Monday, February 03, 2020

Security Overload

I'm going to write a long post on the air travel experience to India that I just finished but I wanted to give you guys some idea of navigating airports in India, especially when it comes to security.

First of all, never expect security procedures in other countries to be anything like those in the US. Partly because security concerns are different (India has had both internal political violence as well as ongoing disputes with Pakistan, particularly when it comes to Kashmir) and different governments have different ideas for how to address the same problems.

So let me give you an idea of the security checkpoints I went through on the trip home I just completed, with a route of Chennai -> Mumbai -> JFK -> RDU

To get inside the airport in Chennai (or any airport in India), you have to present a boarding pass and ID to military security outside the terminal. But for the most part, eticketing is not a thing in India. So luckily I had printed out my itinerary and presented the officer with the sheets showing my Vistara flight from Chennai to Mumbai and the Delta flights to get me home from there. But... what I showed him didn't include my name. He directed me to the outside Vistara counter (all the airlines have counters that face outward from the terminal, which makes sense given the requirements to get inside). I stepped out and then realized that I needed to pull out the first sheet of the itinerary printout that had my name on it and got back in the mercifully short line and got through.  Passport check #1.

After going through the line at the Vistara desk, I got my boarding pass (but NOT the passes for the two Delta flights) and took my bags through security. The security checks at Indian airports are much different than those in the US. It's a bit of a mob scene, for one, with just a table for bins in each queue that people don't really queue up for all that much. Laptops AND cellphones come out and belts come off, but I was wearing sneakers and did not have to remove them (no sneaker bombers in India, I guess) and nothing about liquids. 

I travel with a CPAP for sleep apnea and left that in my carryon sometimes, took it out others, and it was never questioned. But the young man in front of me at one checkpoint that had unsealed containers of what appeared to be protein powder may still be in the airport. Or disappeared.

Everybody gets wanded and patted down. Everybody. They have metal detectors that look like the ones they installed in US airports in the late 60s after idiots kept hijacking planes to Cuba, but everybody gets a pat-down. So they direct female travelers to separate lines, including splitting families up. Passport and boarding pass check #2.

Passports were checked again at the gate and away I went, but 2 hours delayed with no way to make my connection - more on that later.

Mumbai is where things got even weirder. I had carried on three freaking bags in the vain hope that I'd make my connection so I didn't have to deal with baggage claim. So I hauled all the bags up to Departures, with a military check of passport and boarding pass/printed itinerary to get up there. Check number 1.

Having missed my flight as well as the flight through DeGaulle that Delta had put me on, I ended up booked on the flight to JFK leaving the next day at 1am (my original flight +1 day). I found that there was a hotel inside the Mumbai airport, called to ensure they had room, then went off in search of it. But security stopped me from LEAVING the Departures lounge as I didn't have a reservation. They sent me to the Info deck in Departures, who called the hotel to come up and escort me down. Checkpoint number 2.

Given the restrictions of movement, I spent the next 20 hours in a very nice hotel room in the Mumbai airport, trying to get some rest and eating a pretty decent veg biryani.

I *had* managed to get my Delta boarding passes from the self-service kiosk so I was prepared to get through security to get to Departures. Checkpoint number 3.

While in line at the Delta counter for the bag drop, Delta agents walked through the line, checking passports and asking immigration-type questions (reason for visit , point of entry, places visited, etc), then stickered my passport. Checkpoint number 4.

At the counter of course, I had to produce the passport again. Checkpoint number 5.

Go through security - similar rigamarole to above, maybe a little less chaotic. Checkpoint 6.

The to the very long line at immigration. Checkpoint 7.

Walk through the mall-sized Duty Free shop to get to the gates. I was confused about why the desk agent told me that boarding was going to start at 11pm for a 1am flight and I checked with the gate agent to see if that was right (I really wanted to check out an airport lounge and relax a bit). But no, the 11pm checkin was correct.

Scanned boarding pass at the gate plus passport check. Checkpoint 8.

Found that there was a temporary looking FULL SECURITY CHECK between the gate and the airplane. Take everything out of bags, wanded again, etc. Checkpoint 9.

I *think* that was it. But it wouldn't surprise me if I missed something - unlike previous trips I never got into a good sleep pattern and I was living on 3-4 hours a "night" and was a little punchy. 

I understand a "belts and suspenders" approach to security. But this seemed like a "belts, suspenders, bungee cords, Superglue, staples and duct tape" approach. Even if my Vistara flight had been on time, I would have been hard-pressed to grab luggage off the carousel, go to the Delta desk to drop it off, make it through security and customs and still reach the plane in the two hours that were originally scheduled. All my previous trips to India (all TWO of them, so not that many) were direct flights into Chennai, so this was my first experience with combining domestic flights with international. Lessons learned.

 The other thing that I find very different is that so much of this is handled not by a TSA analog, but by camouflage-uniformed military personnel, including pairs of uniformed soldiers patrolling the Departure area with machine guns at the ready. Takes some getting used to.

Additional security measures vary at hotels and work spaces. This trip, they actually seemed a little less than the trips I took in 2017. Where before the hotel security would run a mirror under any car to check for bombs and baggage had to go through a scanner, that didn't happen this time in either Bangalore or Chennai. Guess it depends on current tensions.

The good news was the Global Entry when I reached JFK was a fucking miracle. No line at the kiosks, 30 seconds for it to take my picture and print out a slip with a grainy photo, no more than 5 minutes in line to present to the Customs officer, and that was it! If you travel internationally, I highly recommend going through the hassle of getting it (it also gets you TSA Precheck, which helps not one whit internationally but is a huge help domestically).

I've never seen anything really describing this whole process. I was lucky I printed out my itinerary as I don't usually for domestic travel. Guess the moral of the story is be flexible, be patient and be as prepared as you can. Now at least you are prepared for your next trip to India!



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