Size Matters: Why The TSA Fears Thirteen-Inch Laptops, But Not Eleven-Inch Ones

from the makes-no-sense dept

I used to travel with both a laptop and a netbook. More recently, I've usually traveled with a laptop and a tablet. I always took both the laptop and netbook out when I went through airport security, assuming that was required. Also, remembering reports that were written when the iPad first came out, I also take my tablet out and dutifully place it in a separate bin. The last time I went through the airport, a TSA agent told me (for the first time) that I don't actually need to take out the tablet, but she still thanked me for doing so. I may continue to do so, just to avoid any further hassle, but it turns out that the rules for what devices you need to take out, and what you don't, are ridiculously opaque. And, in fact, I probably never had to take out that netbook in the first place, though I wouldn't have put it past the TSA agents to force me to do so anyway if I hadn't.

Matt Richtel, at the NY Times, tries to get to the bottom of the weird rules for what devices come out and which don't and mostly comes up empty. He got curious after a similar experience, in which he was told his iPad could stay in his bag. The TSA insisted it had its reasons, but wouldn't tell him. Other security experts had some guesses, but no solid reasons. Then, there's the TSA's famous Blogger Bob. Oddly, Richtel and the NY Times apparently don't know how to do this amazingly cool HTML trick of "linking" (guys, it's 2012, get with the program), but Richtel quotes two TSA Blogger Bob posts, which I will link to here, finding them myself using another modern digital tool: the search engine. The first one says that smaller devices can stay in your bag:
Electronic items smaller than the standard sized laptop should not need to be removed from your bag or their cases. It’s that simple.

It’s important to remember, however, that our officers are trained to look for anomalies to help keep air travel safe, and if something needs a closer look, it will receive secondary screening. The key to avoiding bag searches is keeping the clutter down. The less clutter you have in your bag, the less likely it will be searched.

Only electronics the size of a standard laptop or larger (for example Playstation®, Xbox®, or Nintendo®), full-size DVD players, and video cameras that use video cassettes must be removed from their carrying cases and submitted separately for x-ray screening. Removing larger electronics helps us get a better look at them and also allows us to get a better look at the contents of your bag
That explains the what, but not the why. It also, once again, makes me think that it's often a safer bet to just remove, rather than give the TSA any reason to delay you. The second post is slightly more bizarre, in that it seems to suggest that there's a screen-size cutoff:
So with those rules in mind, the 11” model of the MacBook Air is fine to leave in your bag, and the 13” model must be removed prior to X-ray screening. Unless of course you own one of the "Checkpoint friendly" laptop bags... Keep in mind that even though you’ve done everything right, our officers are trained to look for anomalies and the need may arise to take a closer look at your gadget.

I hope this clears things up.
Got it? 11" screens? Leave 'em in your bag. 13"? Take 'em out. 12"? Well, are you feeling lucky?

I am curious, however, how many people actually have tried to go through TSA security with an 11" or smaller screen on a computer... and made it through without having to pull the device out of your bag. I can't imagine that most average TSA agents know this amazing 12" rule.

Either way, Richtel tries to parse the language to figure out why there's a screen size cutoff, and still comes up empty. Finally, he talks to an anonymous "security expert," who actually worked on "related issues with the Department of Homeland Security." That guy admitted what we all pretty much suspected all along:
He said that the laptop rule is about appearances, giving people a sense that something is being done to protect them. “Security theater,” he called it.
Richtel makes it sound like "security theater" is a new term, which it's not. But, either way, it's nice to get confirmation, yet again, that the whole thing is a joke. But, in the end, it doesn't matter, because rather than deal with security delaying you from catching your flight, it's still probably going to be easier to take everything out and put them all in individual bins.
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Filed Under: blogger bob, laptop, security, tsa


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  1. icon
    Richard (profile), 6 Apr 2012 @ 9:06am

    Norway

    Travelling from Heathrow to Oslo I have noticed that on the way out (UK) security demands that you remove laptops from the bag - whilst on the way back (Norway) security demands that you don't remove your laptop from the bag.

    Personally I suspect that the Norwegians have thought this through better than everyone else has...

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