EU Airports Call U.S. Duty Free ‘Not Clean’

New Security Rules Mystify Everyone, Leaving Dents in Travelers’ Dignity… and Their Wallets

On The Town | Margaret Childs | June 2007

I had a few dollars to get rid of while waiting at Terminal 4 of New York City’s JFK Airport, before flying back to Vienna.

Passing an airport spa, I thought of getting a manicure and pedicure, which would have nicely used up my cash, but I finally decided instead to pick up some gifts for friends: Two duty-free bottles of Grey Goose Vodka and Bombay Sapphire Gin. I handed the cashier my boarding pass for the flight from JFK to Hamburg, where I would take a connecting flight to Vienna.

The cashier cordially sealed the plastic bag, gave me my receipt and told me to pick up my purchases at the departure gate, in accordance with policy.

Going through customs at JFK is no walk in the park, but this time they were especially bad tempered.

I watched the man in font of me sacrifice laptop, belt, shoes, bag and the contents of his pockets, including a lighter, which they confiscated.

I began my routine and walked through the arch of destiny… only for it to beep. Or was it the one next to us?

"Boarding card please." An airport official grunted.

"It’s in my bag, one second, " I mumbled. I had just shown my boarding card to another official five meters behind me, but before I could cover my bare feet and find all the belt loops I was barked at again.

"Alright already, chill out." I regretted saying.

"Excuse me ma’am, what was that?"

"Nothing, just please try to be a little human. It’s so humiliating anyways."

"It’s policy ma’am, we’re just doing our job," another official chimed in. The old story.

"OK," I said. Still, I had a bit of time before boarding… "But I’d like to file a complaint," I went on. "Could you give me a form, or can I speak to someone?"

Reprimands and denials tumbled out until I walked away in disgust. Then I smiled to myself. I realized something they had overlooked. "Yeah, but you missed the other six lighters in my bag," I muttered happily under my breath,

"Excuse me ma’am," came a gruff voice. I really hate being called ma’am. Two guards closed in behind me. "My colleague here says she just overheard you say you had a bomb in you bag." Both did their best to look threatening.

"She said lighters," a man next to me offered.

I burst out laughing and proceeded to toss the rest of my lighters at the feet of the officials, who were now gathered in a circle around me like a pack of wolves.

"You’re doing a great job," I added, as I walked briskly down the concourse toward the gate.

I still had one lighter and a small bottle of Armani perfume.

Thankfully my flight was shortened by sleep and a couple of good movies, and before I knew it we were landing.

In Hamburg, passengers continuing to cecting flights pass through a hand luggage check as soon as they get off the plane. We dutifully set our laptops and the contents of our pockets into the tray, and lay our bags and the sealed bag of my last-minute duty-free gifts onto the conveyer belt.

"We will have to confiscate this." One policewoman at the other end stated.

Puzzled, I explained that it was still sealed; we were continuing on to Vienna and did not plan to open it until we got to our final destination.  The woman interrupted: American Airports were not "clean," she explained, and therefore did not meet the EU standards. The $60 worth of alcohol would need to be confiscated and destroyed.

"No, wait," I protested, "we’ve followed all the rules and had the bag sealed. We’re not even staying in Germany. Shouldn’t we take this up with the officials in the final destination?"

The woman sighed and said she couldn’t do anything about it. We should have been informed at JFK. Puzzled and unwilling to give up my gifts without a fight, I asked if they would have confiscated cigarettes or chocolate as well.

"Those are not liquids," the officer replied. This was clear to me, however, why should American liquids be less "clean" than American cigarettes or chocolate?  It finally dawned on me that this was part of the new anti-terrorism law.  The fact that it was sealed didn’t change things, because JFK does not meet EU security standards. They kept repeating, not "clean."

I stood there, paralyzed with frustration. I would write about this! I asked the woman if I could quote her as a witness to this international miscommunication and attempted to decipher the name on her badge. She promptly took it off and stuck it in her pocket; she was not responsible for the rules, she barked.

But I only wanted to mention her as a witness of the flawed rule. The airport public information office is where I should go for a statement, she said. But of course they had seen nothing of the incident.

Disgruntled, I moved on.

This must be Europe’s answer to US immigration barbarities, I thought. But it got even sillier. At passport control, an official informed me that I could have kept the liquor if Hamburg had been by final destination. Next time I should simply exit the terminal, re-pack, and check in again, and no questions would be asked. Why hadn’t any one told us?

"At least we don’t take your finger prints," he added. I shrugged. Fingerprints are free.

Fully aware of the intrusiveness of American immigration policies, I still couldn’t help feeling cheated. This just didn’t make sense. It wasn’t that they weren’t letting people bring their liquid purchases into the EU at all. They only prohibited taking them on connecting flights.

Europe’s transport commissioner Jacques Barrot strongly defended both the legality and the necessity of the measures at a Strasbourg Plenary Session in mid-February. British security services had uncovered a significant plot to use liquids to bomb airliners. However he admitted that application of the measures needed reevaluation and was sensitive to the duty free issue.

So who loses in this equation? Not those who meticulously plan terrorist attacks. It is the innocent consumer who wants to save a little on taxes and have never made the mistake before. One assumes the EU isn’t making deals with the duty-free shops at JFK. Barrot also hoped that improved screening devices would soon make the measure unnecessary, at least with purchased and sealed duty-free goods.

Back in Hamburg, grinding my teeth, I resigned myself to the loss and sat down for a coffee, to wait for boarding time.

I read through the fine print on my tickets. Under "Dangerous goods in passenger baggage" it stated that, "the above regulations do not apply to medicines" or "alcoholic drinks, provided these are carried in small quantities for personal use."

And then the $60 closing jab: "Further information available on request."

At the February Plenary Session, members of the European Parliament complained that "Brussels" will be responsible for "lakes of perfume and whisky" building up at European airports. "Twenty tons of duty free goods are confiscated weekly at Frankfurt airport, 1,500 liters of alcohol and perfume at Amsterdam and 10,000 items a week in Madrid." Many of these goods were bought in European owned shops in third countries.

Because of frequent misunderstandings and complaints, not to mention chaos at airports, the debate on these recent restrictions to passengers carrying liquids on planes has escalated. According to a staffer at the Austrian Parliament, the EU has in fact made plans to adapt the law.

At the end of the day, wasted money and pointless humiliation can contribute greatly to jet lag and crankiness, making many a traveler even more unbearable than we already are.

In the end, I guess I should have opted for the airport spa and then I wouldn’t have minded the security stress.

No matter what, the EU cannot confiscate my French pedicure.

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