You’ve taken off your shoes and removed your laptop from your carry-on bag to go through airport security screening.
You candy bar may be next.
Although it’s okay to board an airplane with food, some Transportation Security Administration agents have been asking travelers to remove their food from carry-on bags at checkpoints before putting them on the conveyor belt. Signs have also appeared at some TSA checkpoints directing people to remove snacks before screening.
It’s apparently a recommendation, however, not a requirement, and part of a new policy that is not really a policy — or at least not a uniform one. Whatever it is, it’s left peckish travelers feeling a little peeved, as USAToday and others have reported.
Travelers are permitted to take food and snacks onto an airplane after the bags have been screened. A TSA official also said Wednesday there has been no nationwide policy change requiring people to remove food from their carry-ons to get through security.
But confusion appears to have set in as the TSA adopted new, unrelated procedures last year for screening electronic devices, the TSA official said.
As terrorists became more skillful hiding explosives, the federal agency announced July 26 that TSA agents would require travelers to remove electronic devices larger than a mobile phone and put them in a separate bin for screening. The new procedure on electronics — which was rolled out little by little so as not to interfere with peak holiday travel last year — is expected to be fully in place at all checkpoints by this summer.
But while the TSA was implementing the procedure for screening personal electronic devices, some agents started directing travelers to remove their snacks, too. That’s because high-tech scanners detect organic compounds contained in some explosives and sometimes give false alerts on food. That requires a hands-on bag check, which slows down the line.
At some checkpoints, TSA agents who were telling travelers to remove their large electronic devices would spot a stash of potato chips or cookies and have the traveler to put those aside, too. It was, as a TSA official described it Wednesday, more or less an opportunistic request.
But somehow this has morphed into procedure at some airports and not others. Some passengers who have been asked to remove junk food from bags have reported that TSA checkpoint officials told them the agency planned to adopt a policy that would make everyone to do it.
And who isn’t carrying food onto an airplane these days? With free meals an ancient memory, people squeeze on with just about everything but a shopping cart.
TSA officials also seem to have mixed views about whether there should be a policy telling people to remove food from carry-ons to speed up the screening process or whether the request should come like the toy in a Cracker Jack box, as a fun surprise.
All those hidden food caches in carry-on bags can lead to false alerts. But then again, a blanket policy telling everyone to empty their pockets of junk food is also likely to cause backups, not to mention more bad feelings among people already annoyed over X-rated pat-downs and the like.
So we’re left with an inconsistent, perhaps merely localized approach to checkpoint etiquette on snacks — reminiscent of what happened when the TSA started telling some people to remove their books last year. That was only an experimental program at two airports to test security procedures, but the practice led to concerns that the agency was prying into people’s reading choices.
The TSA is a vast agency, and there’s bound to be slightly different approaches at different airports. But people also dislike uncertainty — especially people hustling to make a plane, feeling jittery about flying or wondering whether they have followed the finer points on what’s permissible to carry and what’s not. People also dislike seeing some travelers treated differently than others.
The TSA’s website already tells people that permissible carry-on items — baby food, breast milk, canned food, etc. — might have to be tossed if the item triggers an alarm. But perhaps the agency could be a bit more clear and consistent about what’s going on with the food.