rather than a script to get a read on me as a passenger. A much better, more human experience and I can’t help but think more secure in the end.

    As to the Kindle yes/no, SLR yes/no, etc. game: I’ve found this for years and I think it depends more on the local airport/country rules. The good ones do list it on their signage if you take the time to read it instead of go on autopilot. But the inconsistency is maddening. Airport A, take out the laptop leave the ipad. Layover check take out the ipad and the laptop but do NOT take out the Kindle and so on.

  12. I’m just guessing, but I’d bet they took inspiration from the the Israelis/El Al. They have well-trained staff doing the questioning and they are quick and efficient about it during check-in. It is an effective tool to identify at-risk individuals and/or discourage them from flying in the first place when done correctly, but I suspect this is yet another example of right idea, wrong execution. If you have untrained folks asking the questions, you might as well not be doing it at all.

  13. The new security questions they should be asking the following four questions (for security purposes only):

    1. Why is this flight different from all other flights?
    2. Why are the bread selections on this flight limited to crackers and flatbread?
    3. Why doesn’t this flight stock ketchup and garlic bread? Is project quality still in effect?
    4. Why on this flight do you recline, while on all other flights your recline is limited?

    Alternative questions for NYC residents:

    5. How do you get to Carnegie Hall?
    6. How do you pronounce Houston St?

    I’m here all week folks …

    -David

  14. I have read that the same thing is happening in New Zealand passengers traveling to the US need to arrive 3 hours early so they can have a interview. What a dumb idea we need a visa or visa wavier to visit the US. Just another layer of stupidity being put on people traveling to the US

  15. I travel to/from U.S. > Spain (MAD) every year, and have been doing so for the past 25 years. The security interview & stickers on the passport were around for years. Then, they went away for a few years and they’ve now came back since a few years ago. I’ve gotten SSSS many times flying out of MAD because of flying to MAD and back on separate tickets, that is, not a R/T from the U.S. on the same airline. The whole thing is not a big deal. Sure, it’s a drag, but then again what isn’t a drag about flying these days. It all sucks… except when it doesn’t, and that’s usually rare. I agree it doesn’t do anything to improve security, but maybe it makes the masses feel safe…

  16. Did pre clearance today in AUH and no new questions. Although the CBP guy insisted on a dozen questions despite having a good Global Entry receipt ????

  17. I flew from BCN to JFK in July. It was a trip celebrating my birthday. Travelled back business class with one roller board bag. I was in for a treat. I also have global entry and for some reason and for the first time they dogged into me upon arrival into JFK.

  18. I went through this today in Madrid, before a flight to Miami. The questioning was only about a minute long, but I could see how this could add a lot of time if there were a line. The questions I got asked: “Why were you in Madrid? What hotel did you stay at? How many days were you here? What was your favorite thing about Madrid?” And with regard to the US, she asked if I lived in Miami (no) and where I live (Colorado). And that was it – didn’t even ask why I was flying to Miami instead of home (business).

    I also had SSSS, so my bags had to be inspected/swabbed, but that wasn’t a huge deal.

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