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What I learnt when things went wrong at airport security

Perhaps you know the feeling: a journey that seems to be going implausibly well? You can be fairly sure things will go awry imminently. This is how it worked out for me at the start of a journey to Tel Aviv on Saturday.

London St Pancras International was en fête to celebrate the coronation. The platforms and concourse were busy but the staff made sure people got where they needed to be. Which, in my case, was Luton airport. I had bagged a sub-£10 bargain from the London terminus to the Bedfordshire hub, using the freshly branded Luton Airport Express (LAEx) and the newly opened Dart shuttle. The LAEx is really a humdrum commuter train to Corby in Northamptonshire. But the first stop is Luton Airport Parkway, in just 22 minutes on a good day. Which Saturday was.

Parkway station (which, incidentally, is the last place that anyone seeking an actual park should look) is much improved. No longer must rail-to-air passengers negotiate a maze of escalators to emerge beside a dismal old bus for a stuttering journey up to the airport.

A single escalator leads up to a new concourse for the £300m Dart – a driverless shuttle train that takes just four minutes. Position yourself in the right train carriage (five or six from the barrier at St Pancras) and you can sprint up to catch a just-departing shuttle. With the travel gods smiling, I made the end-to-end journey in 27 minutes.

The Wizz Air ground staff were smiling, too. For some reason I had been unable to check-in online for my Wizz Air flight to Israel, but after a couple more minutes I was given my precious boarding card.

What could possibly go wrong? Not security, surely. I frequently research and write about aviation security, and furthermore have some previous experience frisking passengers at Gatwick (a job, not a hobby).

In those days passengers for Tel Aviv – and, for that matter, Belfast – were taken to a secure area for a comprehensive hand search of everything in their cabin baggage. While aviation security leaving Israel remains extremely tight, budget airline passengers flying into the country from the UK go through the same process as everyone else.

I like to think that I can happily negotiate airport security on autopilot: swig the contents of the water bottle (to be filled airside); laptop and liquids out in a separate tray; watch, phone, keys and belt removed. Then it’s just a matter of getting through the metal arch and hoping not to generate a random “ping”.

I hoped in vain. “Remove your shoes then go and join that line, please.” My blue canvas sneakers with rubber soles were deemed suspect, so they tiptoed off to be X-rayed while I waited in the queue for the full “arms up, legs apart, face forward and stay still for three seconds” scanner experience.

By the time I had emerged, so had my footwear – along with other passengers’ shoes. In a variant of picking up someone else’s case from baggage reclaim, I put on, laced up and walked comfortably off with shoes belonging to someone else.

After the real owner, wearing only socks, tracked my footsteps, he was remarkably gracious about the mix-up and soon strode off happily.

For me, the problems were only just beginning. I had popped my jacket on top of my bag ahead of sending it into the X-ray machine. But while the bag was still there, along with my cagoule, the jacket was nowhere to be seen. In the jacket pocket; my passport and boarding pass.

I alerted the chap who was on rummage duty (of cabin baggage that is “pulled” for secondary search ). He quickly located the garment but with the precious documents missing. Off he went again, and retrieved them from beneath the rollers.

Hugely relieved, at last I turned my attention to the belongings that had been minding their own business. I began the brisk reassembly of travel demeanour. One vital piece was missing, though: my watch. Unlikely though it seemed – given the good nature of almost everyone and the blanket presence of CCTV – the missing timepiece appeared to have been swiped by an opportunist fellow passenger.

Again, the security staff responded impressively. A similar watch was quickly found, but after the footwear embarrassment I was certainly not going to help myself to anyone else’s possessions. So where was mine?

“Sometimes,” a security officer said diplomatically, “we find that missing items are actually somewhere in a pocket.”

She put my jacket and cagoule through a scanner – and identified the watch lodged in the hood of the cagoule. I was sent on my way with a smile. In the course of 20 minutes I had acquired, temporarily, a new pair of shoes; lost a jacket, a passport, a boarding pass, a watch; and been reunited with them one by one.

What have I learnt? Keep your wits and your bits about you. Don’t overstuff a tray. Keep your passport and boarding pass in your hand – don’t send them through the scanner. And have a darned good check through your possessions before reporting anything else missing.

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