January 19, 2005

Clear and Present Danger

Miho was coming in from Japan last night, set to arrive at 7 PM. To make that Time, I back-tracked: So to pick her up, we have to leave Flowery Branch at about 5, so I have to be home about 4:30, which means leaving work in Alpharetta about 3:30. All this worked according to plan until the ticket agent told us that she missed the connecting flight out of Dallas. She was booked on the next flight to Atlanta, set to arrive at 10:45 PM.

So, here we are, at the south end of Atlanta, with four hours to kill, with a three year-old. We opted for a long, leisurely dinner at a joint Melissa liked near Jonesboro. After said dinner, and the biggest slice of carrot cake ever cut by human hands, we stopped by Kohl's to upgrade my wardrobe. My shirts have lately been straying a bit too far towards the "L.L. Bean" side for both of our tastes, so Mel picked out a couple of stylish casual shirts for me. I picked a brown t-shirt with Zelda's Link on it that read "Olde School"

Back to the airport. The Continental Reps were letting us meet her at the gate, since she has some trouble with English (though not nearly as much as we implied.) Matthew was carrying the "Winnie the Pooh" balloon that Melissa bought for Miho. It was 10:30, so the place was almost empty. We go to the pre-screening area and show the lady our gate passes. Then I realize that I have a penknife on my keychain. Nothing serious, just a nailfile, a 1" dull blade and a miniature pair of scissors. It was only a threat to drinking straws or CD wrappers, but you know how it is today.

"Oh, you can't go through with that," says the man in the green blazer, squinting at me lazily through smoky glasses.
"Yes, I know that."
"If you even go up there with that, they'll throw you in jail. What is it here, the Fulton County Jail? IS it Fulton here, or...where...what city is this, technically?"

Put in jail for forgetting you have a metal toothpick on your keyring? I thought that this was absurd, but then I remembered that Atlanta was the airport that shut down for 9 hours because a man ran the wrong direction on an escalator.

"Thanks, I know. I'd like to stick with my party. Can't I put this in a locker or something and come back for it later?"
"You can throw it in the trash, I guess," said the man, helpfully.
"But that would not help me get it back," I said through gritted teeth.

The lady eventually agreed to hold it at her station for me until I came back. We laughed about that all the way up to the screening area. We put our jackets, shoes and Mel's bag on the X-Ray machine, and Melissa and Matthew pass through without incident. Then the TSA agent says to me: "Sir, you'll have to put that through the machine."

A quick check of my person showed no jacket, no shoes, no bag. "The balloon, sir," she said. "You'll have to put it through the X-Ray machine."

For a moment, I just blinked at her. Then regarded the balloon, trying to conceive of what possible threat a mylar balloon could pose. A normal sized balloon has only enough lift to counteract little more than it's own weight, so I couldn't hide anything in the balloon that weighs more than an ounce or two. Anything more than a plastic picnic knife would weigh it down. It was tied by a length of ribbon to a plastic star, to keep it from floating away. I tied the ribbon around a tray and sent it through the machine.

On the tram ride to the terminal, I thought some more about the possible dangers of a Winnie the Pooh mylar balloon. Forget reason, think about an action movie where the villain goes into a secure area looking to do some evil deed, and he carries in a balloon. Here's what I came up with:

  • The balloon may be filled with Hydrogen instead of Helium. Since hydrogen is extremely flammable (think Hindenberg), the balloon could be lit, causing a flash, a brief popping sound. Villains could use this as a diversion and take a hostage. (However, it would only startle geriatrics with their hearing aids turned up to eleven.)
  • Alternatively, it might be filled with knockout gas. Just act like a curious small-plane pilot and ask to see the cockpit. Then pop the balloon with a safety pin. The X-ray machine can't determine the chemical makeup of the gas inside the balloon, so this is a possibility. (However, one balloon can only carry half the gas needed to make one person slightly woozy. You'd have to be carrying about ten large balloons to do the job, and that might be a little suspicious looking.)
  • The ribbon could be used to strangle a security guard. However, given the tensile strength of balloon ribbons, you'd have to double it up twice, which reduces the effective circumference to make this impossible.
  • The yellow plastic star anchoring the balloon down could have sharp edges. If the man were a skilled ninja, this could become a throwing star and possibly raise a welt on a hapless victim.

    I hope that this serves as a warning to fellow travelers. In hindsight, I can't believe that the TSA Agent let me take this dangerous device into the terminal! And if any of you see someone bring one of these potentially lethal devices into the airport terminal, I advise you to seize it immediately and pop it with a safety pin. Oh, I forgot, your safety pin was confiscated at the screening area. Nevermind.
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