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 Barnett on Business Travel

chris BAGGED AT SECURITY
IN BRUSSELS

BY CHRIS BARNETT

February 26, 2004 -- Helping out an old friend by carrying their extra bag when you check in for an international flight is a generous act that may land you in big trouble. It happened to me recently and now I'm concerned that being a good pal is in my permanent security file and will pop up every time I clear Customs or pass through a security check-point.

We were connecting at Brussels, switching from an SN Brussels commuter flight from Berlin to an American Airlines flight to Chicago. A colleague loaded down with three carry-ons asked me to tote a bag for him as we dashed through the maze-like Zavantem Airport.

He had a paper ticket, cleared security and went straight to the business-class lounge to pick up a boarding pass and check in for the flight. He vanished and literally left me holding his bag. I had an electronic ticket and no boarding pass and was stopped cold by security. I was politely, but firmly, told to check in at American's front ticket counter and then come back with my boarding pass. I wheeled my carry-on--and my friend's small, locked suitcase--back to the main terminal, which was packed. I got in line and waited semi-patiently.

Unlike U.S. airports, American, and I presume other airlines in Brussels, had a gent posted in front of the ticket counter sort of pre-checking passengers. He wore a dark suit, not a security uniform, flashed a big smile and looked like a diplomat. I presumed he was an American Airlines Special Services agent helping out because of the huge crowd.

He asked me the standard questions, such as "Did anyone today give you anything to carry aboard?" Without even thinking about my buddy's case, I said "Nope."

Suddenly, his smile disappeared. He noticed that the nametag on my friend's suitcase didn't match the name on my passport. And that's about when I noticed that his ID said he was with a private security firm.

"Step over here, sir," he ordered, getting me out of the line. He and two other security types conferred out of earshot--and in Flemish--then he came back and asked me whose suitcase I was carrying.

I explained that it belonged to a colleague who by now was in the American Airlines business-class lounge and that I was simply helping him out. "Why don't you call the lounge and ask him direct," I suggested. That fell on deaf ears.

He had other questions. "Why is this locked? Where is the key? We will break this open if we have to. What's inside?"

I shrugged. "I have absolutely no idea."

Now he was getting annoyed. "Why don't you know what's inside? You were carrying it."

And now I was getting worried, figuring I would miss the flight home for doing a friend a favor. The other two security officials stepped up and looked straight into my eyes, as if they had X-ray vision and were trying to read my mind.

After a silent standoff that seemed to last five minutes but was probably just five seconds, they X-rayed my friend's suitcase three times. It apparently passed the inspection. "You're free to go," said my inquisitor, "but don't you ever do this again."

Gathering my bags, I asked him if my stupidity would be programmed into some worldwide airport or Customs security database. He ignored the question and I didn't push it.

But at the security checkpoint leading to my departure gate, I was pulled aside again, taken into a curtained booth, wanded, patted down and questioned. My bags were hand searched. My buddy's bag had a security sticker showing that it had been cleared once, but a security agent looked at me suspiciously.

At Chicago/O'Hare, where I cleared Customs, my garment bag came off the luggage conveyer damaged. A zippered pocket had been torn off and was hanging by a thread, the contents gone. It was nothing valuable, but it did stoke a little paranoia.

Am I now a marked man forever? A spokesperson for the U.S. Bureau of Customs and Border Protection in Washington doesn't think so. "I would say no because it was clearly an error, a silly mistake on your part," he explained. "If something suspicious was found within that bag or on your person, there would have been greater scrutiny and certainly in the future we would take a closer look at you."

However, he did confirm that "there are a number of databases [maintained] by several different agencies, but I can't be more specific."

For my part, it's been a hard-learned lesson. Airport security for U.S.-bound flights is extremely tight in Europe and a number of transatlantic flights have been cancelled due to terrorism fears in recent weeks. Business travelers who act annoyed or dumb or who are "too busy" or give any attitude to any airport security staffers, particularly overseas, are inviting big trouble and a possible black mark in those mysterious databases.

What about my garment bag? American's baggage folks at O'Hare and at my final destination in San Francisco were helpful. But the Customs spokesman admitted he wouldn't be surprised if my checked bag got a thorough going over by Brussels airport security because of my check-in dustup.

So do yourself a favor. If a friend needs help with a carry-on bag, find him a porter.

This column originally appeared at JoeSentMe.com.

Copyright 2001-2004 by Chris Barnett. All rights reserved.