Published on July 1st, 2013 | by Mark Chesnut
Lucky 13? Incredibly Long Airport Security Process Takes the Cake
If you’ve ever wondered whether it’s really necessary to arrive early at the airport for your international flight, check out what happened to me during the airport security process at the Cartagena airport, during a recent trip home from Colombia.
Nearly every traveler has a complaint about airport security. But at the Rafael Nuñez International Airport in Cartagena, I experienced an especially rigorous airport check-in and airline security screening process, which required interacting and speaking with no fewer than 13 people — including airline employees, customs officials and airport security personnel — from the time I arrived at the airport to the moment I boarded the plane. Does this number of contacts make a flight — or a nation — safer? I’m not sure, but I’ve flown in and out of Colombia before and never had to speak to so many different people just to get from curbside to aircraft. (Check out my review of JetBlue in-flight service on its nonstop flight between Cartagena and New York JFK.)
I arrived three hours before my flight departure time and got in line for the JetBlue ticket counter, which was not yet open. Then the countdown of 13 began, as follows (I’m not sure of the exact titles for the people I spoke with, so I’ve made up my own):
1. Reminder Woman: Although the ticket counter was not yet open, an airline employee made her way through the line and advised anyone who had not yet visited the tax desk that they should do so. When she reminded me of this requirement, I abandoned the check-in line.
2. Tax Man: Airports in Colombia are, in general, big fans of multiple stamps, lines and checkpoints. I got in line to obtain a stamp indicating I was exempt from the airport departure tax. (Note to Colombia airport planners: consider placing signs around your terminals so that people know to go to the tax desk first, rather than wasting time standing in an airline check-in line only to find out that they should have been somewhere else.)
3. Weight Woman: I got back in the airline check-in line, where an airline employee was diligently using a scale to enforce airline carry-on rules. In many airports they don’t bother weighing carry ons, instead using carry-on sizers to measure dimensions and determine what can go on board. But here, they weighed and strictly adhered to the 50-pound/23-kilo limit, forcing me to check the carry-on that I’d brought on board with no problem from New York City.
4. Question Guy: Before reaching the actual airline ticket counter, each passenger stopped at a mini-stand, where an airline employee checked my documents and asked the reason for my visit to Cartagena.
5. Check-in Woman: The check-in process at the airline ticket counter was efficient and not different from any other: I showed my passport, handed in my luggage and got my boarding pass.
6. Gateway Guardian: Before I could get to the security area for international departures, a uniformed security guard standing at the entrance checked my boarding pass and passport.
7. The Stamper: Some nations don’t make you go through any customs processing at all when you’re leaving the country. But here, I stood in line so that an enthusiastic customs official could leaf through my passport and give it yet another stamp, indicating my exit from the country.
8. Undercover Man: As I stood in line for the X-ray machine, a man wearing casual clothes was chatting with a woman in front of me. They didn’t move ahead, even when the people in front of them did. When I excused myself and tried to pass them, the man thrust his hand in the air and told me to wait. He then allowed dismissed the woman and questioned me about the purpose of my visit, my profession and the name of the hotel where I had stayed. Luckily, it wasn’t an early-morning flight so I was actually able to respond correctly to the pop quiz.
9. Frisk Guy: After putting my carry-on luggage through the machine and walking through the scanner, a young man pulled me aside for a quick frisking. (I later learned that another journalist who was on my same flight was taken away from the X-ray area and moved through a human scanner of some sort.)
10. The Extra Opener: After the Frisk Guy excused me from the security screening area, I began to walk away and passed yet another, separate group of tables, where another security official motioned me over, took my carry-on and opened it.
11. The “Turn Around” Woman: After being cleared to leave the second security table area, I began my happy march to the duty-free shop. But they weren’t done with me yet. A uniformed woman stepped quickly in front of me, raised her hand to me and commanded “media-vuelta” — “turn around” — so that she could frisk me too.
12. The Scanner: When it came time to board, an airline representative scanned my boarding pass at the gate. This was more like a traditional interaction, not different from anywhere else.
13. The Final Questioner: As we queued outside the aircraft (there are no jet bridges at the Cartagena airport), a uniformed security officer stopped each passenger, asking for passport and boarding pass and asking each of us if we received anything or ever let our bags out of our sight in the airport. I apparently passed this final exam with flying colors, as I was — after speaking with 13 different people — finally allowed to board the jet home.
The lesson? Don’t arrive late at the Cartagena airport, or you may miss your flight!
MORE CARTAGENA TRAVEL TIPS & INSPIRATION:
• COLOMBIA HOTEL REVIEW: Holiday Inn Cartagena Morros
• AIRLINE REVIEW: JetBlue Airbus A320, Cartagena to New York JFK
• VIDEO: Islas Rosario — Sun, Sand and Shark Feeding