As most of you will know, I am already persona on grata in the USA, and regarded with deep suspicion in New Zealand. Now, for entirely different reasons, I have managed to upset the security services in Australia. Here’s what happened.
When I checked my bags in with Thai Airways for my trip back to London I did the usual thing of warning the check-in person that there was this big lump of metal in my suitcase that might cause alarm when the bag was scanned. I have done this before, and was not unduly worried. The check-in lady didn’t seem worried either.
Having got airside, I found somewhere to get lunch and get online because I had run out of Internet access at the hotel before I could re-synch my iPhone with the UK SIM. (For some stupid reason Apple requires you to register any new SIM via iTunes, you can’t do it direct from the phone.) I had just done that when the PA paged me, asking me to come to my gate urgently.
Yes, it was the Hugo. It had turned up on the scan of my suitcase, and a small panic was going on. The lady who had checked me in was at the gate and confirmed that I had warned her about it in advance. Also, as I was online, I was able to pull up the Hugo Awards web site, and a nice picture of me holding my trophy (thank you, Tom Becker). The gate staff were impressed and congratulated me on my good fortune. Unfortunately the airport security people were not so friendly, and insisted on having me come and see them personally. I was dispatched off in the care of one of the airport staff, and that’s when things started to get weird.
My minder, Tony, wasn’t sure where my bag was being held, and got on the radio asking which lift he should bring me down on. The baggage staff denied all knowledge of the problem. Tony explained that someone in security wanted my luggage examined. The baggage staff said they could not find my luggage. Poor Tony was getting very embarrassed. As I had my laptop open to be able to show the pictures, I was able to tweet the whole process.
After some time, and considerably wandering around from one lift shaft to another, two airport security people came and found us, and escorted us to where they said the suitcase was waiting for me. Right up to the last moment Tony was saying I’d just need to open the bag and show the Hugo to the security guys. Then he opened a door and we were greeted by five burly policemen. At that point I knew I was in trouble and stopped tweeting.
Here’s what appears to have been going on. Firstly the check-in lady did not pass my comments about the Hugo in the bag on to security (the Thai Airways staff admitted to this). Secondly, having found the Hugo (which I must say lights up magnificently on the scans – I saw a print-out), the security people did not check with the airline, they called the police. And the police, having got involved, were determined to treat the whole incident as a potential terrorist threat.
What this meant for me was two-fold. Firstly my explanation was now worthless. I was now in “guilty until proven innocent” territory, and the only thing that would satisfy the police was seeing and examining the suspect object for themselves. Secondly I got the “good cop, bad cop” treatment. One of them was very sorry for the inconvenience; another kept asking me leading questions in the hope that I’d trip up on one and give them cause to arrest me.
Thankfully, compared to the Americans, these guys were amateurs. American security people always ask you questions that they know the answer to because they have your records in front of them, but you can’t answer unless you have perfect recall for dates and places.
Looking back on it, the confusion as to where my bag was being held could have been more poor communication, but it could also have been a deliberate delaying tactic to allow the police time to get on the scene. I’ll never know about that one.
After some rigmarole — the police would not open the case themselves, but were nervous of letting me do it in case I had a weapon in there — we got the Hugo out, and removed from the bubble wrap the that nice folks at Galaxy Books had put on it. That, it appeared, was sufficient to prove that it was not going to go boom while the plane was in flight, and I was allowed to re-pack my bag and head back to the gate (via extensive re-screening of my hand luggage and person, just in case).
I should note that the airline staff were very apologetic and helpful. They were upset about the creeping security culture in their country. Also all of my previous encounters with the Aussie authorities have been very positive. Last year I arrived in Melbourne with a cold at the height on the Swine Flu panic, and later that trip I had to have my boots cleaned for fear I had picked up Elf Cooties on my visit to Rivendell. The people I had dealt with then had been very friendly. But I guess security paranoia gets to every country in the end, even Australia.
I was rather worried that my bags might not make it onto the flight (I got back to the gate with minutes to spare). I was also very concerned that I’d have to go through the same rigmarole changing planes in Bangkok. Thankfully all my fears came to naught, and the suitcase and Hugo arrived safely at baggage claim in Heathrow.
Now I only have one question remaining. Has anything been put on my immigration records in Australia about this? I guess I’ll only be able to find out by trying to go back.