Airport (in)security measures or how to get sick at the airport

Johannesburg, South Africa, September 2014.

When departing from or arriving at an airport, you are confronted by a whole range of security measures. Admittedly, they can be inconvenient and time-consuming, but what if a terrorist makes it into your plane? Or what if an Ebola-infected traveler makes it out of the airport building and spreads the disease?

On a Saturday morning, I arrived at O.R. Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg, South Africa, only half an hour before my flight's departure to Namibia. It was evidently too late to check in my luggage. A helpful woman at the ticket counter of my airline suggested that I ask the security personnel to let me pass with a suitcase exceeding the weight limit and size of hand luggage. Doubting that they would make an exception and sure to arouse other travelers' anger, I jumped the queue and hesitantly approached the security staff. But indeed, I found understanding: an official allowed me to pass with my oversize luggage and started to check the content, determinedly throwing away bottles with shampoo, body lotion, hand cream, and face cream. Also my perfume container and a mosquito repellent went into the big green rubbish bin. I swallowed and clenched my teeth when losing all this expensive stuff, realizing that it was obviously irrelevant which size the different containers were: while the security official threw away a hand cream of 75ml, she was not concerned about a nail polish remover of 150ml.

However, then the security officer informed me that the screening of the suitcase had detected a pair of nail scissors. My heart began to beat a bit faster. I became afraid that I would be thoroughly scrutinized like a suspect and therefore would miss my flight. But after she realized that she could not retrieve the scissors quickly, she did not bother any further about them and kindly gave me the go-ahead. Obviously satisfied with her work, she demanded from the next passenger that he should be as cooperative as "the young lady, who just lost a lot of money, but didn't complain since she knew it was her mistake to take all those things along."

While this passenger experienced that the security official used her discretionary power against him – holding him at the security check and demanding him to unpack his admittedly oversize hand luggage – I was relieved that after all I was assessed as "cooperative", and the blessing in disguise for me was that she did not 'steal' my precious time.

Having mastered the passport check, I hurried to the gate, where an airline employee told me: "You made it. We were just waiting for you." At this moment I realized that my handbag was missing together with my phone, my purse, and personal documents such as my credit card and my driving license. Together with the airline employee, I ran back to the security check, but my bag was not there. Instead I was offered about five other bags which had been found in the hand baggage screening area. Tempted by the airline employee to take just "any brown bag there", I probably could have asked for any of them. In the midst of rushing back to the gate, the airline employee suddenly slowed down and said: "We can stop running. The plane has just taken off."

I became a so-called "off-load", a passenger who has missed his flight and must leave the transit area. Therefore I was accompanied by an airline official through all the security checks. After walking through long hallways, we reached the section where passports are checked. When it was my turn to approach the passport counter, a red light flashed. Immediately a Department of Health official guided me to a separate room and asked me: "When did you arrive here? Where do you come from? Have you travelled to Senegal, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Nigeria or Guinea during the past three weeks? Are you suffering from fever, diarrhea, headache, muscle pain?" While I hardly had enough time to respond, the official put a fever thermometer into my ear and told me to stand still. Why had the light flashed? Would they keep me in quarantine? However, the official said: "Ah, you don't have an increased body temperature. Go!" The camera installed at the passport counter had measured the temperature of my face and initiated an alarm. All the fuss around the missed flight and the missed bag had rendered my face hot enough for being pulled out of the queue and identified as a potential Ebola patient.

The day before, however, on my arrival to South Africa, I had easily passed by the Ebola-control: no infrared camera flashed and also the health officials on the outlook for Ebola patients let me pass. For them a brief glance over the cover of my German passport was sufficient to wave me through. In contrast, other travelers, depending on their outward appearance and passport, were critically scrutinized and questioned to establish whether they were potential health threats to South Africa.

My experience at the airport taught me: You might react somehow bemused about security measures when you, arguably an innocent and Ebola-free tourist, become the target of unpleasant procedures though all you want is to get your flight or to safely leave the airport. However, the experience at the airport also produced ambivalent feelings: While I was administratively processed several times, I observed all (in)security stages imaginable ranging from very lax to over-exacting, including objective but exaggerated measures as well as subjective arbitrary measures. Thus, not knowing whether I should desire for more or less security, for more or less surveillance and inspection, my trust was neither strengthened in aviation security nor in health security.

Anna Hüncke ist Wissenschaftliche Mitarbeiterin und Doktorandin am Lehrstuhl für Ethnologie und Kulturanthropologie. In ihrer Forschung beschäftigt sie sich mit dem Kampf gegen Menschenhandel in Südafrika