Geiger Trumps GlobalEntry

photo by pennuja (http://www.flickr.com/photos/pennuja/)
photo by pennuja (http://www.flickr.com/photos/pennuja/)

Last October, I was diagnosed with prostate cancer [Prostate Cancer: diagnosis]. After considering all the options, I elected to go through a procedure called Brachytherapy. This involves volumetric measurement of one’s prostate, and the subsequent insertion of around 100 rice-grain-sized “seeds” made of titanium and filled with Iodine 125, a radioactive isotope. The seeds are permanent, the idea being a long-term, highly-localized dose of radiation to kill off the cancer. The half-life of I125 is about six months. t the end of the procedure, I was issued a wallet card identifying me, the procedure and the isotope: the seeds can be detectable when crossing international boundaries.

On a recent flight to Mumbai, there were TSA agents in the jetway at Seatac, checking passports. As I approached one of them, a little box on his belt began to buzz. He actually looked a bit scared for a moment, like “uh oh, this is the big one” and asked “is there anything you want to tell me?” Ah. I showed him my “I’m radioactive – but it’s okay” card and he waived me on. No big deal.

I travel quite a bit, much of it internationally, and for reasons unexplained I tend to get pulled into secondary screening every time I enter back into the U.S. I decided to go through the effort to get a GlobalEntry ID in the hopes it would streamline my travel experience. On my return from Mumbai, Seatac Immigration was jam-packed, so I was glad to be able to walk past the crowds to a bank of 4 GlobalEntry kiosks, nobody using any of them. I placed my hand in the scanner, posed for a photo, tapped a few things on the touch screen and was on my merry in about 30 seconds. Awesome.

I thought I was home free – until, as I handed my Customs Declaration to the CBP officer, one of those same little boxes buzzed. My radiation card didn’t much impress the officer – other officers separated me from my luggage and led me to a waiting area where they brought out a shoebox-sided device with a handle on the top that started ticking when it got near me. The agent explained “this is a very expensive instrument that looks for radiation.” I said “um, yeah, it’s a Geiger counter.” He was surprised and responded “oh, you must be a scientist.” Said Geiger counter recorded my pattern but couldn’t match it against some database of “okay” forms, and so the sample had to be emailed to “a scientist on the Internet” (FEMA?) for verification. I ended up sitting for 30 minutes before I was cleared.

I’d like to think that in the age where we have TSA, CPB, PreCheck, GlobalEntry and the concept of a trusted traveler, the systems might somehow be connected in a productive way. Once I’d been identified with a specific isotope, and determined to have a proper explanation, it would be great to have that included as part of my trusted traveler profile. I posed that as a suggestion on the CPB website and received a call from a rather surly CPB agent who basically said “can’t do it, not now, not never. Tough luck.”

Ah, the pairing of government with technology…

 

What’s in a name?

I travel a lot – pretty much every week, domestically and internationally. For the most part, things go reasonably smoothly.
That changed recently.

My company uses Egencia, the corporate arm of Expedia, for travel arrangements. Last fall, Egencia started requesting “Secure Flight Info” to comply with TSA regulations. Stuff like middle name, passport number, etc. I entered the data, and was subsequently surprised/dismayed to find everything I booked through Egencia coming up with my name being “Firstmiddle Last” rather than “First Middle Last”. Airlines in particular tend to find this indigestible.

And data tends to propagate, for better or worse. I had my passport pulled transiting through Dubai so that they could “manually update my passport information.” At that point, my official name as far as UAE was concerned was “Firstmiddle Last”.

Having had enough, I found a route to make Egencia aware of their blunder (a nice word for a company that, supposedly, is run by experts in the travel industry). Miraculously, the blunder appears to have been corrected. All is well…

Not so fast.

Transiting through Dubai again, my passport was pulled, again, for “security reasons”. My corrected (but incorrect) information in their system did not match the now-correct information on my travel documents (which now matched the information in my actual passport). Sigh.

And I have found that name error installed into my accounts at several travel sites. Like Virgin America, for example, where I found my name in my account had been helpfully changed to “Firstmiddle Last”. I found I was able to correct that info on their site. Cool.

Big mistake.

This week, on a short hop to the bay area on Virgin, I found myself staring at a page on their site that said “Online Check In is Available” and, less than an inch away, “we are unable to allow you to check in online.” A call to their customer service number connected me with someone who was so focused on following their script that, after 15 argumentative minutes, they were telling me there was no solution even though they had never even asked me for a confirmation number, name or flight. A second call to customer service connected me with the same person (figure the odds there). A third call finally got me to someone who was actually interested in finding out what was wrong. Except that they weren’t allowed to tell me because it had to do with “security issues.” First it was “sir, our site cannot check you in. That’s all I can tell you.” Finally, after a game of 20 questions, it appears it’s not the site, it’s my reservation. The (incorrect) name did not match the (correct) account record. Checking in at the Virgin counter, I was advised that I should go to the TSA site and follow their process for a scary thing called “redress”. Having done that, I’m told they will review my documents within 30 days. I wait with anticipation.

Now, I’ve personally experienced the capriciousness of TSA, watching some agents inflict their personal opinions on passengers even when those opinions contradict TSA policy: I’ve witnessed surprisingly long lectures about packing, and been told my TSA-approved laptop case was “bad to use” because it “endangered the laptop while on the scanner belt.” (Tom Binh take note).  But people do that: have opinions. When a travel company like Egencia adds features or changes account behavior around TSA information, I expect them to do it correctly the first time. So that I don’t have to waste my time.